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A startlingly effective way to reduce interpersonal conflict and distress - the intervention & results described

                                 (this post is downloadable both as a PDF file and as a Word doc)

The recent research paper "A brief intervention to promote conflict reappraisal preserves marital quality over time" describes a startlingly effective way to reduce interpersonal conflict and distress.  The results are clearly extremely relevant for anyone in a long term couple relationship, but the findings are more important even than that.  Here is an approach to conflict management that is very well worth considering in almost any upsetting interpersonal situation.  I will first describe what the authors of this study found in their work with married couples.  I will then look at other very encouraging linked research.  Finally I'll discuss how one might adapt these methods for more general interpersonal conflicts.

First what did the authors of this study find?  The abstract of their paper reads "Marital quality is a major contributor to happiness and health. Unfortunately, marital quality normatively declines over time. We tested whether a novel 21-min intervention designed to foster the reappraisal of marital conflicts could preserve marital quality in a sample of 120 couples enrolled in an intensive 2-year study. Half of the couples were randomly assigned to receive the reappraisal intervention in Year 2 (following no intervention in Year 1); half were not. Both groups exhibited declines in marital quality over Year 1. This decline continued in Year 2 among couples in the control condition, but it was eliminated among couples in the reappraisal condition. This effect of the reappraisal intervention on marital quality over time was mediated through reductions in conflict-related distress over time. This study illustrates the potential of brief, theory-based, social-psychological interventions to preserve the quality of intimate relationships over time."  To download a free full text copy of this important paper, go to the lead author's university website.  It's likely to be worth it - as the paper concludes "A brief intervention designed to promote conflict reappraisal preserves marital quality over time.  That this effect was not moderated by marital duration suggests that it may be every bit as effective in long-married as in newlywed couples. Given the major health and well-being correlates of marital distress - both for the spouses themselves and for their children and broader social networks - spending 21 min a year reappraising conflict appears to yield a spectacular return on investment."

This is startling stuff.  I would put a small question mark against the authors' straight-down-the-line statement that marital quality "normatively declines over time".  They may be right and certainly the VanLaningham et al paper that they cite - "Marital happiness, marital duration, and the U-shaped curve: Evidence from a five-wave panel study" - is pretty convincing.  The couples participating in this current "brief intervention" study also demonstrated clear deterioration in relationship quality over time - it took the reappraisal intervention to stop the decline.  However the couples in the current research were recruited via newspaper & other public advertisements.  It's very possible that they were attracted to apply to the study because they were already concerned about unwelcome changes in their marital quality.  Further research studies since the VanLaningham paper have supported the suggestion that there is, after all, often a U-shaped pattern in couple relationships with increased marital strain when kids arrive and then improvement as they leave!  See papers by Doss et al. and Gorchoff et al. if you're interested to explore this more, and there is a good deal of research out there giving hints as to what kinds of behaviours are likely to nourish the quality of couple relationships (at least in the USA) - for example last year's paper "Trajectories of marital conflict across the life course: Predictors and interactions with marital happiness trajectories" with its abstract stating: "the authors conducted a latent class analysis of marital conflict trajectories using 20 years of data from the Marital Instability Over the Life Course study. Respondents were in one of three groups: high, medium (around the mean), or low conflict. Several factors predicted conflict trajectory group membership; respondents who believed in lifelong marriage and shared decisions equally with their spouse were more likely to report low and less likely to report high conflict. The conflict trajectories were intersected with marital happiness trajectories to examine predictors of high and low quality marriages. A stronger belief in lifelong marriage, shared decision making, and husbands sharing a greater proportion of housework were associated with an increased likelihood of membership in a high happiness, low conflict marriage, and a decreased likelihood of a low marital happiness group."

However, despite these reservations about an ubiquitous decline in couple satisfaction over time, maintaining a high quality relationship over many years is not likely to be easy.  What does the current research study add and what was involved in the active treatment group who were asked to "reappraise conflict"?  Well, the authors write: "At Waves 2 through 7 (at 4 month intervals), which took place entirely via the Internet, participants provided a "fact-based summary of the most significant disagreement" they had experienced with their spouse over the preceding 4 months, "focusing on behavior, not on thoughts or feelings." After providing this description, they reported, on scales from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree), their level of conflict-related distress (e.g., "I am angry at my partner for his/her behavior during this conflict").  All participants underwent identical procedures during the first 12 months. Then, by random assignment, half of the couples engaged in an additional 7-min writing task at the end of Waves 4 through 6 (Months 12, 16, and 20, respectively), during which they reappraised the conflict they had just written about. In addition, at Months 14, 18, and 22, we sent participants in the reappraisal condition an e-mail reminding them of the reappraisal task; we e-mailed participants in the control condition at the same times, but just as a friendly check-in.  During the reappraisal writing task, participants responded to three prompts:
1. "Think about the specific disagreement that you just wrote about having with your partner. Think about this disagreement with your partner from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved; a person who sees things from a neutral point of view. How might this person think about the disagreement? How might he or she find the good that could come from it?"
2. "Some people find it helpful to take this third-party perspective during their interactions with their romantic partner. However, almost everybody finds it challenging to take this third-party perspective at all times. In your relationship with your partner, what obstacles do you face in trying to take this third-partner perspective, especially when you're having a disagreement with your partner?"
3. "Despite the obstacles to taking a third-party perspective, people can be successful in doing so.  Over the next 4 months, please try your best to take this third-party perspective during interactions with your partner, especially during disagreements.  How might you be most successful in taking this perspective in your interactions with your partner over the next 4 months? How might taking this perspective help you make the best of disagreements in your relationship?"

Fascinating.  Marital quality was estimated every 4 months for 24 months using a 6 item self-completion questionnaire assessing marital satisfaction, love, intimacy, trust, passion & commitment.  As already noted, during the first 12 months there was a gradual overall decline in estimated marital quality for both groups of couples.  In the second 12 months, the control group's assessment of their marital quality continued to decline at the same slow, but concerning, rate.  The intervention group's reduction in marital quality however stopped in the second year ... presumably as a result of this very brief reappraisal intervention.  Gosh, this is startling and important.  And as a research result, it is not an unbelievable outlier.  These kinds of carefully thought through and well-targeted interventions have been shown to have potentially dramatic results in other situations too - see for example Yeager & Walton's paper "Social-psychological interventions in education: They're not magic."

In tomorrow's post I will look a little more at this major research paper "A brief intervention to promote conflict reappraisal preserves marital quality over time", and I'll also mention other very encouraging linked research and how one might adapt these methods for more general interpersonal conflicts.  


conflict, a startingly effective way.pdf164.23 KB
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