Life is beginning to imitate art, lament a select few. But according to researchers at the University of Rochester, that relationship just might save your own, as a new study has revealed that watching a handful of movies and discussing characters’ relationships afterward was capable of cutting couples’ divorce rates in half.

The national divorce rate in the U.S. has actually declined overall since 1980, after multiple decades of rapid increase. But on a longer timeline, it’s far higher than in previous years. Experts point to a combination of loosening religious and moralistic binds and a culture where both spouses work, potentially straining the relationship. Hiring a marriage counselor isn’t cheap, or necessarily desired, so couples try to work issues out on their own. But evidenced by the inflated divorce rate, that solution may not work either.

The Silver Screen Psychologist

So what is a struggling couple to do? Associate professor of psychology Ronald Rogge believes it could be as simple as watching a movie, or five. Rogge acted as lead author in the University of Rochester study, arguing that most couples already possess the tools to keep their relationship intact but often fail to decelerate arguments to a pace appropriate for listening. Watching movies and discussing them afterward, his team found, facilitated an open conversation where on-screen conflict resolution could provide an outlet for real-life emotion.

The outcome surprised researchers, Rogge admits, as he and his colleagues didn’t originally set out to examine movies directly. Their original study sought to understand which of their three early marriage intervention programs would work best: conflict management, compassion and acceptance training, or relationship awareness through film. They concentrated solely on the first three years of marriage, according to co-author and co-director of the Relationship Institute at UCLA, Thomas Bradbury. One quarter of marriages end within that time, he said.

The first group of subjects participated in a form of conflict management in which one partner focuses on slowing the pace of conversation and paraphrasing the other’s sentiments back to them, in the hopes of reaching a common understanding. Another group practiced a technique designed by Rogge and his team, where couples engaged more in empathetic, compassionate language and approached conflicts from a friendlier, more affectionate position.

The final group had a more unique task. At first they were all shown the same film, the 1967 romantic comedy Two For the Road. After they finished watching it, the couples individually filled out a 12-question survey asking about how the characters in the movie worked out their problems. Did they bicker at one another or listen to what the other person was saying? Were they aggressive or understanding? Couples were asked how the on-screen relationship resembled their own.

“Less Stigmatizing”

But the meat of the study came when couples were given their next task: watching one movie per week for roughly a month, and talking about the story’s components with one another for at least half an hour afterward. They had 47 movies in total to pick from, including As Good As It Gets (1997),  Gone With the Wind (1939), and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967). "We thought the movie treatment would help,” Rogge said in a news release, “but not nearly as much as the other programs in which we were teaching all of these state-of-the-art skills.”

Couples performed equally well in all three exercises, the team found. Over a three-year period, divorce rates fell from 24 percent to just 11 percent in the movie-watching group — though Rogge isn’t convinced it’s the movies, so much as the watching and talking, that helped couples work through their issues. "I think it's the couples reinvesting in their relationship and taking a cold hard look at their own behavior that makes the difference," he said. Too often, stressed out partners come home and take their frustration out on their spouses. “For these couples to stop and look and say, 'You know, I have yelled at you like that before. I have called you names before and that's not nice. That's not what I want to do to the person I love the most.' Just that insight alone, is likely what makes this intervention work."

Perhaps the greatest upside, Rogge concludes, is how democratizing movies can be. They aren’t provincial paintings hung in a gallery, or a muted conversation in a stuffy psychologist’s office. Everyone can watch them and everyone can enjoy them, without feeling like they’ve failed as a romantic partner. “Watching a movie together and having a discussion, that's not so scary,” he said. “It's less pathologizing, less stigmatizing."

 

Source: Rogge R, Cobb R, Lawrence E, Johnson M, Bradbury T. Is skills training necessary for the primary prevention of marital distress and dissolution? A 3-year experimental study of three interventions. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 2014.