Everyone wants to know the key to maintaining a healthy relationship for the long term, and it may be as simple as overlooking current conflicts and focusing on the future, a new study finds. Published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, the study found that “future-thinking” could aid partners in overcoming present obstacles.

“When romantic partners argue over things like finances, jealousy, or other interpersonal issues, they tend to employ their current feelings as fuel for a heated argument,” said Alex Huynh, a doctoral candidate in psychology and lead author of the study, in a press release. “By envisioning their relationship in the future, people can shift the focus away from their current feelings and mitigate conflicts.”

Future-thinking involves not only focusing on goals for the future, but also stepping outside of the current squabble to gain perspective. In the study, the researchers examined individuals as they reflected on a recent conflict with a romantic partner or a friend. They were divided into two groups, with one group asked to report how they would feel about the conflict a year from now, and another group asked to describe how they currently feel. The participants wrote out responses, which the researchers then studied to see how they portrayed senses of forgiveness or positivity.

Future-thinking during present conflicts could help couples overcome differences and approach things in a more positive light, research finds. Pixabay, public domain

Future-thinking had an impact on both feelings and reasoning strategies, and it also helped people view their relationships and conflicts in a more positive light, the researchers concluded. When participants were asked to project their mindset into the future, and imagine their relationship a year from now, they exhibited more forgiveness, reason, and positivity when interpreting the conflict or event.

Of course, there are plenty of other factors that go into maintaining a healthy relationship. Some of those could be simple things like putting your phone aside when you’re with your significant other, playing video games together, or saying “please” and “thank you” frequently — as well as more complex efforts that take patience, like remaining aware of being too selfish and being mindful of your partner’s emotions. But when it comes to conflict resolution, at least, stepping outside of the box and looking at the bigger picture — especially in the future — could make a difference.

“Our study demonstrates that adopting a future-oriented perspective in the context of a relationship conflict — reflecting on how one might feel a year from now — may be a valuable coping tool for one’s psychological happiness and relationship well-being,” said Huynh in the press release.

Source: Huynh A, Yang D, Grossmann I. The Value of Prospective Reasoning for Close Relationships. Social Psychological & Personality Science, 2016.