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February 19, 2014

Movies as marriage therapy

New study finds that watching and discussing movies about relationships is as effective in lowering divorce rates as other, more intensive early marriage counseling programs

young man and woman kissing
A Rochester study finds that watching and discussing movies about relationships—such as Love Story (1970)—is as effective in lowering divorce rates as other, more intensive, early marriage counseling programs.

Discussing five movies about relationships over a month could cut the three-year divorce rate for newlyweds in half, researchers say.


Want to try the film discussions with your partner?

Rogge’s lab website (www.couples-research.com) offers interactive tools to help with the process, including lists of movies and the discussion questions used. Couples can also sign up to participate in a follow-up online study of the movie-and-talk intervention at the site.


More Online

Read more about the study, watch a video on the research, and get the full list of movies suggested by researchers at www.rochester.edu/news.

Findings of a new study involving 174 couples show that an inexpensive, fun, and relatively simple movie-and-talk approach can be just as effective as other more intensive therapist-led methods—reducing the divorce or separation rate from 24 to 11 percent after three years.

“We thought the movie treatment would help, but not nearly as much as the other programs in which we were teaching all of these state-of-the-art skills,” says Ronald Rogge, associate professor of psychology and lead author of the study. “The results suggest that husbands and wives have a pretty good sense of what they might be doing right and wrong in their relationships. Thus, you might not need to teach them a whole lot of skills to cut the divorce rate. You might just need to get them to think about how they are currently behaving. And for five movies to give us a benefit over three years—that is awesome.”

Perhaps most exciting, says Rogge, is that the self-help exercise could open new possibilities for nurturing nuptial ties on a broad scale. “It’s incredibly portable. There are really great marriage intervention programs available now but most require trained therapists to administer them. If couples can do this on their own, it makes it so much easier to help them,” he says.

Rogge and a team of researches including coauthor Thomas Bradbury, professor of psychology and codirector of the Relationship Institute at UCLA, published the findings in the December issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

“When we started this study, the prevailing wisdom was that the best way to keep relationships healthy and strong was to help couples manage difficult, potentially divisive conversations,” says Bradbury.

To test the theory, the team randomly assigned newlyweds to one of three groups: conflict management, compassion and acceptance training, and relationship awareness through film. They chose to concentrate on the first three years of marriage, because “relationship dissolution is front-ended,” says Bradbury; one in four ends in divorce.

The conflict management group learned a technique for discussing heated issues that slows down the pace of the exchange and helps individuals focus on what their partner is saying instead of rushing to respond. Earlier studies on this technique have shown it to be effective at promoting happier and more satisfying relationships over three to five years. The compassion and acceptance training cohort participated in an intervention designed by Rogge and his collaborators aimed at helping couples work together as a team and find common ground around their similarities. Both programs involved weekly lectures, supervised practice sessions, and homework assignments over the course of a month, for a total investment of roughly 20 hours, all but two of which were with a therapist.

By contrast, the movie-and-talk group devoted half as much time to their assignments, and all but four hours took place in their own homes. Participants first attended a 10-minute lecture on the importance of relationship awareness and how watching couples in movies could help spouses pay attention to their own behavior, both constructive and destructive. They then watched Two for the Road, a 1967 romantic comedy about the joys and strains of young love, infidelity, and professional pressures across 12 years of a marriage. Afterward, each couple met separately to discuss a list of 12 questions about the screen couple’s interactions. Study participants were sent home with a list of 47 movies with intimate relationships as a major plot focus and asked to watch one a week for the next month, followed by the same guided discussion for about 45 minutes.

To the surprise of the researchers, all three approaches worked equally well. All three methods halved the divorce-and-separation rate to 11 percent compared to the 24 percent rate among the couples in the control group. The results suggest that many couples already possess relationship skills they just need reminders to put these into practice, the authors conclude. “And that’s an amazingly fertile idea. It’s more sensible, and it’s cheaper,” says Bradbury.


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