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Are you as happy as you could be in your relationship? Do conflict and hard feelings diminish your happiness? Do small disagreements tend to escalate into full-blown fights?

If so, you should consider learning an easy relationship intervention that only takes a few minutes of your time and which is clinically proven to increase romantic relationship satisfaction - a 7-minute writing exercise that can save your marriage (or romantic relationship).

The Danger of "Escalating Negative Affect Reciprocity"

Few things destroy a happy marriage as effectively as something called escalating negative affect reciprocity.

What is negative affect reciprocity?

It is the tendency for one person’s negative behavior to cause another person to also display negative behavior.1

The store clerk seems rude and unsmiling when she greets you... so you act rude and unsmiling in return.

What is escalating negative affect reciprocity?

It is the tendency to return one person’s negative behaviors with even more negative behaviors.

Your spouse complains to you about the way the garden looks so you respond by belittling his/her ability to make enough money to pay for a landscaping company. Your spouse then responds by giving you the cold shoulder silent treatment for the rest of the day while you pepper him/her back with belligerent/contemptuous statements that fuel the situation on.

What starts as an offhand negative comment escalates into a long and drawn-out downward spiral conflict.

And as you can imagine, getting into a habit of escalating negative affect reciprocity doesn’t do your relationship any good at all.

Thankfully, with effort, you can change your interaction habits.

If your relationship gets bogged down by escalating negative affect reciprocity, a technique you might want to try is training yourself to look at relationship conflict from the perspective of a neutral third party outsider.

Here’s how to do it…

Looking at Conflict from a Third Party Perspective

It’s not easy to separate from focusing on your own needs, wants and anger, especially during the heat of the moment, but if you can train yourself to look at conflict situations more objectively, like from a third party perspective, you can reduce the negative affect reciprocity which taints your relationship and improve your overall marital satisfaction.

If you’d like to reduce the negative affect reciprocity in your relationship, take a few minutes to complete the following writing task (ideally with your partner). Amazingly, research indicates that couples who spend just a few minutes on this writing task every few months have greater levels of marital satisfaction than couples who don’t.

The Exercise:

Get out a piece of paper and write what comes to you from the following three writing prompts (although you may be tempted to just think this out in your head, you’ll get more benefit and be more likely to internalize your thoughts if you actually take the time to write them out).

1. Think about the most serious disagreement you’ve had with your partner over the previous 4 months. Now think about this same disagreement, but imagine you’re reviewing the facts of the disagreement as an impartial outsider – a person who truly wants the best outcome for all parties involved.

  • What would this person think about the disagreement? How would this neutral person, who wants the best for everyone involved, find a good outcome for the situation?

2. Although many people find that taking a third party perspective during disputes with a romantic partner can ease the tension of the situation, it’s never an easy thing to do, in the heat of the moment!

  • Thinking about your relationship with your partner, what obstacles prevent you from using this technique during conflicts?

3. Even though it’s obviously a difficult thing to do, if you can take this third party perspective during conflict you will likely see a benefit from it. For the next few months, try to use this technique whenever possible.

  • Please write down ideas about how you might be able to successfully incorporate this technique into your relationship interactions over the coming months. Also, how do you think using this technique will help your relationship?

In research studies, couples who completed the preceding writing exercise maintained an ability to look at disputes from a third party perspective over time, and this resulted in greater overall marital satisfaction.2

Repeat the Exercise Every 4 Months to Sustain the Benefits

Amazingly, taking just a few minutes to complete the preceding exercise helps couples stay happier in marriage – and if you re-do this exercise every few months, you can maintain the benefits over time.

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Page last updated Feb 13, 2013

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