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Take on a Neutral Perspective  

This month I want to talk about a recent research study published by some Northwestern psychologists that might help you reduce the impact conflict has on your relationship. They hypothesized a couple of things: relationship quality would decrease over time and helping couples take a broader perspective on their conflict might make it decrease less.

First the bad news. Relationship quality did decrease over time. The researchers tracked a number of couples over two years and their reported relationship quality decreased over the two years. After the first year they offered a simple intervention to half of the couples and asked them to use it during the second year. Those couples who were given the intervention kept their relationship quality stable while those who did not get it continued to decrease.

What was that intervention? They simply gave the members of the couple a writing assignment about a recent conflict, then asked them to rewrite the conflict from the perspective of a third party, someone who had the best interests of both of them at heart. They then told the couples some of the benefits of that particular kind of perspective taking and asked them to apply it to conflict they had going forward. While it didn’t improve the quality of their relationship, it did keep the quality from going down further.

Why might this happen? Well, in conflict it is easy to get stuck in thinking about your own ideas and positions and not pay much attention to what your partner’s experience is. Over time you might even find that conflict gets worse as you get more and more stuck in your position. Taking the perspective of an outsider who has both your and your partner’s best interests at heart forces you to take into consideration your partner’s side of the conflict. That greatly helps with understanding and is likely to reduce the hurt you feel from the conflict and make resolving it more likely.

I am particularly impressed with how the simple intervention they did in the lab (it took 21 minutes) made a difference over the next year when they asked the couple to apply the principles. Why don’t you do an experiment yourself and see if has a positive impact on how you and your partner handle conflict. The next time you have a fight or argument take some time afterward to try and see the argument through the eyes of a neutral party who loves both of you and has both of your best interests at heart. I’d love to hear your story if something good comes out of it.