You know the old saying: “Little things mean a lot.”
The saying is rarely more true than when it comes to relationships: little things can actually do a great deal when it comes to upping your satisfaction with your partner.
Do you hold hands with your spouse while watching TV? It’s been linked to the release of oxytocin—and improved relationship outcomes. Have you worked to add a little variation in the bedroom? It’s been linked to happier marriages. Have you taken a course to learn how to communicate more effectively? Yep, you guessed it—that helps, too.
But how do all these small interventions actually work? How is a few minutes of holding hands now doing so much to keep marriages from falling apart down the road?
Earlier this month, Eli Finkel, a social psychologist at Northwestern University, published a study in the journal Psychological Science suggesting that just 21 minutes a year can dramatically impact how happy you are in your relationship. In other words, if you spend a total of 21 minutes a year doing a certain thing, you’re less likely to grow resentful of each other, have more fights, and even split up.
Finkel and colleagues recruited 120 couples who had been married, on average, for about 11 years. Every four months over a two-year period, each couple reported on various aspects of their relationship by filling out questionnaires focused on love, trust, intimacy, passion, commitment and overall satisfaction. Each couple was also asked to spend 7 minutes writing up an account of their biggest disagreement in the past few months–but half of the couples were asked to do a special exercise: write their account of the fight from the perspective of a neutral third-party.
Finkel’s group found that the couples who did this exercise, which was an emotional reappraisal technique shown to reduce anger and distress over disagreements, managed to preserve their marital happiness ratings over the course of the year, while those who did not get the intervention showed drops in satisfaction. All of this was regardless of the severity of the disagreement–so the bigger fights didn’t necessarily mean less satisfaction overall.
In a press release for the study, Finkel said, “I don’t want it to sound like magic, but you can get pretty impressive results with minimal intervention.” And certainly, 7 minutes every 4 months–a total of 21 minutes a year–seems pretty minimal. (Also, pretty magic!)
It’s not the first study to suggest that a little bit of time can make a big difference. Earlier this year, researchers at Healthy Relationships California found that their marriage education programs resulted in a 55% increase in the number of people feeling satisfied with their marriage. Studies also suggest that the following can make a major impact in longterm happiness:
• Regular kissing
• Equal division of household chores
• Reduced use of phrases starting with “I” during disagreements
• Active listening and talking positively about your spouse
So why do these work? While it’s easy to focus on the jargon and think that any improvements may be due to “emotional reappraisal” or some extra physical connection, the answer is simpler than that. What the 21-minute headlines don’t tell you is that the couples in Finkel’s study wanted to participate. Finkel and colleagues recruited their participants via the newspaper, Craigslist and school flyers. The couples made a conscious decision to take the time and participate,most likely because they had some kind of vested interest in being happy with their marriage–a big enough interest to commit to a two-year study. Wanting to make things better makes all the difference.