A surprisingly simple exercise can improve your relationship, according to new psychology research

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A recent study published in the journal Personal Relationships explores how simple reflection interventions can help couples manage relationship conflicts more effectively. The researchers found that taking a few minutes to thoughtfully reflect on relationship conflicts can significantly boost individuals’ confidence in resolving these conflicts and reduce the distress they feel about them.

Conflicts are an inevitable part of any intimate relationship. How couples handle these conflicts can greatly affect their personal and relational well-being. Poor conflict management has been linked to worse physical and psychological health and lower relationship quality. Additionally, it is a strong predictor of relationship dissolution.

Recognizing the importance of effective conflict management, researchers have developed various programs to help couples improve their conflict-resolution skills. However, not everyone feels confident or calm enough to apply these skills in real-life, emotionally charged situations. The present study aimed to see if simple reflection exercises could help partners face conflicts in a way that would reduce their distress and enhance their efficacy in resolving them.

“Relationship conflict is common and distressing. It’s important to learn to manage well,” said corresponding author Denise Marigold, an associate professor at Renison University College, affiliated with the University of Waterloo. “There are good programs to train people in communication skills, but they require a significant investment (time, money, etc.). We wanted to look at some simple interventions that could nudge people towards more constructive engagement with conflict without needing to put in a lot of resources.”

The researchers conducted two studies, each involving participants who were in romantic relationships and had recently experienced significant conflicts with their partners. The first study involved 358 participants, while the second included 411 participants. Both studies were conducted online using surveys.

In the first study, participants were asked to describe their most significant relationship conflict over the past few months. Following this, they were randomly assigned to one of two groups: the reflection intervention group or the control group.

Participants in the reflection intervention group were asked to spend a few minutes responding to six broad questions about their conflict. These questions were designed to prompt participants to think about why the conflict happened and how such conflicts should ideally be handled. This reflective exercise aimed to encourage thoughtful consideration of the conflict and potential resolutions.

On the other hand, participants in the control group completed a personality questionnaire that was not expected to have any therapeutic benefits. This questionnaire was included to ensure that any observed effects in the reflection group were not merely due to the passage of time or other non-specific factors.

Before and after the intervention, both groups completed measures assessing their feelings of efficacy in resolving the conflict and their level of distress about the conflict. Efficacy was measured by asking participants to rate their confidence in their ability to manage and resolve the conflict effectively. Distress was measured by asking participants to rate their levels of anger and upset related to their partner’s behavior during the conflict.

In the second study, the researchers sought to compare the simple reflection intervention with two more complex interventions. Participants again described a recent relationship conflict and were then randomly assigned to one of three conditions: the simple reflection intervention, an adapted reflection intervention, or an enhanced reflection intervention.

The adapted reflection intervention included elements from a previously validated conflict reappraisal exercise, asking participants to view the conflict from a neutral third-party perspective and identify obstacles to resolving it. The enhanced reflection intervention added further elements designed to provide emotional validation, encourage compassionate goals, and promote concrete planning for future conflicts.

The findings from the first study revealed that participants who engaged in the reflection intervention reported significant improvements in their feelings of efficacy and reductions in distress about the conflict. These improvements were greater than those observed in the control group, suggesting that the act of reflecting on the conflict provided additional benefits beyond merely completing a non-therapeutic task.

This indicated that taking time to thoughtfully consider the conflict and potential resolutions could enhance individuals’ confidence in their ability to manage relationship conflicts and reduce the negative emotions associated with them.

“Taking some time to reflect constructively on a conflict can potentially be helpful in addressing future conflicts,” Marigold told PsyPost. “By constructively, we mean things like considering why the conflict happened, how conflicts should generally be handled, and what would be most helpful for handling future conflicts.”

“So getting a bit of distance and perspective, rather than ruminating on how upset they were or why their partner is to blame (which would not be constructive). We showed that this kind of constructive reflection on a past conflict decreased their distress about it and made them feel more confident about their ability to handle future conflicts.”

In the second study, the researchers found that all three interventions—simple reflection, adapted reflection, and enhanced reflection—led to improvements in efficacy and reductions in distress. However, the differences between the three types of interventions were not as pronounced as expected.

While all three interventions were effective, the more complex interventions did not produce significantly greater benefits than the simple reflection exercise. This finding suggests that the essential element driving the positive outcomes was the act of reflecting on the conflict itself, rather than the specific structure or additional components of the more complex interventions.

“We were surprised that adding more complex, theory-based elements to a simple reflection intervention didn’t enhance the effectiveness that much, at least not immediately (as we measured the outcomes), and in our sample of participants who were relatively satisfied with their relationship,” Marigold said. “It’s possible more complex interventions would be needed for longer-term effectiveness, or for distressed couples.”

While the findings are promising, there are some limitations to the study. One limitation is that the study relied on self-reported measures of efficacy and distress, which can be subject to biases. Additionally, the study did not examine the long-term effects of the interventions on actual conflict behavior or relationship quality.

“We only measured immediate effects of the intervention,” Marigold noted. “Follow-up is definitely needed to assess downstream effects on behaviour, for example, in the context of real-time conflicts.”

The study, “Simple reflection exercises can build efficacy and reduce distress about relationship conflicts,” was authored by Emily M. Britton, Denise C. Marigold, and Ian McGregor.

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