by Tara Parker-Pope
One of the great divides in male-female relationships is the “chick flick” — movies like “Terms of Endearment” and “The Notebook” that often leave women in tears and men bored. But now, a fascinating new study shows that sappy relationship movies made in Hollywood can actually help strengthen relationships in the real world.
A University of Rochester study found that couples who watched and talked about issues raised in movies like “Steel Magnolias” and “Love Story” were less likely to divorce or separate than couples in a control group. Surprisingly, the “Love Story” intervention was as effective at keeping couples together as two intensive therapist-led methods.
The findings, while preliminary, have important implications for marriage counseling efforts. The movie intervention could become a self-help option for couples who are reluctant to join formal therapy sessions or could be used by couples who live in areas with less access to therapists.
“A movie is a nonthreatening way to get the conversation started,” said Ronald D. Rogge, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and the lead author of the study. “It’s really exciting because it makes it so much easier to reach out to couples and help them strengthen their relationships on a wide scale.”
The initial goal of the study was to evaluate two types of therapist-led interventions called CARE and PREP. The CARE method focuses on acceptance and empathy in couples counseling, while PREP is centered on a specific communication style that couples use to resolve issues. The researchers wanted a third option that allowed couples to interact but did not involve intensive counseling.
They came up with the movie intervention, assigning couples to watch five movies and to take part in guided discussions afterward. A fourth group of couples received no counseling or self-help assignments and served as a control group.
Going into the study, the researchers expected that the CARE and PREP methods would have a pronounced effect on relationships and that the movie intervention might result in some mild improvements to relationship quality. To their surprise, the movie intervention worked just as well as both of the established therapy methods in reducing divorce and separation.
Among 174 couples studied, those who received marriage counseling or took part in the movie intervention were half as likely to divorce or separate after three years compared with couples in the control group who received no intervention. The divorce or separation rate was 11 percent in the intervention groups, compared with 24 percent in the control group.
Dr. Rogge and senior author Thomas N. Bradbury, a director of the Relationship Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, published the findings in the December issue of The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
In determining the list of relationship movies that might be useful to couples, the researchers eliminated popular romantic comedies or “falling in love” movies like “Sleepless in Seattle” or “When Harry Met Sally.” Instead, they put together a list of movies that show couples at various highs and lows in their relationships. “Hollywood can place very unrealistic expectations on romantic relationships,” Dr. Rogge said. “The idea that you are supposed to fall in love instantly and effortlessly is not reality and not relevant to most couples who are two, three or four years into a relationship.”
Some of the movies on the list, like “Couples Retreat,” are funny and not necessarily realistic. “But they are enough to get a dialogue going,” Dr. Rogge said.
Since completing the initial study, Dr. Rogge and his colleagues have been recruiting couples from around the country to study the effect of the movie intervention on different relationships, including long-married and same-sex couples. Megan Clifton, a 27-year-old student in Knoxville, Tenn., has lived with her boyfriend for nearly two years. Although she says the two have “great communication,” she opted to try the movie intervention.
While watching the movie “Date Night” with Tina Fey and Steve Carell, the couple laughed at a scene in which the husband fails to close drawers and cabinet doors. “He leaves cabinet doors open all the time, and I become the nagging girlfriend and he shuts down a little,” Ms. Clifton said. “When we were watching the movie, I said ‘That’s you!,’ and it was humorous. We ended up laughing about it, and it has helped us look at our relationship and our problems in a humorous way.”
Matt and Kellie Butler of Ashtabula, Ohio, have been married for 16 years and also feel the movie intervention has helped their relationship. So far they have watched “Love and Other Drugs” and “She’s Having a Baby.”
“It’s kind of powerful,” Mr. Butler said. “It’s like watching a role play in a group-therapy session, but it’s a movie so it’s less threatening and more entertaining.”
Mr. Butler said that even though he and his wife have a strong bond, long-married couples sometimes forget to talk about their relationship. “We’ve been married 16 years, but it’s not something you sit down and have a conversation about,” he said. “When you watch the movie, it focuses your conversation on your relationship.”
Couples interested in the method can find more information at www.couples-research.com.
Dr. Rogge noted that more research is needed to determine the effect on a variety of couples. One flaw of the study is that the control group was not truly randomized. While the couples in the control group seemed similar to other couples in the study in terms of demographics and relationship quality, further research is needed to validate the movie method.
“I believe it’s the depth of the discussions that follow each movie and how much effort and time and introspection couples put into those discussions that will predict how well they do going forward,” said Dr. Rogge.