Women, you don’t have to learn to belly dance for your husbands; men, you can just say "no" to chick flicks. Researchers from Northwestern University have found a new tool in the quest to preserve conjugal contentment. It only takes 21 minutes a year and doesn't require beaded bras or Hugh Grant.

A merry marriage has shown to be important for health and happiness, yet, fickle animals that we are, satisfaction with one’s spouse generally declines over time. But the team from Northwestern found that a simple writing intervention prevents couples from spiraling into that place of endless bickering and silent dinners at restaurants.

“I don’t want it to sound like magic, but you can get pretty impressive results with minimal intervention,” said Eli Finkel, lead author of the study and professor of psychology at Northwestern.

The writing intervention is comprised of three, seven-minute exercises administered online. The simple “reappraisal writing task” asked participants to think about the facts of their most recent argument with their spouse, and to consider the argument from the perspective of a neutral third party.

The study included 120 couples, of which half were asked to perform the writing exercise every four months. Previous research has shown that a decline in marital happiness can occur during the first year, which both groups confirmed. But for the couples who did the writing task, the decline in marital satisfaction during the second year was completely eliminated. Although couples from both sets of participants fought just as much and about similar topics, the writing couples were less upset by these squabbles, which lead to greater marital harmony.

“Not only did this effect emerge for marital satisfaction, it also emerged for other relationship processes, like passion and sexual desire, that are especially vulnerable to the ravages of time,” Finkel said. “Having a high-quality marriage is one of the strongest predictors of happiness and health.”

With research emphasizing the importance of a happy marriage — one recent study even suggests that a stressful marriage can be as bad for the heart as a regular smoking habit — striving for marital harmony seems like a no-brainer.

“From that perspective, participating in a seven-minute writing exercise three times a year has to be one of the best investments married people can make,” Finkel said.

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Save your marriage in 21 minutes
New research shows that a series of quick writing exercises can preserve marital harmony.