Can Movies Save Your Marriage?

I mentioned in my previous post a recent study which showed that some movies strengthen couples’ relationships. The researchers claimed that watching certain movies and following a guided discussion aftewards could be as effective as couples’ therapy. This study received a lot of media attention and was touted as a “revolution in couples therapy.” Before you pick up the phone to cancel your next couples therapy session, let me share with you some important details you may not have seen in all the media coverage.

In the study, conducted at the University of Rochester, 174 newlywed and engaged couples were divided into four groups. Two of these groups received therapy sessions aimed at increasing conflict resolution and problem solving skills. The third group watched a movie portraying an intimate relationship, then had a guided discussion with their partners on areas such as how the couple in the movie handled arguments and how the relationship depicted in the movie was similar to or different than the participants’ relationship. They were then told to continue this exercise with four more movies chosen from a list of Hollywood films. The fourth group of participants, also known as the control group, received no treatment.

When the researchers followed up with the participants three years later, they found that couples in the first three groups had a lower the divorce rate (around 13%) compared with couples in the control group (24%). What thrilled the researchers was that there was no difference in the rates among the first three groups, indicating that the use of movies was just as effective in reducing divorce as weekly therapy.

What could account for this finding? For a start, bear in mind that the couples in the study were all newlywed or engaged. More importantly, none of these couples experienced distress in their relationship, which was a prerequisite for participating in the study. What the media neglected to report was that, from an initial pool of more than 800 couples, the researchers had screened out three-quarters of them and ended up with 174 for their study. I imagine that this highly selective group were very motivated and had a lot of strengths in their relationships going into the study. Of these, 44 couples were assigned to the control group (no treatment) not by random means, but because these couples declined active treatment or were unable to schedule for one of the three treatment methods. Again, I am curious about the effect of further self-selection on the findings.holding hands

The results also have to be interpreted with great care. At first glance, the difference in divorce rates between the movie group and the control group is striking, at 13% and 24% respectively. Indeed, some media reports bragged that this showed that the movie intervention was effective in halving the divorce rate. But when we consider how small each group was, with 33 couples in the movie group and 44 in the control group, we realize this really was a difference of just six couples. I am sure the researchers are aware of this caveat and are looking to recruit more participants for their ongoing study to produce more robust results.

So what does this mean for you? Ask yourself these questions before you conclude that watching movies can save your marriage:

1. Do my partner and I (a) communicate honestly and openly with each other, or (b) usually get into a fight when we disagree with each other?

2. Are our marital difficulties (a) a result of not spending positive time together, or (b) a reflection of deeper issues?

3. Am I (a) satisfied with my relationship for the most part, or (b) frequently thinking about how unhappy I am?

If you answered “a” to all three questions, I invite you to take a look at the researchers’ website and perhaps sign up for their study. Not sure about the study but would like to try the movie treatment? Get the movie list and discussion questions here.

But if you answered “b” to any of the questions I asked, working with a therapist might still be the best thing you can do to save your marriage.


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