The 21-Minute Relationship Exercise All Married Couples Should Try

It's proven to help couples argue less and appreciate each other more.

If you choose to spend the rest of your life living under the same roof with the same person, guess what? You’re going to have conflict. That’s just a part of any long-term relationship and, once marriage, kids, and responsibilities come into the picture, the triggers for conflict multiply exponentially. As anyone who has been involved in a big or small marital spat knows, they tend to follow a pattern. One person points out something negative, the other person becomes defensive and escalates it by pointing out something else negative and the two volley back and forth until the powder keg goes off. But for those who want a happier relationship — and who doesn’t? — there is an interesting marriage hack to break the cycle of negative reciprocity and getting you and your partner back on even ground — and it takes only 21 minutes: invite a third party.

Well, sort of. Social psychologist Eli Finkel, Director of the Relationships and Motivation Lab at Northwestern University, author of The Allor Nothing Marriage, and one of the leading experts in marriage and family relationships, has conducted extensive research into this specific “love hack” — Finkel’s term for a brief exercise to aid martial satisfaction — and has proven that it not only helps take the edge off arguments but also facilitates more trust and openness between couples. The way Finkel’s “marriage hack” works is, when you have an argument, take a few minutes and write about the disagreement not from your point of view, or your partner’s, but from the point of view of a neutral, third-party observer. In studies conducted over a few years at Northwestern, Finkel found that the couples that attempted this exercise during three seven-minute online writing exercises per year — a total of 21-minutes — saw not only improvement in their communication, but also a clearer perspective on why they were arguing and what was triggering them. “One wife, for example, wrote that this neutral observer ‘would tell me that I needed time to calm my anger down and channel it in another way,’ Finkel wrote about this study in the New York Times. “A husband in the study recalled that, during a recent argument with his wife at a hotel, there actually was a mutual friend listening nearby. ‘My mind kept going back to her listening to our spat,” he wrote, concluding that she probably “heard a rational discussion between two loving people.’ In a study of 120 married couples from the Chicago area, Finkel and his colleagues first had both partners report in every four months and describe the most significant marital conflict they had experienced over the preceding months. After that, couples were broken into two groups, a control group, which simply continued the process through the first year, and another group that was assigned to do the seven-minute neutral party writing assignments three times over the course of the year, for a total of 21 minutes. The results, according to Finkel, spoke for themselves. “For couples in the control group — consistent with several previous studies, unfortunately — marital quality declined over the two-year period,” he wrote in the Times, “as measured by self-reported numerical assessments of marital satisfaction, passion, love, trust and intimacy.” One of the most striking discoveries of the study was not that the couples had less conflict, but that the conflicts they did have caused less stress and frustration. As a result, the couples felt greater trust and openness with each other.

Why This Exercise Works

So why is this “marriage hack” so successful? How does taking a third-party view of your marriage improve trust and communication between you and your partner? “It is known that having true mutual empathy for your partner — really being able to stand in their shoes and understand their perspective — greatly improves communication and compromise,” offers Dr. Gail Saltz, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of medicine and host of the “Personology” podcast from iHeart Media. “Imagining being an outside observer allows you to step out of your own mind somewhat and step into your partner’s.”

The trick to the third-party technique, per Finkel, is to allow yourself a moment to observe the situation, and your emotions from a more logical and practical perspective, instead of allowing your emotions to drive your actions. “It’s pretty easy to go down a spiral of angry self-righteousness when we’re in a conflict,” he said in an interview with Blinkist. “In fact, I think that’s probably a default for many of us, to feel very self-righteous. And then you sort of try to adopt a benevolent third-party perspective. This could be the perspective of somebody [who is] a good friend, it could be the perspective of God. …This will vary from person to person. But it has to be somebody who wants the best for both of you.” “Objectivity is what a therapist brings a couple,” Dr. Saitz says. “The therapist tries to impart this objectivity to the couple. It’s harder to do by yourselves, but doable.” To do it, says Dr. Saitz, each person needs to not feel overwhelmed emotionally and that often distance or time from the fight allows this. There will certainly be some who worry about this approach, feeling that it sets expectations or unreachable goals for each partner. It does, after all, ask them to have a sense of perspective that might feel unattainable in the heat of an argument. While the process certainly does require some three-dimensional thinking, Saitz says that having expectations and aspirations are exactly what this practice is all about. ‘Being aspirational has advantages as you work towards being the best you can be together. But there is a difference between goals and expectations,” she says. “Too-high expectations can undermine a marriage with chronic disappointment. Expectations need to be peppered with a bedrock of acceptance, understanding, trust, and effort.”