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A Brief Intervention to Promote Conflict Reappraisal Preserves Marital Quality Over Time

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Marital quality is a major contributor to happiness and health. Unfortunately, marital quality normatively declines over time. We tested whether a novel 21-min intervention designed to foster the reappraisal of marital conflicts could preserve marital quality in a sample of 120 couples enrolled in an intensive 2-year study. Half of the couples were randomly assigned to receive the reappraisal intervention in Year 2 (following no intervention in Year 1); half were not. Both groups exhibited declines in marital quality over Year 1. This decline continued in Year 2 among couples in the control condition, but it was eliminated among couples in the reappraisal condition. This effect of the reappraisal intervention on marital quality over time was mediated through reductions in conflict-related distress over time. This study illustrates the potential of brief, theory-based, social-psychological interventions to preserve the quality of intimate relationships over time.
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DOI: 10.1177/0956797612474938
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Research Report
Of the social factors linked to mental and physical health,
marital quality is among the most important (Myers, 2000;
Parker-Pope, 2010). For example, 57% of people who are
“very happy” in their marriage are also very happy in
general, whereas only 10% who are “pretty happy” in
their marriage are very happy in general. Among patients
who have had a coronary artery bypass graft, those who
were high rather than low in marital satisfaction 1 year
following the surgery were 3.2 times more likely to be
alive 15 years after the surgery, an effect that could not be
explained by demographic, behavioral, or baseline health
measures (King & Reis, 2012; also see Coyne, Rohrbaugh,
Shoham, Sonnega, & Nicklas, 2001).
Given the intrinsic importance of martial relationships
for many people and the robust associations of marital
quality with mental and physical health, it is disconcert-
ing that marital quality normatively declines over time
(Glenn, 1998; VanLaningham, Johnson, & Amato, 2001).
Indeed, although cross-sectional research suggests that
trajectories of marital quality normatively become posi-
tive following an initial decline (e.g., Glenn, 1990; Spanier
& Lewis, 1980), the best evidence—from longitudinal
studies—suggests that the normative downward trajec-
tory does not reverse at any stage of marital longevity,
instead remaining unambiguously negative throughout
most stages of the marriage (Glenn, 1998; VanLaningham
et al., 2001).
Scholars have identified a broad range of factors that
predict poor marital quality. Among relational processes,
arguably the most robust predictor is negative-affect
reciprocity—a chain of retaliatory negativity between
spouses during marital conflict, such as when a husband
responds to his wife’s criticism of his parenting with an
angry denial or an insulting evaluation of her integrity
(Gottman, 1998). Scholars have developed interventions
to interrupt such chains of negativity before they become
all-consuming (e.g., Baucom, Shoham, Mueser, Daiuto, &
474938PSS
XXX10.1177/0956797612474938Finkel et al.Reappraising Conflict
research-article
2013
Corresponding Author:
Eli J. Finkel, Northwestern University, Department of Psychology, 2029
Sheridan Rd., Swift Hall #102, Evanston, IL 60208
E-mail: finkel@northwestern.edu
A Brief Intervention to Promote Conflict
Reappraisal Preserves Marital Quality
Over Time
Eli J. Finkel
1
, Erica B. Slotter
2
, Laura B. Luchies
3
,
Gregory M. Walton
4
, and James J. Gross
4
1
Northwestern University,
2
Villanova University,
3
Redeemer University College, and
4
Stanford University
Abstract
Marital quality is a major contributor to happiness and health. Unfortunately, marital quality normatively declines
over time. We tested whether a novel 21-min intervention designed to foster the reappraisal of marital conflicts could
preserve marital quality in a sample of 120 couples enrolled in an intensive 2-year study. Half of the couples were
randomly assigned to receive the reappraisal intervention in Year 2 (following no intervention in Year 1); half were
not. Both groups exhibited declines in marital quality over Year 1. This decline continued in Year 2 among couples in
the control condition, but it was eliminated among couples in the reappraisal condition. This effect of the reappraisal
intervention on marital quality over time was mediated through reductions in conflict-related distress over time. This
study illustrates the potential of brief, theory-based, social-psychological interventions to preserve the quality of
intimate relationships over time.
Keywords
emotional reappraisal, marriage, relationship quality, emotion regulation, social-psychological intervention
Received 8/16/12; Revision accepted 12/19/12
Psychological Science OnlineFirst, published on June 26, 2013 as doi:10.1177/0956797612474938
at NORTHWESTERN UNIV LIBRARY on June 28, 2013pss.sagepub.comDownloaded from
2 Finkel et al.
Stickle, 1998). Although such interventions can some-
times help spouses learn to manage their emotions more
constructively, they also tend to require considerable
investment of time and money. In addition, they are uni-
formly multicomponential, which makes it difficult to dis-
cern which component (or components) improves
relationship quality.
Inspired by research demonstrating that brief, theory-
based, social-psychological interventions can yield
remarkably enduring improvements in people’s lives by
fostering thoughts and behaviors that self-reinforce over
time (Yeager & Walton, 2011), we developed an interven-
tion to test whether reappraising conflict can preserve
marital quality over an extended period of time (at least
in a nonclinical sample). Given that relationship quality is
strongly influenced by recursive, self-reinforcing dynam-
ics, such as negative-affect reciprocity, it represents an
especially promising target for a brief social-psychologi-
cal intervention. In addition, because this intervention
focused precisely on a theory-specified process, it
required minimal investment of time or other resources.
Our intervention capitalized on the power of emo-
tional reappraisal—reinterpreting the meaning of emo-
tion-eliciting situations (Gross, 2002)—to help people
manage negative emotions constructively. It was adapted
from a laboratory experiment in which participants who
were asked to reappraise an interpersonal conflict from a
third-party perspective experienced less anger and dis-
tress than participants who were asked to ruminate about
the conflict or who were given no instructions (Ray,
Wilhelm, & Gross, 2008; also see Kross, Ayduk, & Mischel,
2005). Given the default tendency to view interpersonal
conflict from a first-person perspective (Nigro & Neisser,
1983; Robinson & Swanson, 1993; Verduyn, Van Mechelen,
Kross, Chezzi, & Van Bever, 2012), we theorized that con-
flict-related anger and distress should dissipate more rap-
idly among people who are trained to engage in
third-party perspective taking than among people who
are not, and that this dissipation should, in turn, preserve
relationship quality over time.
We conducted a seven-wave, 2-year longitudinal study
of married couples, randomly assigning half the couples
to the reappraisal intervention during Year 2. Participants
reported every 4 months on their marital quality and on
the most significant conflict they had experienced in their
marriage during that time interval. These procedures
allowed us to test three hypotheses:
1. Marital quality will decline over time.
2. This downward trend will be reduced, perhaps
even eliminated, among participants who experi-
enced the reappraisal intervention in Year 2.
3. This reduction of the downward trend in marital
quality will be mediated by declining postinter-
vention conflict-related distress in the reappraisal
condition relative to the control condition.
Method
Participants were 120 heterosexual married couples from
the Chicago metropolitan area (mean age of individual
participants = 40 years, SD = 14, range = 20–79; mean
duration of the marriage = 11 years, SD = 12, range =
0.1–52). They learned about the study via newspaper and
Craigslist.org advertisements or via flyers distributed
through a local school system (children brought the flyer
home to their parents). Every 4 months for 24 months—
seven waves in total—they reported their relationship
satisfaction, love, intimacy, trust, passion, and commit-
ment (Fletcher, Simpson, & Thomas, 2000; Rusbult, Martz,
& Agnew, 1998; see Table 1 for scale information). These
six marital-quality measures are distinct but converge on
the higher-order construct of subjective marital quality
(Fletcher et al., 2000), which we calculated by standard-
izing each scale and averaging them into a composite.
At Wave 1, participants completed an Internet-based
questionnaire, which contained the marital-quality assess-
ment, and then they attended a laboratory session in
which they completed a series of tasks (e.g., a conflict
discussion, executive-control tasks) that are irrelevant to
Table 1. The Six Marital-Quality Components Used in the Present Study
Outcome variable Sample item Cronbach’s D
Satisfaction “I feel satisfied with our relationship.” .96
Love “How much do you love your partner?” .92
Intimacy “How intimate is your relationship?” .91
Trust “How much do you trust your partner?” .90
Passion “How passionate is your relationship?” .94
Commitment “I am committed to maintaining my
relationship with my partner.”
.92
Note: Satisfaction and commitment were measured on scales from 1 (strongly disagree)
to 7 (strongly agree) using the Investment Model Scale (Rusbult, Martz, & Agnew, 1998).
Love, intimacy, trust, and passion were measured on scales from 1 (not at all) to 7
(extremely) using the Perceived Relationship Quality Components Inventory (Fletcher,
Simpson, & Thomas, 2000). These six marital-quality components were standardized and
then averaged to calculate the measure of overall marital quality.
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Reappraising Conflict 3
the present article. At Waves 2 through 7, which took
place entirely via the Internet, participants provided a
“fact-based summary of the most significant disagree-
ment” they had experienced with their spouse over the
preceding 4 months, “focusing on behavior, not on
thoughts or feelings.” After providing this description,
they reported, on scales from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7
(strongly agree), their level of conflict-related distress
(e.g., “I am angry at my partner for his/her behavior dur-
ing this conflict”; D = .72).
All participants underwent identical procedures dur-
ing the first 12 months. Then, by random assignment, half
of the couples engaged in an additional 7-min writing
task at the end of Waves 4 through 6 (Months 12, 16, and
20, respectively), during which they reappraised the con-
flict they had just written about. In addition, at Months
14, 18, and 22, we sent participants in the reappraisal
condition an e-mail reminding them of the reappraisal
task; we e-mailed participants in the control condition at
the same times, but just as a friendly check-in. During the
reappraisal writing task, participants responded to three
prompts:
1. “Think about the specific disagreement that you
just wrote about having with your partner. Think
about this disagreement with your partner from
the perspective of a neutral third party who wants
the best for all involved; a person who sees things
from a neutral point of view. How might this per-
son think about the disagreement? How might he
or she find the good that could come from it?”
2. “Some people find it helpful to take this third-party
perspective during their interactions with their
romantic partner. However, almost everybody finds
it challenging to take this third-party perspective at
all times. In your relationship with your partner,
what obstacles do you face in trying to take this
third-partner perspective, especially when you’re
having a disagreement with your partner?”
3. “Despite the obstacles to taking a third-party per-
spective, people can be successful in doing so.
Over the next 4 months, please try your best to
take this third-party perspective during interac-
tions with your partner, especially during dis-
agreements. How might you be most successful in
taking this perspective in your interactions with
your partner over the next 4 months? How might
taking this perspective help you make the best of
disagreements in your relationship?”
Results
For each person i, we ran seven multilevel, discontinuous
growth-curve analyses (Singer & Willett, 2003) to
test Hypothesis 1 and Hypothesis 2. These analyses
predicted, in turn, overall marital quality and each of the
six marital-quality subcomponents from (a) time (assess-
ment time, t, coded 0–6 for Waves 1–7, respectively), (b)
condition (control = 0, reappraisal = 1), and (c) time
since intervention (change in slope as a function of the
intervention, coded 0 for all waves for control partici-
pants and coded 0 for Waves 1–4 and 1–3 for Waves 5–7,
respectively, for reappraisal participants). Our statistical
model was as follows:
marital quality measure
it
= S
0i
+ S
1i
(time) +
(1)
S
2i
(condition
it
) + S
3i
(time since intervention
it
) + H
it
.
We expected to find negative effects of time (Hypoth esis
1: marital quality deteriorates over time, S
1i
) and positive
effects for time since intervention (Hypothesis 2: the neg-
ative effect of time is smaller for reappraisal than for con-
trol participants after the intervention begins, S
3i
).
As predicted, participants tended to exhibit robust
declines in overall marital quality (Hypothesis 1), S
1i
=
0.06, t(122) = 10.04, p < .001, but after the intervention
began, participants in the reappraisal condition were
protected from this downward trend—that is, the Year 2
marital-quality slopes differed across the two conditions
(Hypothesis 2), S
3i
= 0.05, t(122) = 3.19, p = .001 (Fig. 1).
1
Indeed, for reappraisal participants, the downward trend
was entirely eliminated, p = .842. The same pattern
emerged for all six subcomponents of marital quality
(Table 2), and, taken together, 13 of the 14 tests of
Hypothesis 1 and Hypothesis 2 reached statistical signifi-
cance, all ps < .05.
2
Next, we tested whether the positive postintervention
slope for marital quality could be explained by a reduc-
tion in conflict-related distress among participants in the
reappraisal condition. First, we regressed the postinter-
vention slope of conflict-related distress
3
(the hypothe-
sized mediator) onto the experimental manipulation (the
independent variable). As predicted, relative to partici-
pants in the control condition, participants in the reap-
praisal condition exhibited significant postintervention
reductions over time in conflict-related distress, b = 0.23,
t(116) = 2.85, p = .006. Second, we regressed the
postintervention slope of marital quality (the hypothe-
sized dependent variable) onto both the postintervention
slope of conflict-related distress and the experimental
manipulation. As predicted, the postintervention slope of
conflict-related distress was negatively associated with
the postintervention slope of marital quality, b = 0.87,
t(117) = 1.91, p = .057.
Third, following Preacher and Hayes’s (2008) recom-
mendations, we employed bootstrapping procedures
with 5,000 resamples, using the bias-corrected and accel-
erated approach, to assess whether the postintervention
slope of conflict-related distress statistically mediated the
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4 Finkel et al.
effect of the reappraisal intervention on the postinterven-
tion slope of marital quality. The resulting 95% confi-
dence interval [0.012, 0.568] did not contain 0, which is
consistent with our hypothesis that a crucial reason why
the reappraisal intervention preserved marital quality
over time is that it reduced conflict-related distress over
time (Hypothesis 3). (Testing for mediation in the other
direction, with relationship quality as the mediator and
conflict-related distress as the dependent measure,
revealed a nonsignificant effect.)
Discussion
This study demonstrated that a 21-min writing interven-
tion in which participants reappraised conflict in their
marriage protected them against declines in marital qual-
ity over time. It also provided evidence that this effect
was driven, at least in part, by a reduction in conflict-
related distress over time among participants in the inter-
vention condition.
At a practical level, these findings provide a promising
target for clinical or even (given the Internet-based deliv-
ery) large-scale epidemiological interventions oriented
toward counteracting the normative downward trend in
marital quality over time (Glenn, 1998; VanLaningham
et al., 2001). At a methodological level, these findings add
to the growing body of research demonstrating the power
of brief, theory-based, social-psychological interventions
to promote achievement, health, and well-being (Yeager
& Walton, 2011). At a theoretical level, these findings pro-
vide especially compelling evidence for the power of
adopting a third-party perspective to reduce anger related
to relationship conflicts (see Kross et al., 2005; Ray et al.,
2008). The positive effect of our reappraisal intervention
on marital quality over time was mediated by reduced
conflict-related anger and distress over time; however,
future research is necessary to discern precisely how the
intervention exerted these distress-reducing effects. Our
manipulation—in which participants were instructed to
think about the conflict from the perspective of a third
party who adopts a neutral point of view and wants the
best for all involved—presumably inculcated not only a
self-distanced psychological perspective (Kross et al.,
2005) and third-party visual perspective (Libby & Eibach,
2011), but also the “adaptive framework” (see Libby &
Eibach, 2011, p. 234) of wanting the best for all involved.
Future research is required to determine whether the
efficacy of the reappraisal intervention depends on
obtaining that adaptive framework or whether adopting a
neutral third-party perspective is sufficient, on its own, to
yield salutary effects on relationship quality. Such
research could fruitfully investigate the role of a range
of cognitive and psychological processes in linking reap-
praisal and conflict-related distress to marital quality,
including tendencies toward cerebral rather than visceral
reactions, benign rather than blameful attributions,
–0.3
–0.2
–0.1
0.0
0.1
0.2
0.3
0 4 8 12 16 20 24
Months Since Stud
y
Entr
y
(
Waves 1–7
)
Control Condition
Reappraisal Condition
Overall Marital Quality
Reappraisal Intervention Begins
π
0i
π
1i
***
π
3i
**
π
2i
Fig. 1. Overall marital-quality score as a function of wave and condition. The asterisks and the dag-
ger indicate significant differences between conditions (
p < .10, **p < .01, ***p < .001). The overall
intercept term—the model-implied mean of overall marital quality at study entry across the entire
sample—is represented by S
0i
. The overall slope term—the model-implied slope of overall marital
quality over time across the entire sample—is represented by S
1i
. The (negligible and nonsignificant)
immediate increment in overall marital quality resulting from involvement in the reappraisal interven-
tion is represented by S
2i
. The increment in the slope in overall marital quality over time resulting
from involvement in the reappraisal intervention is represented by S
3i
.
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Reappraising Conflict 5
Table 2. Results of the Multilevel, Discontinuous Growth-Curve Models Predicting the
Measures of Marital Quality
Outcome variable and parameter
t test
bdf t
Overall marital quality
Overall intercept (S
0i
) 0.17 119 1.83
Overall trajectory/slope (S
1i
) 0.06 119 10.04***
Intervention-based increment at Wave 4 (S
2i
) 0.02 119 0.18
Intervention-based trajectory/slope deviation (S
3i
) 0.05 119 3.19**
Satisfaction
Overall intercept (S
0i
) 6.00 115 42.85***
Overall trajectory/slope (S
1i
) 0.08 115 4.04***
Intervention-based increment at Wave 4 (S
2i
) 0.05 115 0.25
Intervention-based trajectory/slope deviation (S
3i
) 0.07 115 2.44*
Love
Overall intercept (S
0i
) 6.47 115 78.98***
Overall trajectory/slope (S
1i
) 0.10 115 5.74***
Intervention-based increment at Wave 4 (S
2i
) 0.07 115 0.89
Intervention-based trajectory/slope deviation (S
3i
) 0.12 115 5.08***
Intimacy
Overall intercept (S
0i
) 6.01 116 50.87***
Overall trajectory/slope (S
1i
) 0.12 116 6.62***
Intervention-based increment at Wave 4 (S
2i
) 0.21 116 1.27
Intervention-based trajectory/slope deviation (S
3i
) 0.15 116 5.11***
Trust
Overall intercept (S
0i
) 6.47 117 82.75***
Overall trajectory/slope (S
1i
) 0.07 117 4.45***
Intervention-based increment at Wave 4 (S
2i
) 0.17 117 1.56
Intervention-based trajectory/slope deviation (S
3i
) 0.10 117 3.96**
Passion
Overall intercept (S
0i
) 5.50 114 41.94***
Overall trajectory/slope (S
1i
) 0.12 114 6.87***
Intervention-based increment at Wave 4 (S
2i
) 0.13 114 0.72
Intervention-based trajectory/slope deviation (S
3i
) 0.12 114 3.66***
Commitment
Overall intercept (S
0i
) 6.76 115 22.07***
Overall trajectory/slope (S
1i
) 0.05 115 4.57***
Intervention-based increment at Wave 4 (S
2i
) 0.04 115 0.54
Intervention-based trajectory/slope deviation (S
3i
) 0.02 115 0.76
Note: The overall marital-quality measure was created by standardizing and then averaging the
six marital-quality components (satisfaction, love intimacy, trust, passion, and commitment). The
intervention (for the reappraisal group only) started at Wave 4. The intervention-based trajectory/
slope deviation (S
3i
) for each component represents the test of the crucial hypothesis that the
intervention altered the marital-quality trajectory over time.
p < .10. *p < .05. **p < .01. ***p < .001.
minimal rather than excessive reliving, normal rather
than elevated physiological arousal, abstract rather than
concrete construal, reconstrued rather than literal per-
spective, wise rather than unwise reasoning, and integra-
tive/top-down rather than phenomenological/bottom-up
meaning making (Kross & Ayduk, 2011; Kross et al., 2005;
Kross & Grossman, 2012; Libby & Eibach, 2011).
The present study had limitations, and the prospect
of addressing them yields exciting directions for future
research. For example, although it seems likely that
the reduction of conflict-related distress yielded a con-
comitant reduction in negative-affect reciprocity, defini-
tive conclusions along those lines await research
employing microlevel behavioral analysis of marital
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6 Finkel et al.
conflict. Although the reappraisal intervention changed
the trajectory of participants’ marriages and thus yielded
gains in marital quality that strengthened over the year-
long intervention period, future research is required to
discern whether the procedure can help to sustain mari-
tal well-being over the course of many years or decades.
Although the intervention preserved marital quality over
time, it did not increase it. Future research could explore
whether the intervention can be enhanced so that it actu-
ally increases marital quality over time; such an interven-
tion would be especially promising for already distressed
couples, for whom the maintenance of current levels of
marital quality might not be an adequate outcome. In
addition, future research could address various issues
pertaining to the dosage, timing, and implementation of
the intervention. For example, might the impact of the
intervention diminish over the course of years or decades?
Would the intervention remain effective if it were imple-
mented less frequently than every 4 months? Might it be
stronger (or perhaps weaker) if it were implemented
more frequently than that? Would it be effective if only
one spouse in each couple participated?
These unanswered questions notwithstanding, the
present research has revealed something new and poten-
tially important: A brief intervention designed to promote
conflict reappraisal preserves marital quality over time.
That this effect was not moderated by marital duration
suggests that it may be every bit as effective in long-
married as in newlywed couples. Given the major health
and well-being correlates of marital distress—both for
the spouses themselves and for their children and
broader social networks—spending 21 min a year reap-
praising conflict appears to yield a spectacular return on
investment.
Author Contributions
E. J. Finkel procured the grant funding. E. J. Finkel, G. M.
Walton, and J. J. Gross designed the intervention. E. J. Finkel
and E. B. Slotter developed the broader empirical protocol, and
the two of them collaborated with L. B. Luchies on the data col-
lection. E. J. Finkel and E. B. Slotter devised the data-analytic
plan, which E. B. Slotter executed. E. J. Finkel wrote the first
draft of the manuscript, and all authors contributed substan-
tively to the revisions. All authors approved the final version of
the manuscript for submission.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared that they had no conflicts of interest
with respect to their authorship or the publication of this
article.
Notes
1. This effect was not moderated by race, gender, age, income,
marital duration, number of children, or age of children,
ps > .225.
2. The only effect that did not reach statistical significance
(p < .05, two-tailed) was the postintervention slope effect (S
3i
)
for commitment. If this anomalous finding proves reliable in
future research, scholars could explore whether commitment’s
greater cognitive (vs. affective) tenor or its future (vs. present)
orientation can explain this finding.
3. We created this measure by running a multilevel, discontinu-
ous growth-curve analysis identical to that in Equation 1, except
that conflict-related distress was the dependent variable.
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