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Valentine’s Day tip: Watch movies together and you’ll stay together

Couples who watch relationship-focused movies and discuss them are more likely to be together after three years, a new study finds.

"Two for the Road" lobby card
20th Century Fox

Just in time for Valentine’s Day: Couples who watch relationship-focused movies and then discuss them with each other afterwards are more likely to be together after three years than couples who didn’t, according to a study published recently in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

In fact, the study found that watching and discussing the movies together turned out to be just as effective at keeping couples together as two types of therapist-led interventions.

These results apparently surprised the University of Rochester researchers who conducted the research. They had designed the study to compare the two therapist-led interventions, PREP (which teaches skills in managing conflicts and problem resolutions) and CARE (which teaches skills in acceptance, support and empathy).

But, according to a report in the New York Times, the researchers needed to compare those approaches with a third intervention — one that would encourage the couples to talk about their relationships, but that wasn’t therapist-led. They came up with the movie idea.

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And, lo and behold, it worked.

Randomized to four groups

The study included 174 heterosexual couples who were in their 20s and 30s. All were either engaged or newly married, and most (72 percent) were living together. The couples were randomly assigned to either the PREP or CARE program (four sessions with a therapist, plus “homework”), or to the “movie-and-talk” program. A fourth group of couples received no intervention.

The couples assigned to the “movie-and-talk” program received a 10-minute lecture on the importance of relationship awareness and how movies can help develop that awareness. They then watched and later discussed, using guided questions developed by the researchers, the 1967 romantic comedy “Two for the Road,” which follows a couple (played by Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney) through the ups and downs of 12 years of marriage.

They were then sent home with a list of 46 additional movies and told to watch and discuss one a week together for the next four weeks. Movies on that list span eight decades, and include “Made for Each Other” (1939, with Carole Lombard and James Stewart), “Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House” (1948, with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy), “Phffft (Pfft!)” (1954, with Judy Holliday and Jack Lemmon), “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton), “The Way We Were” (1974, with Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford), “She’s Having a Baby” (1988, with Elizabeth McGovern and Kevin Bacon), “Mississippi Massala” (1991, with Sarita Choudhury and Denzel Washington,) and “Yours, Mine, and Ours” (2005, with Renne Russo and Dennis Quaid).

Follow-up was done on all the couples three years later. The researchers found that the separation-and/or-divorce rate for couples in the intervention groups — including the “movie-and-talk” one — was 11 percent, which was less than half what it was in the control group (24 percent).

Intensive training may not be needed

“We thought the movie treatment would help, but not nearly as much as the other programs in which we were teaching all of these state-of-the-art skills,” said Ronald Rogge, associate professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and lead author of the study, in a statement released with the study.

“The results suggest,” he added, “that husbands and wives have a pretty good sense of what they might be doing right and wrong in their relationships. Thus, you might not need to teach them a whole lot of skills to cut the divorce rate. You might just need to get them to think about how they are currently behaving. And for five movies to give us a benefit over three years — that is awesome.”

As Rogge and his colleagues stress in their paper, the study was small, and its results are preliminary. But, intrigued by their findings from the “movie-and-talk” arm of the study, the researchers are now doing further research to determine just how viable that approach may be for strengthening couples’ relationships.

In the meantime, if you and your partner are interested in trying the method for yourselves, go to Rogge’s website. You can download and print from the site a list of recommended movies and discussion questions.

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But try not to argue about which movie to watch first.