09 February 2014

Fabulatherapy, Take Two

A friend on Facebook just posted a link to an article and little Youtube clip: "Movie-and-Talk: Can This Simple Exercise Help Save a Marriage?" In a word? Yes.

Researchers at the University of Rochester put married couples into different therapy groups. Two of the groups received more intensive, skills-based therapy (two different kinds), in one group the couples just watched relationship movies with each other and afterwards talked about them, and the control group did nothing. The study was carried out over three years, at the end of which the researchers found that the "do nothing" group had twice the divorce rate of the other three groups. But the exciting thing about this study is this: just watching movies together and talking about them was just as effective in keeping couples together as intensive, costly marriage counselling.

You see, it's yet another instance of Fabulatherapy, that word I coined  a year ago to describe how Story can help us deal with our lives. In that instance, it was dealing with bibliotherapy, reading books to help you cope with depression. Maybe this form of marriage therapy should be called cinematotherapy? Regardless, it's engaging with stories that makes the difference - Fabulatherapy.

The researcher who talks about this study on that Youtube clip speculates that it's not the movie-watching itself which makes the difference in couples' lives, but the talking about it afterwards. I beg to differ (somewhat). Watching a movie means to immerse oneself in the story. For the hour or two that you're watching, you ARE the person on screen, you experience what they experience, and you learn from it. In watching it with someone else, and talking about it afterwards, you synchronise your experience, and the learning that comes from it. Yes, the talking is important, but I think it's the movie itself that makes the greatest impact.

This is a beautiful example of the Power of Story (and one that's verified with fancy terminology, statistics, N=174, and a write-up in APA's PsycNET, no less). Fiction has incredible power over our lives. From personal experience, I can tell you that one of the biggest factors in the success of a marriage is to have witnessed the functional marriage of one's parents. When you have seen a marriage work, when you have experienced a couple who argues, does not always agree with each other, has weird quirks and irritating habits, and still stays together, reconciles after the arguments, and above and in spite of all deeply loves one another, you have an invaluable toolbox for making your own marriage work. (For the most part, on average. It's not an unfailing guarantee, of course, but it means you're quite far ahead of the game.) It's having experienced it, having seen it - that's what counts.

In daily life, we don't see how marriages work at home - I'm sure I'm not the only one who has been caught by complete surprise at the divorce of couples who, by all outer appearances, seemed to be doing perfectly well. We don't show our squabbles in public. So you have to be on the inside, so to speak, have to watch a couple in their home, in order to see how marriage really works. And the beauty of Story, of fiction, is that it allows us to go on the inside like that without having to intrude on our friends' privacy ("Hey, Joe and Martha, you seem to have a good marriage going. Do you mind if I park myself in your living room for the next month and listen to you when you're fighting, so I can learn how it's done? I promise to shut my eyes when you get too lovey-dovey." Uh, no. I don't think so.). We can watch a relationship, we can learn from others' mistakes and what they did right, just by popping a movie into the DVD player (or finding it on Netflix, more like) - just by engaging with a story. And that story, even if it is entirely fictional, can help us on our own lives, can teach us what we need to learn to make things work for ourselves.

Now I want to watch that movie with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney that they showed a clip of in that Youtube video. And there was one with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy that looked interesting, too. Or maybe I'll just go to my own DVD shelves - there is Shrek 2, all about making a new marriage work and making compromises for each other, or My Big Fat Greek Wedding, about making a relationship work in the midst of a great big extended family, or...

Life, the Universe, and Movies for Marriage. Fabulatherapy at its finest.

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