"Write About Your Love", Build A Virtuous Cycle

Wise Readers,

I’m always looking for scientists and science writers who can help all of us to have the most fulfilling love-lives possible. This week, please welcome science writer Jena Pincott, whose fascinating blog and book Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes? were referenced in last week’s post. May you enjoy it as I do— and see you next week for more Love Science.

Cheers, Duana

Let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts about your relationship. That’s what psychologists James Pennebaker and Richard Slatcher told their study subjects to do, in a journal or diary, for twenty minutes a day. The participants — University of Texas at Austin undergrads — were in long-term relationships, but temptation, hormones, and stress are known to take their toll on young love. Slatcher and Pennebaker had a theory that writing about a lover could make love last longer.

The psychologists weren’t interested in what the subjects wrote about their girlfriends or boyfriends. Those writings were kept private. But another set of daily correspondence was fair game: instant messages (IM). Under the premise of a word quantification procedure, participants were asked to forward all instant message (IM) chats between themselves and their partners. Because IMs are frequent, impromptu, and real-time, they’re precious in the world of psychological studies. The researchers wanted to know if expressive journal writing on a daily basis made a difference in a couple’s everyday interactions. The frequency and emotional content of IM conversations, they figured, reflect the state of the relationship.

It turns out that men and women required to write privately about their feelings do communicate more with their loved ones. Comparing the instant messages of the 44 subjects assigned to express their feelings in writing on a daily basis versus the 42 who did not, the researchers found that the diary writers were more expressive with their partners. Without realizing it, men and women who had previously reflected on their relationship in writing used more emotion words such as happy, love, nervous, and mad when they IM’d their partners. Three months into the study, 77 percent of the participants who had written about their relationship were still with their partners, compared to 52 percent of the participants in the control group.

Why does daily “relationship journaling” help so much? According to the researchers, it helps lovers to better articulate their feelings. And in so doing, it also helps to reinforce those feelings. Thoughts and emotions are so often vague and fleeting; capturing them in words amplifies them and loops them back to you. Our brains love patterns — mulling over feelings helps reify them, makes them concrete. Focus on positive thoughts in your journal writing and you may find that those happy emotions (and ways of expressing them) spill over into everyday life. You may also be surprised by how it can come back to you. In a virtuous cycle, the partners of the study participants became more expressive as well. (It’s another amplifying feedback loop, not unlike how having a lot of sex may make you want even more of it.)

Take a moment and reflect: How expressive are you with your partner? To what extent are you on autopilot, filling your conversations with practicalities instead of emotion? Can you commit your feelings to words? If you can, you may find yourself more committed to your relationship.

Jena Pincott is a science writer.  Her latest book is Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?: Bodies, Behavior, and Brains—The Science Behind Sex, Love, and Attraction.  Her blog is Love, Sex, Attraction…and Science.


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Reader Comments (11)

This kind of journaling helped me to work through grieving the death of my 24 year old son. I had a lot of stuck anger and to write about it helped me to see in black and white my feelings about all of it. I was able through that to become a more objective observer. It does help to articulate feelings when it comes time to express our emotions to another. In any highly charged emotional situation when we need to express complex and sensitive feelings, writing it out helps us to sort through and our communication becomes clearer and more fluid.

August 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKaren Emerson

@Karen, I'm so sorry about your son. Good point that journaling can help us in our awareness across many of our life experiences.

August 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

One thing I love about this post of Jena's is this conclusion we can glean from it:

A major cultural myth of ours is that both people must be involved in order to create a positive shift; yet this and other studies show that one person alone can have a large impact (typically, the Relationship Mechanic is the woman, but not always; please see posts here called "Dealing With Your Difficult Woman" and "Dealing With Your Difficult Man" and In Jena's posting today, it didn't matter whether the journaler was a man or woman, and it didn't matter that both relationship partners weren't involved in the writing--only one person in a couple was doing the journaling, and it enhanced the relationship.

August 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

A simple thing like "communication" is so easily overlooked in relationships as time goes by. Two people can live under the same roof for years avoiding each other by never talking, or even being in the same room together, wasting their lives. I have lived that and swore never to go back to it. It does not take any effort to show some affectionate gesture, whether an IM, email, post-it note, or just a rub on the back, to keep the spark going. What takes effort is not doing these things and then finding out years later that it is a major hurdle to just look at one another.

Nice article! These reminders are so very important. Thanks.

September 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterVincent

@Vincent--"What takes effort is not doing these things and then finding out years later that it is a major hurdle to just look at one another." --Very well-said. And I'll be sure to pass your kudos along to Jena.

September 1, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Most of us don't journal, but wouldn't the messaging itself work in a similar fashion?

September 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMonica

@Monica, Good question. In this study, messaging alone was not as effective as journaling. IM's can be sweet, but they are of necessity short and quickly delivered; my guess is that the reflective quality required in journaling is the element that enhances relationships.

September 3, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Makes sense that writing about your loved one allows you to see what you understand and have learned about her/him. Its a love review either for the better or worse. Hopefully for the better since it puts into your mind that you are in a relationship and are hopefully loved. Ya know I wonder if it enhances love making if a journal entry topic explores the "animal magnetism" one has for the other and .... ;)
Had to be a man and go there.

September 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGabriel C.

LOL, Gabriel! I imagine that anything that stokes passionate feelings will result in more "animal magnetism". Men tend to be more visual--women, more auditory/language-oriented. Men who want to "be a man and go there" more often would probably do well to write the occasional amorous letter to their lady love.

September 5, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.

Hey, Duana and the Love-Sci gang! Greystoke's Mom again with a question.

This column has led me to ponder how verbal reinforcement works in a relationship -- not merely how we write or talk about a spouse, but also how we write and talk to a spouse.

I am the type of person who tells her husband at least a few times a day that he is sexy. He is, factually, sexy. He's a six-foot blue-eyed mezomorph silverback with a brain that won't quit.

I assure you that the preceeding sentence was presented merely for illustrative purposes, and I'm not just bragging about my spouse. Okay, I'm bragging, but there is a point to it.

However, after reading this, I am wondering: does the fact that I talk about how sexy my husband is make me see him as super-sexy or vice-versa? How much does verbal reinforcement (written or spoken) stem from attraction and how much does it create attraction?

In other words, is complimenting my husband and verbally informing him of his many strengths merely a way to strengthen the relationship by reminding him of the fact that I dig him, or does is it a self-perpetuating cycle of mush?

I grew up with parents who complimented and thanked each other all of the time. My mom never cooked a meal my dad didn't thank her for making; my dad speaks admiringly of how discipllined, attractive, and youthful she is all of the time, both to her and to others.

So I guess I'm pre-programmed to use verbal reinforcement. And I'm wondering if verbal reinforcement is a more complex and intricate dance of attraction than simply making a spouse feel appreciated. Thoughts?

September 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGreystoke's Mom

Hi there, Greystoke's Mom. What a delightful post. As for your question: "Is complimenting my husband and verbally informing him of his many strengths merely a way to strengthen the relationship by reminding him of the fact that I dig him, or does is it a self-perpetuating cycle of mush?"--the answer is Yes.
Yes to both questions, that is.
Researcher John Gottman would say that you and your sweetie have a well-tuned "fondness and admiration system" in place (Susan Page calls it "goodwill"). My guess is that you spend a lot of effort telling one another what you like--rather than criticizing each other--and you make it a priority to keep up with what the other is doing and to be supportive of one another in all things. If the boss says something mean to either of you, the other will side with you--not the boss! Who wouldn't want that?
It's been scientifically demonstrated that showing fondness and admiration for one's mate causes the relationship to improve. Gottman and others have assigned unhappy couples to do the sorts of stuff you and your husband are already doing, and voila! Happier marriages result. In fact, the difference between happy and unhappy couples is not the number or severity of their problems, but the fondness and admiration they lavish on one another. Everyone Has Problems.

So, it's not just that happy couples do mushy stuff; mushy stuff makes for happy couples. We can behave our way into feeling--not just feel our way into behaving. We can decide, in short, to behave in ways that will really make us happy. You and your mate have shown how.

As for why you and he became powerfully attracted to one another to begin with...that's a topic for a future column :).

September 6, 2009 | Registered CommenterDuana C. Welch, Ph.D.
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