Why make your lover write about you?
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 journaling about a relationship 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 feelings are so often vague and fleeting; capturing them in words amplifies them and loops them back to you. Our brains love patterns — mulling over emotions helps reify them, makes them concrete. You may find yourself expressing yourself with your partner the same way you do in your private writing. Focus on positive thoughts in your journal writing and you may find that those happy emotions spill over into everyday life. In a virtuous cycle, the partners of the study participants also 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.