Chick Flicks as Effective as Couples Counseling?

An interesting study recently conducted by the University of Rochester, and discussed in The New York Times, found that “sappy relationship movies made in Hollywood can actually help strengthen relationships in the real world.”

This finding came as a surprise even to the researchers, especially since their intended purpose was to evaluate two different types of therapist-led counseling interventions (one focused on acceptance & empathy in a relationship, and the other on a specific communication style for discussing issues). Along with comparison to a control group, they wanted a fourth option that allowed couple interaction, but didn’t involve any counseling intervention. Thus, the movie group was born, where couples were assigned to not only watch movies, but to also have a guided discussion about the movies afterward.

The research revealed that couples who viewed these “chick flicks,” and discussed the issues raised in the movie, were less likely to separate or divorce than couples in the control group. The unexpected discovery, however, was that watching and discussing these movies was as effective as the two therapist-led counseling interventions!

Researchers stated that although this is a preliminary study, it could prove to have some important implications for couples counseling techniques. “Movie interventions” could be a good alternative for couples resistant to counseling, or who live in remote areas where therapists are not readily available. In addition, it may prove helpful for couples who are already in counseling. They may find it valuable to watch and discuss certain movies together.

So, is watching “chick flick” movies as therapeutic as couples counseling? Highly unlikely! But, if a couple is relatively stable, these movie intervention could serve as the ice breaker to bring difficult topics out in the open in a non-threatening way. However, it’s important to remember that many relationship issues are just too overwhelming for the average couple to handle alone. While it may enhance the relationship for some couples who aren’t in significant distress, it won’t be the answer for those relationships that are struggling with more serious problems such as infidelity, sex-life problems, financial disagreements, or communication issues. Simply watching and discussing a movie would likely not improve relationships experiencing these serious and unresolved difficulties.

On the positive side, watching relationship-oriented movies together could beneficially serve as a conversation starter on issues couples wouldn’t normally talk about. If both partners actively participated in the guided discussions after, and assessed their own situation relative to problems brought up in the movie, this could potentially strengthen their relationship, but is not a substitute for couples counseling.

As a couples counselor, I can see the benefit of asking couples to watch select movies together as a homework assignment. Sitting together to view “Date Night,” or any movie on the long list provided by the researchers, might be helpful in certain cases, if a couple’s issues were matched with those addressed by a particular movie.

In the end, of course, the success of movie intervention will depend on the couple’s participation. While it would certainly be appealing to be able to say to a couple “go watch and discuss this movie and your issue will resolved,” there is no magic bullet or easy fix. The effort you put into improving your relationship is what matters most, regardless of how you go about it.

As stated by Dr. Ronald Rogge, lead researcher in the study: “… it’s the depth of the discussions that follow each movie, and how much effort and time and introspection couples put into those discussions that will predict how well they do going forward.”

Perhaps the determining factor boils down to this: Would guys rather sit through chick flicks or come to couples counseling? Which would be less painful? While those questions may sound humorous or flippant, they are worth considering. And while it’s interesting to wonder whether some men would rather sit through a “chick-flick” or go to couples counseling, one is not a substitute for the other! Motivation and commitment to do the work, by both partners, are the true ingredients to any successful couples therapy.

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