A new book reveals the science behind the strategy.

By Marisa Cohen
Updated October 11, 2017
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Couple hugging
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Before we get to the juicy part, let’s just lay it out there that if your marriage is really in trouble, no simple hack is going to fix it—that requires time, hard work, and perhaps even professional help. But if you’re simply past the giddy days of early romance and into the long stretch where you still love each other, but the realities of everyday life occasionally find you butting heads, then this “lovehack” described in the new book The All-or-Nothing Marriage, by Northwestern University professor Eli J. Finkel, can ease tensions and remind you of why you married each other in the first place.

The best part is that it takes nothing more than your imagination. Well, that and a willingness to relinquish any anger for just a moment.

Here’s how it works: The next time you and your partner are arguing about why the car payment was late or whose responsibility it is to leave work early to deal with dishwasher repair, take a breather and imagine how a neutral third party would view your argument. “It could be a pastor, it could be God, it could be your friend or your husband’s friend—anybody who you know wants the best for both of you and has the interest of the relationship at heart,” Finkel explains.

By forcing yourself to replay the argument from someone else’s point of view, you “get out of this tunnel vision about the righteousness of your perspective,” says Finkel. ”It helps you observe that your partner also has some reasonable points, and that while this conflict is frustrating right now, there’s a whole lot more to the marriage than whatever you’re fighting about at the moment.”

If you’re having doubts that an "imaginary friend" can truly ease the tension, science shows that this strategy works. Finkel and his colleagues at Northwestern studied 120 married couples over two years. Every four months, the couples would separately report about their biggest recent fight. A year into the experiment, half the couples added the “neutral third-party” strategy into their arguments and their written reports. While all the couples experienced a natural decline in marital quality over the first year, the couples who added the lovehack actually stopped the decline in the second year, stabilizing their levels of marital happiness.

Of course, if you can agree in advance that both of you will take a time out from any conflicts to try this hack, then it may have an even greater chance of succeeding, but even if you try it on your own, there is a benefit, says Finkel. “Even one partner doing it can help tamp down on the conflict.”

But Finkel stresses that there is a big difference between using this method to ease tensions in a happy marriage and letting your partner get away with bad behavior in an unhappy marriage: “You don’t want to be a doormat, but if you feel that your partner is generally a decent person who has your best interests at heart—even though he’s far from perfect—there’s a lot to be said for working to give each other the benefit of the doubt.”