You want this mental device in your relationship conflict toolbox

Thinking about the future helps couples overcome relationship conflict and view the situation in a more reasoned and positive light, according to new research. Here’s how to use the researchers’ simple mental exercise to create psychological distance from a conflict and dial down the heat of an argument.

The future influences the present just as much as the past. - Friedrich Nietzsche

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A University of Waterloo study found a simple way to help couples navigate relationship conflict and reduce the negative impact on their relationship. Said Alex Huynh, lead author of study,

When romantic partners argue over things like finances, jealousy, or other interpersonal issues, they tend to employ their current feelings as fuel for a heated argument. By envisioning their relationship in the future, people can shift the focus away from their current feelings and mitigate conflicts.

To achieve these results, one group of study participants was asked to describe how they would feel about the conflict a year in the future. The other group was asked to describe how they feel now. Thinking about the future had four positive effects:

  • They expressed less blame.
  • They expressed more forgiveness.
  • They were able to reinterpret the event in a more reasoned and positive light.
  • They reported more positivity about their relationship overall.

Thinking about the future in this way is called prospection. And like other forms of psychological distance, it’s a valuable tool for gaining emotional self-control, improving relationship well-being, and boosting insight.

That’s because psychological distance causes us to think more abstractly and focus on the big picture. Psychological distance also stops us from “self-immersive” behaviors that focus on our hurt and angry feelings — and which tend to amplify that hurt and anger.

To gain your own psychological distance with prospection or help others achieve it, follow these steps:

  1. In your mind’s eye, picture yourself a year from now, looking back on this conflict (or heated argument).
  2. Describe how you will feel about this conflict at that time. Don’t just feel it — describe it to yourself.

For more ways to get away from self-immersive behaviors, try these five uncomplicated ways to gain psychological distance during conflict.