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Language of Love: From diaries to online chats, writing about your romantic relationship may help it last, researchers find

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“Relationship Rescue.” “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.” “He’s Just Not That Into You.”

James Pennebaker
Psychology Professor James W. Pennebaker

Millions of lovelorn people turn to self-help books, searching for the magic words that might save a relationship. But their own writing may provide the key to everlasting love, according to researchers at The University of Texas at Austin.

In a study titled “How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Words,” Psychology Professor James W. Pennebaker and graduate student Richard B. Slatcher found writing about one’s romantic relationship may help it last longer. Pennebaker is the chairman of the Department of Psychology and the Bush Regents Professor in Liberal Arts.

Pennebaker and Slatcher analyzed writing samples from 86 couples. One person from each couple wrote for 20 minutes a day for three consecutive days. Volunteers in one group wrote about their daily activities while those in the second group wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings about the relationship. The participants’ dating partners did not complete any writing task.

The researchers found that 77 percent of volunteers who wrote about their relationship were still dating their partner three months later. In contrast, only 52 percent of people who wrote just about everyday activities stayed with their partner.

The study also revealed those who wrote about their relationship used more words expressing positive emotions such as “happy” and “love” in Instant Message (IM) exchanges with their dating partner during the days following the writing.

“These results demonstrate that people who express more emotion, both in their writing and to their partner, may have the power to improve their relationship’s longevity,” says Pennebaker, the author of “Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions” and “Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval.”

Richard Slatcher
Graduate student Richard B. Slatcher

A pioneer in the study of the effects of expressive writing, Pennebaker has researched how it benefits cancer patients and people who have lost their jobs or are recovering from emotional trauma. In each instance, people saw positive results from the writing, whether it was improved physical health or finding a new job more quickly than people who wrote about everyday activities.

Another Pennebaker study found college freshmen who wrote about the anxiety of the transition from high school earned higher grades the following semester.

So why is expressive writing so powerful? Slatcher likens it to the calming effect of writing a to-do list.

“When people feel overwhelmed by their workload, they write a simple list and almost instantly feel less stressed,” he says. “Once they start crossing things off the list, they feel even better.

“Writing down your thoughts helps put worries into concrete ideas and move past an event, rather than simply ruminating and letting negative feelings simmer,” Slatcher says. “It creates a cohesive story for your life narrative.”

Expressive writing is so effective even participants’ dating partners changed how they communicated, despite not participating in the writing process. The researchers collected IM exchanges from couples before and after the writing exercise, and found people who completed the writing exercise used more emotional language and their partners in turn became more emotionally expressive. It’s something researchers call linguistic synchrony—when one person mirrors the language of another.

Monitoring IM conversations provided insight into the progression of the relationships after the writing and allowed the researchers to examine the ebb and flow of the couples’ daily conversations in their natural settings.

IM chat
Exchanges from a real IM chat in the study “How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Words.” The participants’ names have been changed.

This chat appears ordinary, but University of Texas at Austin researchers say the unassuming words reveal important information about the state of the couple’s relationship.

“Most studies take place in a laboratory and rely on participants’ self-reporting for information, so using IM chats gave us a unique opportunity to track real-world interactions, creating a more accurate picture of the relationships,” Pennebaker says.

High-tech Romance

Using IM programs to monitor conversations is part of a research trend referred to as “experience sampling,” which relies on unobtrusive technology to study people in their everyday environments.

For instance, a study participant might carry a palm pilot, from which he or she can receive and answer questions, allowing researchers to gather real-time responses more frequently during a given day. The volunteer might then give a saliva sample by chewing on a cotton ball (then storing it in a test tube) that researchers can later analyze for the hormone cortisol, which is an indicator of stress.

Perhaps the most innovative research technology in experience sampling is the electronically activated recorder, or EAR, developed at the university in the late-1990s. About the size of an iPod, the EAR turns on for 30 seconds every 12 minutes to record conversations, allowing researchers to be a fly on the wall for playful banter after class or a fiery 3 a.m. fight.

“We want to capture what people think, what they say and how their body responds to various social interactions,” Slatcher says. “By utilizing new technology, we gain far greater understanding of the inner workings of relationships.”

Slatcher is using the EAR in a new study to monitor how emotionally expressive couples are around their friends compared to when they are alone together.

The Story of Love

Ready to write your own love story? Follow these tips from Pennebaker, keeping in mind there are many ways to write that may be beneficial. Think of these as guidelines, and experiment to discover what works best for you.

Getting Ready to Write

  • Commit to writing for a minimum of 15 minutes a day for at least three or four consecutive days.
  • Write continuously. Don’t worry about spelling or grammar, and if you run out of things to write about, just repeat what you have already written.
  • You may write longhand, type on a computer, or if you are unable to write, speak into a tape recorder.
  • You do not have to write about the same topic every day.

Writing down your thoughts helps put worries into concrete ideas and move past an event, rather than simply ruminating and letting negative feelings simmer. It creates a cohesive story for your life narrative. Graduate student Richard B. SlatcherWhat to Write About

  • Worries, thoughts or anything that is affecting your life in an unhealthy way
  • Your dreams
  • Something you have avoided for days, weeks or years

Pennebaker recommends writing about your deepest thoughts and feelings about the relationship. Write about major conflicts or problems with your significant other, or particularly positive events with this person that you have experienced or are experiencing now. You even can tie your relationship to other parts of your life. Ideally, you should write about significant aspects of your relationship you have not discussed in great detail with others.

Many people report that after writing, they sometimes feel somewhat sad or depressed, Pennebaker says. Like seeing a sad movie, this typically goes away in a couple of hours. If you find you are getting extremely upset, simply stop writing or change topics.

If you are more concerned with a troublesome coworker or family member than your significant other, expressive writing can still be helpful. Pennebaker and Slatcher believe the connection between writing and improving one’s relationship extends beyond the realm of dating couples.

“That people may enhance their romantic relationships by simply writing down their thoughts and feelings about those relationships has clear implications,” Pennebaker says. “The use of expressive writing as a tool for relationship enhancement could be applied to families, circles of friends and even work groups.”

BY Tracy Mueller

PHOTOS of Dr. Pennebaker and Richard Slatcher: Marsha Miller

PHOTO of candy hearts: Christina Murrey

BANNER graphic design: Leslie Ernst

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  Updated 19 February 2007
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