Every morning at 9am, the same push notification appears on Steven Dziedzic’s phone. “Have you expressed appreciation to your partner today?” Nine o’clock is prime time for relationship gratitude, Dziedzic decided when he set the reminder on Lasting, the relationship app he launched with wedding-planning behemoth The Knot.
He’s heading off to work; his wife, Becca, is starting her day at home with their 9-month-old after recently leaving her management role at Ann Taylor. “I never want Becca to forget that I know it’s really hard work, and I am so ridiculously appreciative,” he said. Dziedzic believes it’s possible to programme your way to a better relationship. A growing number of Americans seem to agree. Lasting has attracted 750,000 users since it launched in spring 2017. Dziedzic began the project by asking, “Is it possible to programmatically get at couples’ therapy?” Two years later, however, it seems like the answer is probably no.
Lasting, as Dziedzic describes it, is somewhat akin to working with a personal trainer. The experience begins with an assessment of each individual’s strengths and weaknesses. Then, based on areas where the couple is “weak,” it lines up a particular series of sessions. Users listen to three- to eight-minute tutorials, narrated by a soothing female voice with excellent enunciation. “Essential” sessions might include “communication”. “conflict” or “repair”. “Happiness” is extra credit.
If this works, the results could be hugely influential, says Holly Parker, a lecturer at Harvard University specialising in the psychology of close relationships. Couples therapy costs an average of $150 per session, and couples – highly aware of the stigma that comes with talking to a therapist – often put off counselling until their relationship is too broken to fix. Lasting, on the other hand, can be accessed in full for $11.99 per month. (A limited version is available for free.) Alli Hoff Kosik, a Brooklyn-based writer who uses the app with her husband, appreciates that “you can do it on your couch”.
After years designing software for the Knot, Dziedzic wanted to help couples do more than find the perfect wedding florist. With backing from his longtime employer, he set out to “solve the seemingly impossible problem of helping the masses improve their marriages”. Dziedzic and his team played around with a lot of different ideas. In one model, couples would be paired with relationship “mentors”, married for decades. In another, they’d wear a “marriage Fitbit”. programmed to track the couple’s every fight, date night and sexual interaction, then aggregate the data onto a satisfaction-gauging dashboard. Lasting’s current iteration is grounded in the idea that are relationship “best practices,” based on 126 peer-reviewed studies. To improve your marriage, you just have to learn them, Dziedzic says.
The software gives explicit instructions, for example, on how couples can forge a strong emotional connection. Every time one partner asks the other to do something, or look at something, or validate a feeling, the app says, they are making an “emotional call”. The more emotional calls each partner answers positively, the better the relationship. After the session, it’s time to apply their new knowledge, via multiple choice and short answer questions. “Ready to go?” the app asks. “These 3 exercises will give you marriage superpowers.”
Psychologists have been coming up with curriculum to make people better at relationships for decades, says Ben Karney, a professor at UCLA who specialises in intimate relationships. John Gottman and his wife, Julie, are perhaps the most well-known proponents of the good-relationships-are-teachable philosophy, writing books and leading workshops about their own relationship strategies. They urge clients to prioritise internalising information over developing an attachment to a particular couples therapist. Dziedzic cites Gottman as his “single largest driver of hope” that his app idea could work.
Once people stop going to therapy, Karney says, they revert to their old habits. If a person changes their behaviour just because they know they’re “supposed to” – by, say, expressing appreciation every day at 9am – their partner might not find the behaviour change to be particularly meaningful.
“If I know you have been given a list of things to say, and I hear you say them, it doesn’t land quite as deeply on my heart,” says Karney. It’s easy to learn to say “Hey babe, you hurt my feelings” instead of “You’re a jerk and I’m super mad at you,” Karney tells me. But that simple change, exactly the kind of language switch endorsed by Lasting, might not do much to change the deeper relationship dynamic.
Lasting has the relationship-app market pretty much cornered. Its biggest competition, Dziedzic says, are “bricks-and-mortar therapists”. Both Parker and Karney agree that, while a therapist will also often share specific behavioural suggestions with couples, as Lasting does, in-person counselling tends to be more effective than any app, book, or web resource. (Therapists are also bound by confidentiality, whereas Lasting reserves the right to “share your Personal Information with third parties for their marketing purposes”.)
“If you’re just giving people information, you’re assuming that they are going to be able to see the deeper dynamics playing out in their relationships and override their very powerful emotional responses,” Parker tells me.
A good therapist can observe how the two partners relate to each other, then facilitate conversations and make suggestions specific to their patterns of behaviour.
“With the app, you miss the tone,” Hoff Kosik says. “If you’re a couple that has issues with resentment or contempt, a therapist is going to pick up on a lot of that.” Hoff Kosik went to a few premarital counselling sessions with her husband, and found the experience extremely helpful. She stopped using Lasting after two weeks.
Still, according to Lasting’s surveys, 94 per cent of couples who have used the app report being more satisfied with their relationships than they were when they began. (There is no peer-reviewed research on the effects of Lasting.) Needhee Rathore, a Boston-based personal trainer, has been using the app for the last 10 months, and loves it.
“Every time I open the app, I am reinforcing to myself that my marriage is important to me. And I am actively taking steps to make it better,” says Rathore. This is exactly how Karney explains Lasting’s self-reported success: couples are happier when they feel like their partner is investing in the relationship, he says.
To find out what type of “skills training” actually improves relationships, Thomas Bradbury, a professor of psychology at UCLA, tried out a few different “interventions” on couples over the course of three years. One group was taught nothing; another was taught how to better resolve conflict; and another was taught how to better support their partners through challenges. The final group was told to watch a different romantic movie every week and talk about it afterward, a group designed to allow the researchers to compare the former two groups to an intervention that asked participants to do something, but nothing that would provide them with any new skills.
“Well, guess what?” Karney says. “All three interventions worked the same.” As long as couples felt like they were taking some kind of tangible action to improve their relationship, their relationship got a little better.
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