(The Democrat & Chronicle ) -- Nearly half of couples divorce in the first four or five years.
That's a startling statistic, and one that therapists, ministers and psychologists have been trying to improve.
Could the answer be as easy as popping some popcorn and watching movies?
Ronald Rogge, associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Rochester, has been testing that theory, asking couples to watch five movies that explore relationships in one month's time and then discuss them.
"The hope is to improve the odds against divorce," Rogge says. "We're looking for the best way to strengthen marriages while they are still happy. Most people enjoy watching movies, and this is a model where, we, as therapists and researchers, don't need to formally instruct participants. They can do it on their own."
The latest study grew out of one Rogge did with Tom Bradbury, professor of psychology and co-director of the Relationship Institute at University of California — Los Angeles. The two gathered data from 1998 to 2004, the results of which were published in December.
The study found that couples who'd watched movies together, and talked about what they saw, were 50 percent less likely to divorce.
Now, Rogge is widening the field. Couples are being asked to pick from a list of about 50 pre-selected films or choose their own, then have a discussion, guided by questions provided to them. Those questions, for example, discuss conflict resolution and methods of providing support to their partner during stressful times.
A week after the study was announced online, hundreds of couples had signed up. According to Rogge, enrollment will remain open for the next six months, and participants come from all over the United States and Canada.
One of the couples is Jenalee and Adam Herb of East Rochester. They grew up two doors down from each other but never met until they began serving tables during college for extra money.
They married seven years ago, and each has a busy career. With two young children, it's hard to schedule needed time alone.
"We chose Fools Rush In, with Salma Hayek and Matthew Perry, for our first film, about a corporate guy, an architect who has a one-night stand. These two eventually marry, and there's a lot of conflict. While we couldn't relate to the events, we discussed ways to handle conflict and how important it is to have faith in the situation, and your partner," Jenalee says.
Sweet Home Alabama, Meet the Fockers and Couples Retreat top the list of other movies they plan to watch.
"There's nothing to lose except the cost of a movie rental," she says. "We have a great relationship, but it can't hurt to talk. I see this process as opening doors and, yes, there's the possibility for an 'aha' moment."
As Adam says, "I've learned it's best to address something right away and to keep the lines of communication open, so when there is a problem, we can talk about it."
Another of the couples in the study, Kellie and Matt Butler, have been married 16 years. They work as clinical therapists at the same community health center in Ashtabula, Ohio.
"We have an ongoing interest in therapeutic work — including our own," Kellie says.
"We know our communication patterns. We thought that by considering our patterns in a different setting, we might break through," Matt says. "I conduct couples counseling in my practice and am always looking for new interventions so we decided to test this one out. Simple things can have a big impact on communication patterns."
The Butlers have watched Love and Other Drugs with Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal and She's Having a Babystarring Kevin Bacon, Elizabeth McGovern and Alec Baldwin.
"In each movie, hardships are shown — and let's face it, marriage has its ups and downs," says Kellie, "and who can't benefit from quality time, and a conversation with your partner?"
Unlike long-term partners the Butlers, Megan Clifton and Ryan Skinner, who are seniors at University of Tennessee, have been dating a year and a half and now live together. They met while both taking a Japanese class, although they didn't start dating until later — after running into each other at a bar.
Clifton found a link to the study posted on a friend's Facebook page. A headline that read "Cutting the Divorce Rate" caught Clifton's attention. She was looking for things they could do as a couple, and they both love movies.
The two have watched Date Night with Tina Fey and Steve Carell and Julie and Julia, starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Stanley Tucci.
After watching Date Night, Clifton discovered that when she refers to Ryan as "a saint," it bothers him. "Being held to too high a standard isn't comfortable for anyone, I guess," she says.
Ryan says he was at first a bit skeptical about the study, but "it's an interesting way to go about examining a relationship. It's helped. We have a strong relationship, but this has brought us closer together."