Will a married couple be able to mend their relationship if they put real effort into it? Yes, of course they will.

However, surely there’ll be serious obstacles along the way. And the most difficult is, perhaps, the so-called ’what-the-hell effect.’

What-the-hell effect

This effect was discovered by Janet Polivy, C. Peter Herman, and Rajbir Deo in 2010. The researchers were studying the behavior of people on a diet and conducted an interesting experiment: the participants were offered a slice of pizza and then were given cookies to taste.

And the catch was this: the pizza slices were of the same size, but the researchers convinced some participants that they’d eaten bigger slices than the others.

As a result, those who believed they’d eaten more ate — wait for it! — more cookies than those who thought they’d eaten smaller slices.

The what-the-hell effect is just about that — when you break a promise to yourself, you usually get desperate and think, ’I’ve never managed to do anything, so why the hell should I try anymore?!’

This effect, as you may understand, not only works when a diet is concerned, but when we speak of any behavior requiring force of will.

For example, you’ve made yourself a promise not to surf the Internet anymore (not to play computer games, shout at your kid, leave dirty dishes in the sink, fight with your husband/wife, etc.). And then you break this promise.
That’s when the what-the-hell effect strikes. You start blaming yourself, calling yourself names, and so on, and all the while despair is close by. You failed, you are good for nothing.

The solution to all this seems very clear: To hell with it! I’ve failed, so I won’t try anymore.

’I’ve failed again, what the hell!’

The same goes for spouses. They understand that their love is not all it takes to be happy, and they fight a lot, which upsets them both, but they can do nothing about it. So they decide to behave from now on and keep calm whatever the urge to scream.

They’ve kept it up for a couple of weeks, and then out of nowhere they are fighting all over again. Shouting, breaking dishes, quipping where it hurts…

And the only result to which the spouses come to is this: ’We’ve failed again, so why the hell should we try?’
Either or both of them thinks they’ve failed, and it’s all in vain. ’We’re too different and don’t suit each other.’ ’We’re not meant for each other.’

And then they divorce.

Although they could have been happy together.

It’s no big deal

The what-the-hell effect is not omnipotent in the least, and it’s actually quite easy to overcome it.
The only thing you need for it is the proper attitude.
When people feel it, they are surprisingly certain it’s enough to make a decision once, and there’ll be no need to do anything else.
Decide not to eat sweets — and that’s it, you’re done. Decide not to peek into your wife’s phone — and there you are.
It’s not like that at all, however.

There is a whole lot of effort in between the decision and the result. You can’t change your behavior in an instant. You’ll have to make it work.

Here’s an example for you:

  • Imagine a young man who’s decided that he’ll do fifty chin-ups in one set. He goes to the bar and manages only eight chin-ups. Should he be disappointed? No. He should go on training.
  • Let’s take our thought further. Our young man has been training for three days, and now he can manage ten chin-ups. Definite progress! Just like in the case of the spouses who managed not to fight for two weeks.
  • On the fourth day, the man goes to the bar confident that he’ll do eleven this time. But…what a shame! He only does six. A failure! Why the hell should he keep trying if he’s failed?
  • If he’s clever, though, he won’t be upset now, because what happened is a simple throwback — a normal thing in any developmental process. For instance, many little kids that have just learned how to walk drop to all fours again at some point and crawl like that for a few days, and then they stand up again.

    If our young man had known that throwbacks are essential to learning, he wouldn’t have been upset, but would’ve stayed calm, or even happy.

    The what-the-hell effect can be overcome by a calm attitude

    This is what the spouses could’ve told each other and themselves after the fight we described above:
  • ’Yes, we’ve fought after two weeks of peace. Yes, we’ve only managed two weeks. But that’s okay — it’s not easy to change your attitude. We’ll keep it up!’
  • Next time, the spouses will be able to keep going for three weeks before fighting again. And after that, they’ll say once more, ’We’ll keep it up!’
  • The next period of calm will only remain for one week (yes, just a week). But the spouses will say, ’We’ll keep it up!’ And they will.
  • And the next fightless period will last for a whole month.
  • The important thing to understand is that change takes time, and that throwbacks are inevitable and normal. As simple as that. You shouldn’t be scared of the what-the-hell effect. Just keep up the good work, and the results won’t keep you waiting.
    Author: Paul Zygmantovich
    Preview photo credit: Village Roadshow Pictures