The Annual Marital Performance Review
In the course of mediating thousands of divorces over the past thirty years I have been struck at the obliviousness that often prevails during a marriage's long slide toward divorce. No one goes from a happy contented marriage to verge of divorce without a long process of dissolution. It takes a long time for a marriage to erode to the point that the couple is held together only by inertia and fear of the consequences of separation. Presumably, two people of reasonable intelligence and good faith would have some awareness of what was happening and would act in concert to remedy the problems of the marriage before it reaches the irretrievable tipping point. But in reality this seldom seems to happen. My sense is that most wait until someone is talking divorce before seeking a marriage counselor. Too often they have waited too long and counseling cannot save the marriage. So my conclusion is that we need an annual checkup to alert couples when they are in trouble and need to seek help before fatal damage has occurred.
My suggestion borrows a common practice from the world of work, one with which most employed people are already familiar. That is the annual performance appraisal in which the employee receives feedback from a supervisor about how well s/he is perceived as doing in the organization. A good performance appraisal describes those areas in which the employee is meeting expectations and also describes those areas in which the employee is not meeting the expectations of the boss. A good review provides the opportunity to discuss strengths and weaknesses and plan for improvement where needed. Moreover, such an appraisal sets specific objectives for the employee in the coming year. These reports actually serve several functions. The first is systematic improvement in performance. The second is to provide a paper record that supports disciplinary action or termination of an employee who is regarded as having sub optimal performance. This latter requirement is a necessity of a litigious world in which employers need to "build a record" to avoid charges of discrimination.
The Annual Marital Performance Review would provide spouses with systematic annual feedback about the state of the marriage. For each spouse the review would provide a precise report of his/her spouse's level of satisfaction with the marriage and with the specific behavior of the other spouse. The AMPR would provide a snapshot of the individual and mutual satisfaction with the marriage. If both spouses report high levels of satisfaction each can rest assured that the marriage is doing well, at least for now. It is likely that even when both spouses report high levels of general satisfaction, some specific dissatisfaction may be reported that constitutes a basis for discussing whether some things should be changed. For example a wife might report high general levels of satisfaction but express some discontent in a specific area, for example, the husband's chronic sloppiness in the house. Or a generally satisfied husband may indicate concern about his wife's tendency to use the credit cards somewhat beyond his level of comfort. These are some of the issues we would expect to see in generally content marriages and they provide maps for improvement to make the marriage even stronger.
The real power of the AMPR lies in its ability to surface serious trouble in the relationship, trouble that should not wait for another year before remediation is attempted. For example, if the wife reports that she has essentially given up trying to resolve disagreements with her husband because she feels he just overpowers and belittles her, that report should trigger an emergency trip to the marriage therapist. If the husband reports that after being rebuffed so many times he has given up trying to have sex with his wife that should also trigger a visit to the therapist. Couples who use this device must be cautioned that it is the perception that is more important than the reality. So it is not sufficient for the wife to say that she rebuffs his sexual attempts because he is not sensitive to her needs and if he would only shape up she would put out. They still need that trip to the therapist. Arguing over the accuracy of the perceived deficit is not the point. It is the continuing and unresolved discontent that will eventually sink the marriage. The higher the state of general discontent and the more issues over which the couple do not agree, the more that marriage is in trouble. The premise of the AMPR is that the earlier the problem is surfaced and talked about the greater the chances of the marriage improving and lasting. I think that the review should occur at least a month before the couple's anniversary so there is a good chance that they have resumed talking to each other by the time the anniversary rolls around.
Now we turn to what questions should be on the review. I am not a test and measurement person so I make no pretext about knowing how to construct this instrument. So I shall take an amateur's stab at the thing and encourage readers to comment at length to expand, refine and improve the instrument. If enough readers respond I will post a subsequent blog incorporating the most helpful suggestions. In this review each spouse is asked to grade the other's performance by responding to a five point scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree.. The review consists of a series of questions each one premised by "In the past year how have I performed on the following behaviors?
Strongly agree 1
Not sure 3
Strongly disagree 5
I have given you the physical affection that you need. 1 2 3 4 5
I have been sensitive to your sexual needs. 1 2 3 4 5
I have provided you with the emotional affirmation you need. 1 2 3 4 5
I have been supportive when you were stressed and troubled. 1 2 3 4 5
I have spent as much time with you as you needed. 1 2 3 4 5
I have listened well when you were telling me something
that was important to you. 1 2 3 4 5
When we disagreed on something I was respectful of you and
willingly engaged until we resolved the issue. 1 2 3 4 5
During the year you felt comfortable raising difficult issues
with me and did not feel you had to bury important issues. 1 2 3 4 5
I have been transparent with you about my feelings so you
did not have to guess about them. 1 2 3 4 5
Together we have successfully resolved the important issues
on which we disagreed. 1 2 3 4 5
On most days I have been reasonably cheerful. 1 2 3 4 5
I have been a good provider for the family this year. 1 2 3 4 5
I have responsibly marshaled and preserved the
resources of the family. 1 2 3 4 5
I have consulted with you in good faith regarding major
expenditures of money. 1 2 3 4 5
I have done my fair share of housework this year. 1 2 3 4 5
I have done my fair share of child care and parenting this year. 1 2 3 4 5
You approve of my approach to parenting and discipline. 1 2 3 4 5
I spend enough time with the children. 1 2 3 4 5
I spend too much time with the children and not
enough time with you. 1 2 3 4 5