Why a Relationship Review Can Help Keep You Together

New research finds that checkups actually make couples stronger.

Posted Oct 07, 2015

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Source: g-stockstudio/Shutterstock

What can couples do to improve the quality of their marriage? This question is worth asking for so many reasons. About 40% of Americans have been divorced at least once by their 50s (Kreider, 2005), and couples that stay married aren’t necessarily happily married. Marital strain is a chronic stressor that accelerates declines in physical health over time (Umberson et al., 2006). If you can turn the tide, longitudinal work suggests that a high-quality marriage has a profound positive effect on personal well-being (Proulx, Helms, & Buehler, 2007).

What can you do to make sure you and your partner are on the right track? Maybe it's time to conduct a performance review.

As reported recently in the Wall Street Journal, scientific evidence is  accumulating to suggest that periodic partnership reviews can be highly beneficial to a marriage. Researchers at Clark University are demonstrating that couples can improve their marital quality by carefully evaluating their marriage in a structured way, not unlike a traditional workplace performance review. These checkups, which once could also compare to an annual physical, are a chance for a couple to take stock of their relationship, set goals, and make any necessary adjustments.

What’s so special about checkups? Research shows they work.

Cordova and colleagues (2014) tested the efficacy of periodic marriage check-ups. They invited about 200 married couples to participate in their study. These couples had been married, on average, for 15 years, were largely Caucasian, and were somewhat more educated and wealthy than average. Some couples served as experimental controls and did not do checkups while half were randomly assigned to undergo two annual marriage checkups.

Over a two-year period, Cordova and colleagues monitored the couples, asking them to complete questionnaires about their relationship at periodic points in time. At the end of the two years, the researchers analyzed the health trajectories of these couples.

How do checkups help?

Feeling close, connected, and accepted is a wonderful part of a healthy marriage, and it appears that checkups help facilitate these qualities. Cordova and colleagues (2014) found that marriage checkups improved couples’ intimacy, relationship satisfaction, and perceived acceptance. Those couples who completed the checkups differed significantly from those who did not: The checkups made an important difference in their marital quality.

How do they work?

Marriage checkups use a technique known as motivational interviewing to induce change (Cordova et al., 2005). They are typically done in a guided context with the help of a trained professional. If you wish to engage in structured checkups outside a professional context, you could take a look at Cordova’s book as a first step. Doing this work with your partner may benefit your relationship: During a marriage checkup, spouses can exchange information and feedback about their relationship, identify areas of concern, and develop plans to work on those issues. (See more on Cordova’s lab page.)

When should you start?

Don’t wait: Checkups are for both healthy relationships and those with more serious underlying issues. Any relationship can be strengthened. If you’re even mildly concerned about yours, note that scholars believe that early intervention is the key to maintaining happy and healthy partnerships. Highly distressed marriages typically pass through an “at-risk” phase, marked by symptoms of distress that may not have been enough to motivate them to seek help or therapy. It is during this at-risk phase in which an early intervention, such as regular marriage checkups, might make the most difference (Cordova et al., 2005). While couples therapy is well-documented to be highly effective, most couples wait far too long before seeking help. Engaging in periodic checkups might be exactly the kind of conversation that could keep your relationship on track.

References

Cordova, J. V., Fleming, C. J., Morrill, M. I., Hawrilenko, M., Sollenberger, J. W., Harp, A. G., ... & Wachs, K. (2014). The Marriage Checkup: A randomized controlled trial of annual relationship health checkups. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 82(4), 592.

Cordova, J. V., Scott, R. L., Dorian, M., Mirgain, S., Yaeger, D., & Groot, A. (2005). The marriage checkup: An indicated preventive intervention for treatment-avoidant couples at risk for marital deterioration. Behavior Therapy, 36(4), 301-309.

Kreider, R. M. (2005). Number, timing, and duration of marriages and divorces: 2001, current population reports, 70–97. Washington, DC:U.S. Census Bureau

Proulx, C. M., Helms, H. M., & Buehler, C. (2007). Marital quality and personal well‐being: A meta‐analysis. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69(3), 576-593.

Umberson, D., Williams, K., Powers, D. A., Liu, H., & Needham, B. (2006). You make me sick: Marital quality and health over the life course. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 47(1), 1-16.