Marriage researcher James V. Córdova, PhD, has become haunted by a disheartening statistic: Fifty percent of couples who finish marital therapy get better (and stay better), but the other half either do not improve or relapse. "It's better than nothing, but not as good as we could be doing," says Córdova, an associate professor of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. The problem, he recognized, is that couples usually see a counselor when the relationship is already breaking down.
"We take care of our physical health by going in for checkups," he says. "The point is not to wait until you get sick but to keep you well." His team created the Marriage Checkup, a program he has tested twice before that's now part of a third major study being conducted over the next four years. The program starts with an hour-long series of questionnaires that rate satisfaction levels on fraught topics like sex and parenting.
"We give the couples feedback, the way a doctor would from a blood test or an X-ray," Córdova says. His early studies have shown that the majority of couples have reported a significant uptick in relationship satisfaction as well as higher intimacy levels. He hopes to devise a program that can be replicated across the country, using local therapists to give the tests and feedback. In the meantime, he recommends that couples ask themselves three questions every year: Does my partner feel safe being emotionally vulnerable with me? Does my partner feel accepted? When I feel that life is yanking the rug out from under me, can I go to my partner for nonjudgmental support? Answering no to even one can signal a fraying relationship. Córdova also tells couples to avoid one very toxic behavior: withdrawal. "It's the equivalent of bingeing on Twinkies," he says. "Talk—even confused, lost, sometimes frustrating talk—is always better."
You Can Change Your Spouse
For more than 15 years, Richard A. Mackey, professor emeritus at Boston College's graduate school of social work, studied heterosexual couples who have been married more than 20 years but have never seen a couples therapist. He found that the long-marrieds instinctively learned not to insist their partner make big behavioral changes. They asked for tiny modifications. (For instance, instead of saying, "Can't you stop being such a slob?" or "Will you ever learn to pick up after yourself?" they ask, "Can you put your clothes in the hamper?")
But what surprised him—and gives hope to anyone stuck in a small house with an unrepentant slob, control freak, pack rat, Star Wars figurine collector—is that over two decades of asking each other for small alterations, many spouses had nudged their partners into making significant changes without alienating them. This technique was particularly effective, Mackey says, when used on men.
This article—and over 100 more empowering pieces—appears in O's Big Book of Happiness.
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