A surprising way to keep your marriage happy: annual performance reviews

Start assessing.
Start assessing.
Image: Reuters: Vasily Fedosenko
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After college, I had a boyfriend who lived in New York City. His parents—one worked in finance, the other in art—saw a marriage counselor every week. I assumed they had serious problems. The boyfriend assured me they did not: it was a way to keep their marriage strong. I chalked it up to them being weird New Yorkers.

It seems they were ahead of their time. Increasingly, marriage counselors are recommending that couples conduct regular performance reviews with each other, according to the Wall Street Journal. Therapists say the reviews are a constructive way to revisit relationship goals, confront obstacles, and prevent small problems from ballooning to insurmountable ones.

“It’s the relationship equivalent of the six-month dental check-up,” James Cordova, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Couples and Family Research at Clark University, told Elizabeth Bernstein.

When I first read the article, I dismissed the idea. My husband doesn’t work for me, and we can’t fire each other. My second instinct was that I was pretty sure I would fail any review put my way.

That suggests it might not be such a bone-headed idea after all. I like the look of the short, practical, list she offers up (pdf). And I like the intentionality.

From the WSJ Performance Review
From the WSJ Performance Review

Like a lot of people, my husband and I are short on time and long on goals. We want kind, curious kids, a supportive partnership, to care for our parents, grow in our jobs and maybe even go running every once in awhile. That’s an ambitious list for a time-starved duo. If we don’t take time to care for each other, perhaps in a well-intentioned bid to care for others, we will inevitably pay a price. Since a relationship doesn’t prioritize itself, I guess we had better.

Bernstein cites a study published in Sept. 2014 in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. In it, Dr. Cordova and his colleagues asked 216 married couples about the biggest strengths and weaknesses in their relationship. Half the couples then saw a therapist for two sessions to discuss their assessments and tackle the issues that arose. The other half did not. Here is what they found:

The researchers, who followed up with the couples after one and two years, found those who had performed the checkup saw significant improvements in their relationship satisfaction, intimacy and feelings of acceptance by their partner, as well as a decrease in depressive symptoms, compared with the couples in the control group who didn’t perform a checkup. In addition, the couples who had the most problems in their marriage before the checkup saw the most improvement.

There are rules to how you do a performance assessment: couples must address behavior, not character (this is not a free-for-all bitch session); explain yourself, empathize, be consistent and identify what you want to change. Designed properly, a review neutralizes the emotions of day-to-day fights (who didn’t take out the trash) in an attempt to frame goals (let’s share the housework), recognize issues (we are not sharing the chores) and implement solutions (let’s get the kids to do it!).

The main problem with marriage counseling is couples wait too long to go. Things are great until they are not. Things are said and damage gets done. John Gottman, the genius marriage guru, says couples need to minimize “regrettable incidents” or the things you say about her mother that can never be taken back.

New couples tend to be overconfident. In one survey of 137 people who had recently applied for  a marriage license in Virginia, most said they were aware that more than half of marriages end in divorce but put the likelihood of them getting divorced at zero. Those couples will look at a performance review and ask why they need to fix a problem that does not exist. Guess what people: more than half of marriages end in divorce.