Couples Can Avoid Relationship Problems With Partnership Review

A Performance Review May Be Good for Your Marriage

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A formal evaluation can help a couple set goals, affirm what works and avoid entrenched conflict . . .

By ELIZABETH BERNSTEIN – Featured in the Wall Street Journal

Getting your annual performance review from your boss can be awkward and irritating. Can you imagine getting one from your spouse?

A growing number of marriage therapists and relationship researchers recommend that spouses and romantic partners complete periodic performance reviews. Couples typically wait too long to go to therapy for help, they say. By taking time to regularly evaluate and review their relationship together, partners can recognize what is and isn’t working—and identify goals for improvement—long before problems become entrenched and irresolvable.

“It’s the relationship equivalent of the six-month dental checkup,” says James Cordova,professor of psychology and director of the Center for Couples and Family Research at Clark University, in Worcester, Mass.

This isn’t an exercise to be taken lightly. Couples have to be careful, and constructive, when sharing their assessments. Fairness is crucial. And for couples in a relationship crisis, a performance review is unlikely to help.

Research shows that regular checkups improve relationships. In a study published in Sept., 2014, in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Dr. Cordova and his colleagues gave 216 married couples questionnaires asking them to assess the biggest strengths and weaknesses in their relationship. Half the couples then saw a therapist for a checkup of two sessions to go over their evaluations and brainstorm a plan to address their concerns. The other half were told they were on a waiting list and didn’t discuss their assessments in a checkup.

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.

Kathlyn and Gay Hendricks, relationship coaches, psychologists and authors of multiple books on marriage, who have been married 34 years and live in Ojai, Calif., schedule informal discussions with each other every Tuesday and Thursday, where they talk about problems or conflicts that have arisen in the past few days. In one recent discussion, Dr. Hendricks told his wife he has been feeling “left out” because she has been traveling so much for work lately, and she assured him that her schedule was going to lighten up soon.

“It gives us a safe, sure place to talk about our emotions,” says his wife, also Dr. Hendricks, who is 67.

The spouses sit down for a more formal marriage review once every few months, but they are careful to focus on the relationship and not cast blame. They ask themselves, “How are we doing working together as a partnership?” and discuss areas where they need to improves. They examine their top three goals—for example, “working together as a team for our children,” “working together toward financial goals” or “being together so we both have a great sexual experience.” And they talk about how they can make their differences work for them. “It’s like taking the pulse of the relationship,” says Dr. Hendricks the husband, 70.

 

Dr. Cordova says while men often resist marriage therapy, they tend to appreciate marriage reviews, because they focus on a couple’s strengths and goals, as well as solving problems without blame.

But how do you review your marriage?

Remember that this is the person you love, and don’t be too critical. “You can’t approach it as you would a subordinate you supervise at work,” says Shannon Battle, a marriage and family therapist in Fayetteville, NC. “You can’t fire your spouse. This is ‘til death do us part.’ ”

Multiple research studies on people’s reactions to performance reviews show that when people feel they have been treated unjustly, they become hostile, But when they feel they have been treated fairly and respectfully, they accept the message of the review.

Rebecca Chory, a professor at Frostburg State University’s business school, in Maryland, who studies reactions to negative feedback, has identified six strategies for giving an effective performance review:

Address the behavior, not the person. Couch your comments with affirmation. “Do not put down your partner,” Dr. Chory says. She recommends saying, “I love you and want to be with you, but there are these behaviors…” or “When you did this, I felt this…”

Explain why you came to your conclusion. What contributed to your assessment? Provide a rationale.

Show that you are aware of the other person’s situation. Is your partner stressed, overworked, sick? Acknowledge the challenges he or she has been facing and how they may have contributed to the behavior you don’t like.

 
Be consistent over time. This doesn’t mean you can nag. But you should never criticize your spouse for something one time and laugh it off another. “A person needs to know what to expect, the rules of the game” says Dr. Chory.

Allow the other person to respond and provide input. The review should be a conversation, not a lecture. And a lot of misunderstandings can be cleared up when people talk openly.

Be clear about what you would like to change. What can be done to improve the situation?

As for the review itself, Dr. Cordova says you should always begin by identifying your strengths as a couple. “It is the positive foundation that keeps a relationship happy and healthy in the long run,” he says.

Then move on to discussing your concerns—but limit yourself to one or two. “You don’t want to kitchen-sink the thing,” Dr. Cordova says. And you don’t need to come up with a solution right away. Aim to understand your partner and to have your partner understand you.

If the review makes your relationship worse, or causes a lot of arguing, you may need relationship counseling. “If you are doing it well, you can tell because you will feel closer to each other and will each feel understood,” Dr. Cordova says.

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