Marital checkup

Grant lets Clark professor help couples keep marriages healthy
By Pamela H. Sacks

James Cordova wants to see married couples take the pulse of their partnerships.

Cordova, a psychology professor and marriage researcher at Clark University, points to studies showing that marital woes lead to a greater risk of major depression, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and lowered immune systems.

And the statistics on marriage and divorce indicate that there are plenty of people at risk: 90 percent of American adults get married and 50 percent get divorced; 80 percent of people who divorce once remarry and 60 percent of them divorce a second time.

The situation got Cordova thinking that marriage should perhaps be viewed as a component of health.

“There’s all this room between marriage-preparation assistance and couples therapy after real trouble develops,” he said in a recent interview. “But there’s not much couples can do in between those two things.”

Cordova’s research in this area has led him to develop the Marriage Checkup to assist couples in assessing weaknesses and taking corrective steps. He believes that couples can often resolve problems themselves once trouble areas are identified.

“I think sometimes when we think about a relationship, we think, `It’s nice if you can get it,’” he said. “It is something you tend to put on the back burner when life is busy with jobs and children. The shift that needs to take place is to think of our marriages as something we need to maintain and be concerned about how healthy they are in the same way we maintain our physical health.”

Cordova first got interested in the topic when he volunteered for a crisis hot line as an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico. His job was to keep statistics on why people called.

“I found month after month the most frequent cause for calling had to do with intimate relationships, people struggling, whether in marriage or dating,” he said. “It just seemed to be such a common source of suffering for people, it really caught my attention. I thought, `If you are going to do something in psychology, this is where the real meat is.’”

Cordova initially tested his idea in two pilot programs at the University of Illinois. Now, with the positive results from that research, he has secured a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to conduct a large-scale study and nail down the effectiveness of the Marriage Checkup.

He stressed that what it offers is not therapy. Rather, it is a far faster process that allows couples to benefit from decades of research on marital health. “You can use it in the way you see fit,” he said.

The Marriage Checkup involves detailed questionnaires, interviews and feedback. The spouses identify one major complaint and three main strengths of the relationship. They are asked to evaluate their satisfaction in terms of co-parenting, sex, emotional intimacy, problem solving, quality of time together and communication.

“We also ask, `Is there anything else that might concern you?’ We take that into account as well,” Cordova said.

Cordova recalled a couple who would walk away from one another rather than resolve an issue. Research shows that withdrawal is highly corrosive to a marriage. Even active conflict is preferable.

“Eventually they would drift back together with that issue unresolved,” Cordova said. “They were feeling more and more separated and lonely and hadn’t really noticed they had fallen into this way of solving problems.”

That pattern is common, Cordova said. In the short run, it may seem better to avoid arguments. Over the long run, the intimacy drains out of the relationship, and it becomes hard to solve even simple problems.

After trouble areas are identified, Cordova and his team provide options for getting back on track.

If the current study confirms earlier data, Cordova hopes to see the Marriage Checkup administered across the country.

“With the package of questionnaires and a little training, anybody in a helping profession could do this,” he said.