Marriage stethoscope

Couples in health study find process helps relationships
By Pamela  H. Sacks

When Lisa Carpenter learned about an opportunity to check on the health of her marriage, she was intrigued. But she wasn’t sure how her husband, George, would react.

“I just caught him at a time he would be receptive, and I ran with it before he changed his mind,” she said.

Mr. Carpenter recalled that he had no problem with the idea of participating in James Cordova’s research on marriage at Clark University in Worcester. “I didn’t really have concerns about doing it,” he said. “There’s not really anything wrong with our marriage, anyway. It’s a research study. Why not? I can reinforce to Lisa, `Hey, we’re doing pretty well.’”

That was last March. Since then, the Carpenters, who live in Leicester, have been through the first round of a two-year process as Mr. Cordova, an associate professor of psychology and marriage researcher, studies what he calls the Marriage Checkup.

The Carpenters, who have been married 16 years, acknowledged that they’ve learned something key about the way they interact at times – receiving an eye-opener that already has taken the pressure off one area of their relationship. What they thought was a communication issue turned out to be a difference in style. She felt he monitored her use of time and questioned her judgment. He felt she wasted time.

“I’m spontaneous,” Mrs. Carpenter, 39, said, breaking into a wide smile. “When I go to the store for bread, I may end up in a clothing store. He’s more on task.”

“I’m really anal about time management,” her 41-year-old husband said. “After talking about it, I know that. I need to step back and let her manage her own time.”

Earlier this year, Mr. Cordova was the recipient of a five-year study grant for $1 million from the National Institutes of Health. The Marriage Checkup is based on his theory that, given the stresses and strains of an intimate relationship, marriage perhaps ought to be viewed in the same way as physical or dental health. The Marriage Checkup is intended to assist couples in building on strengths and correcting weaknesses. In Mr. Cordova’s view, couples often can resolve problems themselves once trouble areas are identified.

“It’s appealing to couples that feel like, for the most part, they are doing well but may have one or two things that are a little bothersome to them that have been there for a while and want to get a third person’s perspective on that.”

In the first round – which involved completing two sets of detailed questionnaires and participating in two interviews – the Carpenters, who have two teenage children, came away reassured about the many positive aspects of their relationship.

“The biggest benefit of it is you realize you are always so busy checking on food, shelter and the kids,” Mrs. Carpenter said. “It’s OK not to always focus on those things and have fun with each other. It gave us permission to do that.”

Andrew J. Blanchard, for his part, was hesitant when his wife, Debbie, suggested they join Mr. Cordova’s research.

“I didn’t think there were any problems with the relationship,” said Mr. Blanchard, 47. “But she’s very smart, and I always take what she says and weigh it.”

Mrs. Blanchard, 46, was frustrated by her husband’s tendency to clam up when troubled. “I would know there was something bothering him, but Andy would not talk,” she said. That happened when he was unhappy at a previous job. “He’s a quiet person by nature, and I’m not. I would be left in the dark.”

Those who take the Marriage Checkup meet with a doctoral student who has reviewed the completed questionnaires. The husband and wife talk about why they married each other, their strengths and what causes them stress.

They are then left alone for 10 minutes to work on solving a problem. As they proceed, they are videotaped for the study. The tapes are kept confidential.

The Blanchards, who have been married 13 years and live in Gardner, said the process was cathartic.

“I learned something about myself,” Mr. Blanchard said. “Every time we left one of the interviews, we would talk, and there was no anxiety. I always felt better about communicating.”

The long-term effects of the Marriage Checkup are not yet known, but the initial data are promising, according to Gregory Stuart, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychiatry at the Alpert Medical School at Brown University. He noted that the journal Behavior Therapy published an article in 2005 by Mr. Cordova on a trial in which a control group was used to gauge the effectiveness of the system.

“He found that, relative to the control group, couples reported improved scores on greater intimacy, marital satisfaction and acceptance of their partner,” Mr. Stuart said, adding that the research is in the early stages. “I could envision this as giving couples a nice little gentle encouragement to start addressing things in their relationships before they become major problems.”

Leah and Bob Devine, both 67, have made it through certain challenges – in-laws, for instance – during their 44 years of marriage. The other day, they sat side by side on their blue-checked living room couch, joking and laughing as they reminisced. They were surrounded by pictures of their four children and their grandchildren. For 31 years, Mr. Devine was the librarian at Auburn High School. Every day, his wife tucked a love note into his lunchbox.

It was Mr. Devine who suggested they participate in the Marriage Checkup. “I’m more private,” Mrs. Devine said. “I didn’t really want to,” although they had conducted counseling for engaged couples connected with their church and were curious about Mr. Cordova’s approach.

The Devines acknowledged, as well, that they face new challenges. She has diabetes, and he has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. “We’re at the stage of downsizing,” Mrs. Devine explained.

“We were looking at retirement communities. We are in great thought right now about these issues.”

Suggestions that came out of the Marriage Checkup included reading about successful aging and updating their wills. Meanwhile, the Devines have decided they would prefer to make some alterations and remain in their home in Millbury. “We’re very functional people,” Mrs. Devine said.

Even with a long and loving relationship, the Devines found the Marriage Checkup very worthwhile.

“It makes you reflect where you’ve been, and where you’re going, and what you’ve achieved together,” Mr. Devine said with an affectionate glance at his wife.”