We’re more health-conscious than ever. Millions seek out a variety of health assessments, from simple blood pressure checks to a thorough analysis of blood chemistry. The result: America’s health is better than ever.
Not so for marriages. While divorce rates have declined somewhat in recent years, couples getting married today still have a 40% or better chance of divorcing. Marriage is more risky than mountain climbing, more risky than sky diving, even more risky than bungee jumping!
“We believe marriage is the most risky undertaking routinely taken on by the greatest number of people in our society,” write Howard Markman, Scott Stanley, and Susan Blumberg in Fighting FOR Your Marriage.
Many exercisers regularly check pulse rate during workouts to make sure it stays in a healthy range. Is there a way to routinely take the “pulse” of your marriage–to check on the health of your relationship and reduce the risk of divorce? Markman and his colleagues say there is. They recommend weekly “couple meetings.”
What’s the Premise of a Couple Meeting?
Few couples regularly talk about relationship concerns, so what begin as small issues tend to become larger problems that threaten to destroy a relationship. Couple meetings can nip problems in the bud.
What’s a Couple Meeting?
A couple meeting is a regular time a couple spends together each week discussing problems, solving problems, and planning ways to nurture their relationship. Here’s how it works:
1. Plan a time. First, plan a specific time each week when you and your partner can talk alone for at least thirty minutes without distractions or interruptions. Turn off the TV, don’t answer the phone, and make sure the kids are occupied. For one couple, the time that works best is 8:30 Sunday evenings, after the children have gone to bed (or at least have gone to their rooms for the night). Another time may be better for you. Carving out a fixed, unchangeable time for the protection of your relationship is a tangible way to give your marriage high priority.
2. Discuss problems first. Use the meeting to take stock of how the relationship is going and to discuss problems. When focusing on a problem, work through “problem discussion” first and “problem solution” second. In problem discussion, each partner gets a chance to be a speaker and a listener. The speakers uses “I-statements” to express concerns (“I was upset when you forgot our date last week”). The listener focuses on the speaker’s message and, after every two or three sentences, paraphrases what he or she heard the speaker say–without rebuttal (“It upset you that I spaced out our date”). When the speaker is satisfied the listener has understood his or her feelings, the partners switch roles and repeat the process. About 70% of couple issues don’t need to be solved, just well discussed, say Markman and his colleagues. You may find that simply airing a concern until both partners fully understand solves the problem. If it doesn’t, move on to problem solution–but only after you’re both satisfied you’ve fully discussed the issue.
3. Solve problems second, using a four-step process. The first step in problem solution is agenda setting. During this step, decide what problem or portion of a problem you’re going to work on during a particular couple meeting. A sample problem is finding a way to boost family income.
The second step is brainstorming. During brainstorming both partners list as many possible solutions as they can. For the family income problem, the list might include one or both partners getting a part-time job, the main breadwinner looking for a higher-paying position, and older children contributing to income with paper routes, babysitting, mowing lawns, etc.
In the third step, agreement and compromise, a couple decides on one of the solutions. For the family income problem, the couple might decide that one of them will get a part-time job. They then would pick a specific future couple meeting to go to the fourth step, follow-up, when they will discuss whether the solution is working or whether further problem solving is needed.
Plan Relationship Nurturing During Your Couple Meetings
Couple meetings focused entirely on problems may become drudgery. Be sure to include time in your meeting for planning activities to nurture your relationship. Plan time for doing the things that brought you together in the first place, such as having fun together (a regular “date night” is a must for most healthy relationships), talking as friends, working on a project together or being intimate. Protect these times from any discussion of problems.
For more information on couple meetings and other ideas that can strengthen your relationship, check out Fighting FOR Your Marriage by Howard Markman, Scott Stanley, and Susan Blumberg.
Written by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
Strengthening Your Relationship with Regular “Couple Meetings” is adapted from the website Forever Families