When my wife and I left the vibrant delights of an apartment just off Fifth Avenue, New York City for the calmer charms of a windswept potato field in Ireland 10 years ago, we resolved we would have six-monthly ‘check-ins’, where we would both give our opinion in how things were going, specifically in regard to living in Ireland.
Needless to say, three kids and a decade on, the regularity of the time frame has lapsed, but we do still try to honor the spirit of that resolution, and periodically have a serious what-the-hell-are-we-doing-with-our-lives conversation, and it frequently becomes an opportunity to air any niggling grievances.
(Me: Can you try and stop being late all the time?
Wife: Can you try and stop losing everything?)
The unglamorous truth is that marriage is often not so different from any other business partnership.
We communicate in brief, impossible-to-misunderstand emails and clipped text messages, which, even if they do say, ‘Love you’ at the beginning or end are hardly the billets doux of yesteryear.
A friend recently got divorced after several years citing the fact they ‘weren’t in love with each other any more’ as the reason.
I was like, “So?”
I mean, when I phoned my wife to ask her opinion on a new initiative suggested by a couples’ clinic in Worcester, Massachusetts, that couples have six monthly ‘performance reviews’—as reported in The Wall Street Journal—she was on the hunt for a poo.
Smells suggested that the baby, currently being toilet-trained, had dropped one somewhere in the house, but finding it was proving tricky.
Romance? Come on.
My wife called off the poo hunt long enough to tell me she approves of the concept of six monthly ‘check-ins’: “So often couples are so busy that they really have their heads down, and you can end up going down slightly different paths, and then when you look up you can find yourselves in totally different places,” she said.
So we would both support the idea of periodic ‘performance reviews’, as indeed would any right thinking person.
There’s just one problem, isn’t there? The people who might really need it would be exactly the ones who would mysteriously fail to turn up on the night in question, and the people most open to engaging in the process would more or less be doing it anyway.
It might still be helpful to have a trained therapist mediating the discussion, as they would presumably be asking the partners more useful questions, and different questions, to the ones we married folk already ask each other and ourselves.
In an experiment—cited by the WSJ—conducted by James Cordova, professor of psychology and director of the Centre for Couples and Family Research at Clark University, couples were asked to fill out questionnaires assessing each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
This process was then followed by six monthly checkups, while the control sample were told their appointment had been delayed.
The ones with the six-monthly checkups reported greater increased happiness than the ones whose appointments never materialized (they were told they were on a waiting list. To be fair, that must have been bloody annoying for them, and the sheer irritation they felt at filling out this daft form and then never getting the promised follow-up might have bled into their marital rows. Just saying.)
While the terminology of ‘six-monthly reviews’ probably needs a bit of work (“Love-ins”? “Us-time”?), this seems a more realistic plan for preventing marital discord for mere mortals than that followed by Kathleen and Gay Hendricks, a married pair of shrinks, who reportedly “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.”
Twice a week?
Well, hey, it’s clearly working. They have been married 34 years.
The secret to these conversations, and the more in-depth six monthly chats they also hold, they say, is to focus on the relationship (ie not the other person’s annoying habits) and discuss common goals (rather than cataloguing all the different ways their partner winds them up).
It can all start to sound terribly Californian (and yes, the Hendricks live in Ojai, California) to a dyed-in-the-wool Brit like me, trained to see a visit to a psychiatrist as confirmation that the incipient madness has finally burst through visibly, but the truth is that even in rural Ireland, more and more people we know are starting to see marriage guidance counselors.
And, occasionally, some of them are even starting to do it before they are about to get divorced.
Which is undoubtedly a good thing for any marriage.
I’d better go home and help track down that poo.