By now it is or ought to be understood that couples counseling is largely a waste of time. Of course, a lot of people still try to repair their marriages by working with a couples therapist, and no one would say that it never works.
But, if a treatment only works on very rare occasions we should conclude that it does not work, that the benefits some people derive from it are coming from somewhere else.
One suspects that business is not so good in the couples counseling market so its practitioners have come up with a new idea. They advise you to do a six month performance review for your marriage. If that lame analogy were not enough, they have larded on another one; your performance review will be like a six-month check-up at the dentist.
If couples counseling is dying out, it’s not only because it does not work often enough to be worth the effort, but it’s also because its theorists do not know how to think.
Anyway, Elizabeth Bernstein has the story:
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.
And you thought I was making it up.
Your performance review will be like having your teeth cleaned. There, that will certainly persuade you to do it. And yet, who is the dentist and who is the patient. Besides, when you are having your teeth cleaned you cannot engage in very much conversation. Apparently, these therapists have not thought through the implications of their analogies.
We find a similar flaw in the notion of performance review. Which spouse is the boss or manager and which one is the employee. A performance review involves a power imbalance. Do these therapists imagine that couples will be role playing and reversing the roles? And, doesn’t a performance review suggest the possibility of a promotion, a raise or a bonus? What precisely is the nature of the exchange that a couple is supposed to engage in? What are the concrete rewards and punishments?
The therapists note that each party needs to be careful and constructive, which is certainly a good idea. The problem is, the exercise, as defined, can easily lend itself to abuse. Once it becomes a regular exercise—like a dental check-up—couples will need to spend some of their time trying to find fault with each other. If they cannot find anything wrong with each other they are not doing their jobs. Then, they will have to offer constructive criticism, as the saying goes, but criticism is criticism, and telling your spouse that he or she is failing to perform can make people self-conscious and withdrawn.
I probably do not need to say so, but within the context of a marriage, the concept of performance does not really elicit thoughts of doing a job. It elicits the image of successful or failed sexual performance. Have these great thinkers thought of this? I certainly hope that they have.
I would humbly suggest that a six month sexual performance review is probably not going to improve anyone’s sex life. Discovering that your spouse is unhappy with your sexual performance will probably make you both more self-conscious about said performance… thus ruining the mood.
I am not saying that one party to a marriage might well be unhappy with marital sex, but couples would do better to find another way to communicate their wishes for more or less adventure and more or less frequency. In an age where all things sexual are out in the open, couples should certainly be able to figure out how to work on their sex lives without doing performance reviews.
Besides, I had thought that the great minds of the therapy profession had long ago recognized that there is much more to sexual congress than sexual congress. To focus on sex in performance terms is not likely to address the issues that turn people on or off. Those would be issues regarding character, trust, responsibility and reliability.
And if you are in the business of repairing modern marriages, more of which fail than perhaps at any time in history, then you need to have some awareness of the role that cultural warfare plays.
In our modern day and age couples bicker over the division of household labor. And we know that some spouses are deeply resentful of the role that seems to have devolved upon them. We also know that some spouses are so deeply resentful of their roles that they withhold sex, as a way to persuade their spouses to do more around the house. And some spouses express their resentment by cheating.
As if that is not bad enough, sometimes performance reviews can make one or the other member of the couple sound whiny. Professionals know better than to argue, but they are so concerned about expressing their feelings that they sound like whiny adolescents.
Bernstein tells about the performance reviews of one pair of married couples therapists:
Kathlyn and Gay Hendricks, relationship coaches 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, Mr. 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.
Do you really need a performance review to explain to your spouse that you are not very happy that she is abandoning her home in favor of her work? You would think that after 34 years of marriage the unhappy couple had come to terms with travel schedules, without anyone’s having to express his feelings like a child.
My doubts withstanding, some studies have found that these performance reviews can help some people some of the time.
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.
This sounds a little too good to be true. It’s a small sampling and thus not likely to be very indicative. For all I know the couples who were accepted felt that their marriages were being validated by the researchers while the couples who were pawned off on a waiting list came to believe that their marriages were beyond repair.
One needs to be careful with drawing conclusions from such a study, however well-defined it appears.
Besides, Dr. Cordova does mention that some of the couples who engage in these performance reviews end up arguing and bickering. When couples argue around the house they are likely to use couples therapy sessions to argue some more:
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.
Yes, indeed. It’s all about sharing feelings, emoting to each other, whining and whinging to each other. Many marriages could well use improvement, but forcing couples to therapy their marriages on a regular basis, on the grounds that said marriages need performance reviews, is surely not the answer.
How about some exercises in character building, in good behavior on the part of each member of the couple? And how about a clearer division of household labor, of the rules and roles that pertain in the marriage? If you get all of that wrong, you can complain all you want, you can empathize all you want and you can find your spouse’s performance lacking, but you will not repair your marriage.