Marital advice - Time to give your marriage an audit

DEAR married, male friends, can you imagine a more irritating task?

You have to rake over the hot coals of a recent row with your wife. You have to take the perspective of a neutral onlooker, and write down the thoughts that spring into mind from the “significant disagreement” in an essay, “focusing on behaviour, not on thoughts or feelings”.

The job isn’t supposed to take much time, about seven minutes. Do it with your wife three times a year, though, and it promises to be good for your marriage, according to the findings of a two-year study led by Eli J Finkel, a psychology professor from Northwestern University, Illinois.

Finkel’s study, which was recently published in Psychological Science journal, was based on 120 married couples, some hitched only a few weeks, others the far the side of 50 years. Finkel and his colleagues compared couples who wrote about their rows with a control group who didn’t.

Finkel also asked them to complete an internet-based questionnaire — once every four months over a two-year period — on their marriage, covering relationship satisfaction, love, intimacy, trust, passion and commitment.

My wife, Michelle, and myself did our own version of the test (see panels). We bypassed the “on a scale of 1 to 7 how satisfied do you feel you’re your relationship” questionnaire and went on to examine a recent “significant disagreement”, as the professor advised. We each had to write about what happened taking the view of a dispassionate but kind observer. It wasn’t as painful as I imagined.

Finkel argues that the satisfaction of marriages naturally tails off with each passing year. Married himself for five years with two children, he admits to “the same sorts of slight but incremental declines that most marriages show”.

Couples counsellor Lisa O’Hara, agrees with Finkel’s assessment — that people go into marriages with unrealistic expectations, hoping, for example, that wedding bands somehow might smooth a rocky relationship; and that the arrival of a child is the moment the marriage, paradoxically, becomes most vulnerable.

According to the Central Statistics Office, the rate of divorce in Ireland was 9.7% in 2011, an increase of 1% from 2006.

“A survey by consultancy firm Grant Thornton in 2011 found the most common reason nowadays for divorce is that the couple had simply grown apart,” says O’Hara. “The erosion of intimacy and friendship saw their relationship slide down their list of priorities and gradually more attention was paid to work, raising a family and other distractions, some pleasant and some more worrying — such as financial pressures.”

In what seems to make a case for agreeing to differ, O’Hara points to research which finds that nearly three quarters of all conflict is unresolvable due to perpetual differences. “After all, no two people are the same. It should not come as a surprise, therefore, to find yourself at loggerheads with your partner, occasionally, at least,” she says.

The reasons we marry and why most of us muddle through, adds O’Hara, is so that we have someone who “will have your back”, to have around to work through life’s problems; to help, of course, in raising children; and simply to have someone around to “bear testament to your life”.

The findings of Finkel’s study were that the natural declines in satisfaction with marriages of couples that did their written homework arrested, while the couples that carried on bickering without self-assessing continued to drift apart.

In addition to marital satisfaction, other relationship processes — like passion and sexual desire — also improved. He points out that a high- quality marriage is one of the strongest predictors of happiness and health, and is ebullient about the results of the study.

“I’m a believer in data,” he says. “The results were very persuasive. Of course, no scientific student provides definitive proof, so we’ll have to wait for replications to make sure that the effect is robust. For now, though, all signs suggest that this intervention works.”

It’s always useful to dissect a marriage row, adds O’Hara. “It may not be possible to do in the middle of an argument. Both people need to cool down and step away from it, to maybe say, ‘What happened to me in that moment? How did I contribute to that? Was it useful? What can I do differently the next time?’ That’s often what happens in counselling with a third party.”

Marriage audits, Richard, 39

I got married to Michelle in Barcelona 18 months ago. We’ve been together for four years. It sounds twee, but the wedding and the few days before and after constituted the happiest week of my life — I’d found a kind, funny, beautiful girl to marry and I was surrounded by both our families and friends. Now watching how good Michelle is with our baby Chloe makes her even more attractive than she already is.

Nonetheless, like all couples, we row. To dissect our rows goes against my nature. I try and focus on the good fortune we have.

I abhor the rows when they happen. I rarely row with my parents, brother, friends or work colleagues. Rowing with Michelle is new terrain. I’m hopeless at it. I clam up. My thoughts become muddled. Sometimes, when I’m backed into a corner, I lash out, and will usually end the argument with something that Michelle can’t come back on. Most of the time, I’ll just huff a little and look distracted, wishing it to be over, which causes Michelle to say that I’m like a little boy who wants his mother to stop nagging so that he can go back out to the garden to play.

It must be awful for her. Invariably, she’s rational, having mulled over things for days beforehand, and articulate in the cases she makes.

We basically have variations of the same argument. Michelle says I work too much. I love my work and, because we’ve been under stress financially since moving in together about three years ago, I suppose I feel justified in working so hard.

What happened when I did the audit?

I discovered: I need to explain things better when we have a row, and especially to try and understand where Michelle is coming from.

Is it helpful?

I found Finkel’s writing exercise to be very useful. It made me think more clearly about Michelle’s perspective. Writing things down spelled things out for me.

Would I recommend it?

Definitely. Best of all — given all this hassle most of us seem to be having with money these days, it’s free.

Michelle, 34

We met each other on a Caribbean island. He came from Ireland, I came from Venezuela and we both ended up living together in Barcelona. Now we have a gorgeous six-month-old baby girl. It’s like a movie.

We were very lucky to find each other. But, of course, there are a few things we are trying to solve, and one specific subject that causes most of our rows: the little time Richard dedicates to his family. He is a freelance journalist who works mostly for Irish publishers, so everything is harder for him.

He has to pitch ideas and figure out how to pay bills in both countries. But I feel he spends too much time on his job and not enough time on the most important thing — for me — the family. This caused a row last week.

Richard has spent most of the three years we’ve been living together writing a book. He decided to start this huge project when he moved to Spain, affecting his “newlywed” life. Now I’m worried because he is about to start a new project: radio documentaries. I know I won’t accept the same situation again. I demand love, affection and time together.

He promises he’ll organise his schedule better in order to spend more time with me and our baby. Let’s see.

What happened when I did the audit?

Even when I think it’s very important to open ways to communicate with each other, in my case it’s hard to revisit a row you hope has been solved. To have a row you need good arguments and I try to be as objective as possible, and that takes energy.

The audit is probably more interesting for me than Richard because I’m used to talking openly about my feelings, for him it’s more difficult to open up.

To improve the situation, maybe I should be more patient. I understand life now is not easy considering we have had so many changes in the last year — now we have a baby at home. I’m not working (I used to work with a publishing company). I’m tired and sometimes I also feel useless because I can’t help Richard, so he needs to work harder in order to make more money.

Is it helpful?

It could be helpful if you are in the middle of a row and you need to organise ideas to discuss with your partner, but again, I’m not sure about the benefits of exploring a past row.

Would I recommend it?

Every couple is different and I’m sure it will be helpful for a big number of them. For people with communication issues — like Richard — it’s an interesting exercise to understand themselves and be able to say what they feel.

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