David H. Olson, Amy Olson-Sigg and Peter J. Larson
Once upon a time, a professor went into a first-grade classroom and asked, “Boys and girls, how many of you know how to sing?” All hands went up, waving enthusiastically. Then he asked, “How many of you are dancers?” Again, all hands went up, some children even jumped to their feet to demonstrate. Finally, the professor asked, “How many of you can draw a picture really well?” Once again, all the children raised their hands in the air. Later that day the professor went to his doctoral seminar and posed the same three questions. After asking, “How many of you can sing?” he saw a few shrugs, no hands, and no enthusiasm. “How many of you are dancers?” had the same response. And “How many of you can draw?” got one hand shyly raised, but without enthusiasm.
Almost without exception, children are born confident in their strengths and abilities. Most newly dating and newly married couples share this optimism and confidence. Somewhere along the line couples, as well as schoolchildren, lose sight of their strengths and begin to notice their problems. Why is this? And can something be done to reverse this tendency…or at least to stabilize it a bit?
Premarital vs. Married Couples
As clinicians who work with both premarital and married couples, it is easy to be curious, and yet disturbed by the vast differences in these two populations. Premarital couples are idealistic, confident, hopeful, and enthused, often overly so. Divorce continues to affect half of all couples who marry, yet most engaged couples are sure they will not contribute to this bleak statistic. Married couples who come to therapy have the opposite characteristics: they tend to be excessively pessimistic, overlooking the strengths they have, focusing myopically on their perceived deficits.
These polarities require two different ways of directing client couples. Premarital couples often need guidance in removing the “rose-colored glasses” so they are able to consider a few of the scenarios they are bound to encounter during their lives together. Sometimes this is the first time couples navigate questions such as how finances will be kept, influences of family and friends on the marriage and the many issues that come with childrearing (spiritual foundation, discipline, etc.).
While bringing little doses of reality to the minds and hearts of premarital couples helps them make informed decisions about their future, married couples can be thought of as “reality specialists”. Many whom report for marriage counseling have slipped into the pattern of “reality fanatics”—they have reached the point where they are more committed to their individual positions, than they are to the commitment they made to the good of the relationship. These couples need help redirecting their attention to the strengths that brought them together.
Building on Couple Strengths
The so-called “strengths perspective” has been a positive change from the traditional method of studying problems to in order to learn about strengths. Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton have created a movement reforming business models with their book, “Now, Discover your Strengths”. They contend that tapping into our talents is very different than becoming experts in our problems. The old model of, for example, studying disease to learn about health is misguided because it assumes that there is a true opposite to health, when strengths more likely have their own unique pattern.
Our behavior and our attitudes are often derived from the resources we perceive are available to us. If we come to think of our relationships as lacking in some way or riddled with problems, we will become overwhelmed and unmotivated. Research has shown that married couples tend to seek counseling as a last resort—when one or both partners have already considered divorce. It is much more difficult for therapists to help couples find their strengths if one partner already has a foot out the door of their marriage.
We believe saving marriages (and reducing the many problems associated with unhealthy relationships) involves embracing the strengths perspective, but that it must be coupled with a preventative approach. Early detection and prevention are as important in relational problems as they are in health-care and environmental problems. Only after issues have been identified can they be processed. A prevention model catches problems early, before the tendency of focusing on them becomes a pattern in relationships. Prevention involves knowing, and reducing the risk factors, while reinforcing conditions (strengths) that create healthy behaviors.
Love is not enough
Instead, what we have in America are unrealistic and unhelpful attitudes and relationship norms. We choose our mates based on initial feels of love, assuming love alone will sustain the life of a relationship. We are not committed to making marriages work, evident by the fact that most divorce occurs not because of intense or recurrent problems such as violence or infidelity, but because the relationship is no longer satisfying. Forgetting that relationships are living, growing entities, we make the mistake of assuming that a great relationship will remain great forever. When it doesn’t we forget that we can play an active and assertive role in the outcome. Sometimes we move onto a new relationship, which is sometimes just leaving one set of problems for a set of different ones.
The normalcy of these attitudes and behaviors has created a faulty design of relationships and marriage. In Minnesota, we recently witnessed the devastating effects that faulty design has on a physical structure. One of the main bridges accessing downtown Minneapolis collapsed when, it was later discovered, a metal plate was too thin to serve as a junction of several girders. The bridge was erected in the 1960’s, and was deemed safe at the time, but it gradually gained weight over the years as concrete structures were added to separate lanes.
Relationships are analogous to bridges, in that they are built to sustain the climate and needs of a couple at a set point in time, but time changes…families grow, transform, evolve. With bridges, weather elements cause erosion and require periodic checks and repair. If relationships are not continually maintained, they, too, erode with the passage of time and internal and external demands on the relationship.
Why All Couples Need a Checkup
We need to plan for relationships in an intentional and deliberate manner. A life partnership certainly requires more planning than a wedding ceremony. Couples need to commit to marriage, with eyes wide open, knowing there may be moments when it feels as though their commitment is all they have. Couples must conceptualize their relationship as the dynamic, living, growing, changing entity that it is. Hence, they must care for it knowing it is subtly changing and shifting with time.
The inability for couples to sustain happy and healthy relationships should be a concern for all of us. Divorce costs taxpayers an estimated 112 billion dollars per year. Happy and intact marriages socialize children who are more successful academically, and have fewer emotional and behavioral problems than children whose parents are divorced or never marry. Married people themselves experience many benefits from marriage, including longer, healthier, wealthier and happier lives. The Roman philosopher Cicero was correct when he claimed that the first bond of society is marriage.
The Couple Checkup
The Couple Checkup was written using data from 50,000 married couples who took a comprehensive marriage inventory assessing their strengths in over 15 content areas. This large sample was divided into two subsamples of happily married couples and unhappily married couples. Based on these results and a couple’s own results from a similar online checkup, couples learn the strengths of happily married couples and their own strengths as well as areas they may want to improve.
This peek into the traits of happy marriages helps couples engage in the kind of dialogue research has found to be important in happy relationships. Couples are then able to focus on aspects of their relationship where improvement gives the most benefit. It also draws attention to their current strengths, so they can celebrate and use them to create even more strengths. Like confident and hopeful young schoolchildren, feeling competent in our abilities creates the desire and energy to fearlessly construct those strengths and build upon them even more. In doing so, we can know we are proactively contributing to our own health and happiness, as well as that of the communities in which we live.
The Couple Checkup: Finding Your Relationship Strengths (hardcover) is authored by David H. Olson, Amy Olson-Sigg, and Peter J. Larson and published by Thomas Nelson (2008).
Purchase The Couple Checkup: Finding your Relationship Strengths here.