Dec. 3, 2008 -- When most people hear the word checkup, they might think of semi-annual dental visits or physicals, but it turns out an examination might also help improve the health of your marriage.
Psychologist James Cordova is convinced annual marital counseling can improve relationships, and he said a recent study he led proves it.
"Essentially, what we've discovered over time is that marital health, really is a health concern. The qualities of a person's marriage and the extent to which they are doing well in that marriage have a dramatic effect on physical health and mental health," said Cordova, an associate professor of psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
In a two-year National Institutes of Health study, Cordova followed 68 couples, who varied in age, for six months. On average the pairs had been together for 15 years, with the husbands' ages around 47 and the wives' 44.
Half of the married couples were given marriage checkups, which included therapy once a year, and the other pairs received no therapy at all.
Cordova found that the couples who participated in the two-session checkup intervention, which included completing a battery of questions and face-to-face assessment, fared better.
"Marital satisfaction improves for couples who have been through counseling once a year, while control couples didn't improve at all," Cordova said. "People that have been through the marriage checkup are improving in all kinds of ways in comparison to couples who haven't."
Participants David Bayer and his wife Kay said they've seen a difference in their marriage since they joined the study. The two, who have been married for 23 years, said they decided to participate because they were worried about the future.
"We had two really close friends get divorced and it sort of hit us when they got divorced: 'What happened to them?' So, we're trying to improve on what we saw go wrong," Kay Bayer said.
The Bayers said their biggest weakness was communication, but both have learned to find more effective ways to talk to each other because of the study.
"You don't realize the little things that may affect your marriage," Kay Bayer said. "[I was] learning to speak more clearly to him so he could understand where I was coming from. I tend not to think before I speak on some issues."
The Bayers' experience was typical of what other couples who took part in the checkups found, Cordova said.
"They feel more intimate in their relationship," Cordova said of the couples who engaged in therapy. "They feel more accepting of each other, more able to accept one another's warts and all. They're more active in taking deliberate care of their marriage."
Cordova said the most common complaint he hears from couples involves not being able to fit their marriages into a hectic lifestyle.
"[The] things we help them with [are] to notice that it's an issue, to notice they're suffering from it and figure out ways to make time," he said.
Cordova said he hopes more couples will focus on what's right in their marriages and build on those strengths.