Therapists Say They Learn a Lot When Couples Commit to Numbers in Areas Like Trust, Teamwork, Physical Intimacy
By Elizabeth Bernstein, Wall Street Journal, Bonds@wsj.com
When marriage therapist Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill met with new clients recently, she asked them why they were seeking therapy. The couple told her they’d spent years arguing over finances and recently had their worst-ever blowup. The husband complained about how much money his wife was spending; the wife said her husband was controlling. They hadn’t slept in the same room for months.
Ms. O’Neill, whose practice is in Mount Kisco, N.Y., then asked the question she often poses in a couple’s first session of marriage therapy: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you each rate your marriage?”
The spouses’ answers? “7.5” and “almost an 8.”
“Whoa,” Ms. O’Neill remembers thinking. “What they are saying doesn’t match those numbers.” She would have given their marriage a 4, she says. “Those scores are very telling.”
How would you rate your relationship?
QUIZ: Rate Your Marriage
Researchers often rely on rate-your-relationship questionnaires in studies of why some marriages last while others crumble. Therapists say couples can benefit from occasionally using these tools to step back and get a clinical view of behaviors, healthy and unhealthy, in their relationship. The rating process can help start a discussion, clarify strengths and weaknesses and, hopefully, lead to marital growth.
“Rating helps you be honest with the reality of what you are feeling,” says Karen Ruskin, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Sharon, Mass. “And the only way to fix something is to first know what the problem is.” Some experts, rather than assign one overall number to a relationship, encourage couples to examine and rate a number of aspects of the marriage that researchers and clinicians agree are most important.
Clinicians say they learn an enormous amount of information by asking a couple to rate their relationship—including the spouses’ individual perceptions about the level of crisis they have reached, and their willingness to be honest. It is helpful to see which partner states the number first: Often, it is the person who is angrier. The order in which a couple presents their problems suggests the order in which the problems should be addressed, like a road map. “That’s worth six months of therapy right there,” says Paul Hokemeyer, a licensed marriage and family therapist in New York and Boca Raton, Fla.
Attaching hard numbers to the most important relationship in your life comes with some risk, of course. It can be sobering to actually quantify which areas aren’t working well. “You can’t hedge a number,” Dr. Hokemeyer says.
But for couples seeking help for a troubled relationship, a rating serves as a baseline, Dr. Hokemeyer says, a point from which to move upward.
Story continues here: Why Rate Your Marriage?