Transcript: Wed., March 2 at 1 p.m. ET

On Love: How to improve marital health

Ellen McCarthy and James Cordova
Washington Post Staff Writer and author
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 1:00 PM

Relationship expert and author James Cordova joins The Post's Ellen McCarthy to offer advice on how to improve your marital health.

McCarthy writes about weddings and relationships in Sunday's Style section.

Cordova is an associate professor of psychology and director of clinical training at Clark University's Frances L. Hiatt School of Psychology in Worcester, Mass. He's studied how to improve marital health. Cordova is also the author of "The Marriage Checkup: A Scientific Program for Sustaining and Strengthening Marital Health."

For more marital and relationship advice and to see how other couples have gotten to the altar, visit our On Love section.

Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

The discussion follows.


Ellen McCarthy: Good afternoon, everyone! I'm excited we have Prof. Cordova with us today. He's spent years immersed in the research of what factors keep marriages strong across decades -- and what can lead to their painful demise.

So, fire away with all your tough questions.

James Cordova: Thanks Ellen! I'm happy to be here and looking forward to answering questions.


Alexandria, Va.: Hello! My spouse and I have been married five years and have one kid. Surprisingly, my satisfaction with our marriage has increased since having our kid (at least after the kid turned one). While I feel happier in my marriage than I have ever been, communication is still something with which we struggle. We mainly break down over semantics. The issue about which we are arguing rarely causes the significant rift, but the way in which we discuss it causes emotional drama for at least 24 hours. "What you actually said was X, Y, Z." "No, I didn't say X, Y, Z; I said X, Y, Z." Sometimes we can stop and realize how ridiculous we are being before we spin out of control, other times I lose my temper and my spouse starts the silent treatment routine. Do you have any advice for couples regarding communication that take these silly battle of semantics out of the equation?

James Cordova: This is a great question and the answer is you are already halfway there. The key to these types of tug-of-war traps begins with simply recognizing that they are happening and giving them a name. It helps if the name is one you both agree to and that you both bring your health sense of humor to as well. You might call this one "we're doing our X, Y, Z" pattern. Once you've named it and hopefully chuckled a bit, you'll have a chance to either try again or take a break and try again later. As you noted, you both know this "X, Y, Z" pattern always goes to the same place, so try to only go there as one choice among many. And again, nothing beats having a healthy shared sense of humor about the little holes we tend to fall into as partners.


Ellen McCarthy: Professor Cordova, Can you tell us a little about how you got interested in this topic? And what's the benefit of thinking about marriage in terms of health?

James Cordova: My interest in couples health started in college. I worked in the administration of the local crisis hotline and it was always clear that the number reason people called had to do with struggles in their relationships. Thinking about marriage in terms of health simply makes sense once you get to know the research. How happy and secure we are in our most intimate relationships is strongly tied to how healthy we are physically, emotionally, and mentally. Some of the most interesting research has shown almost direct associations between marital stress and immune system suppression. Given that sort of evidence, it is clear to me that we should be as concerned about maintaining our marital health as we are about maintaining our physical health, since essentially they are the same thing.


Piggy bank: I am getting married in July and I am very excited to start my life with this man. He is great! However, we have one issue that we can't seem to figure out: money. We are both in our late 20's and in graduate school. I was lucky enough to get a fellowship, and through tight managing of my money I have been able to pay off my car, pay off my student loans, and save a substantial amount of money. He has a car loan and has substantial school loans and hasn't been able to save much money. How do people deal with money/debt merging issues when there is a disparity of who brings what to the table? How do married couples deal with money: one big bank account, separate bank accounts, one joined and two separate? Money was an issue when I was growing up, and I don't want it to become a reason for fights or resentment. SOS! Thanks.

James Cordova: Another great question! Money is almost always at the top of the list of things partners struggle over. One of the most important things to keep in mind is that there is a difference between the "simple" accounting facet of shared finances and the much more complex emotional facet. I talk a lot in the Marriage Checkup book about the emotional meaning of money for both partners and that often fights that on the surface look like they are about how numbers add up are actually about the more unspoken emotional meanings underlying each partners reactivity around money. The one you describe is a lot like what I call in the book the "spender-saver" pattern. For spenders the meaning of money is often about feelings of deprivation and needing to feel like life is being lived vividly. When money is "over-saved" spenders feel like the joys of life are being stolen away from them. For savers the meaning of money is often about feelings of safety and security. Without a nest-egg safely tucked away somewhere, it is simply impossible for savers to feel safe in the world. Again, I spend a good deal of time on this in the Marriage Checkup book. The bottom line though is to genuinely know each others emotional meanings and approach each other from a place of mutual compassion.


Intimacy for newbies: This is a second marriage for both myself and my husband. We truly recognize the need for intimacy, but are having problems with how to approach this. Any suggestions?

James Cordova: Well, not to flog the book too much, but the chapter on intimacy is the first chapter in the book and there is a lot in there about how to nurture intimacy and what tends to get in the way. Maybe the bottom line is continually risk being known for who you really are, warts and all and to continually be curious about who your partner is today. Recognizing that we are all constantly changing and becoming someone new every day allows us to continue to see each other with fresh eyes. Staying open about ourselves allows the opportunity to be known and accepted. Of course, with vulnerability there will inevitably be hurt. That, however, is simply the price of admission into a deeply intimate relationship. Intimacy is not for the timid.


Husband and weight gain: Thanks for taking my question. I have been happily married to my husband of eight years. We've been together for 15. We've helped each other through good time and bad, in sickness and in health.

The problem is coming in again with the health. My husband has gained about 20 pounds (in the past three months) adding to his already 230lb frame. He doesn't work out, eats bad and has horrible portion control. I am careful with what I buy and cook to make sure things are healthy. He will eat dinner, but then about 10 go I have the munchies and go in search of something. He's usually drinking soda (I got him to switch to diet and drinks a lot of water). The snacks are not in the house.

He will take his lunch to work, but eat it for breakfast and then go out for another meal with his co-workers. He's been to a doctor and there's nothing medically wrong. He'll stop at the grocery store and buy snacks for work and I can't stop him.

I've made the changes at home and encouraged him to go to the gym with me, but he doesn't. I'm finding I'm no longer attracted to him. What do you suggest?

James Cordova: This is a challenging one. You are caught right in that place between change and acceptance. On the one hand you want your husband to change because you love him and want him to be healthy. On the other hand, you are called on to accept him for who he is today (not yesterday or tomorrow) because that is what it means to deeply love someone, warts, weight gain, and all. When it comes to changing our partners, we have very limited leverage and must be very gentle because this is the person who has allowed us most deeply into his or her heart. It is our obligation therefore to be kind and gentle. You can continue to voice your concerns coming from a place of love. You can offer your help and support. More pressure than that often backfires in ways we didn't intend.


Ellen McCarthy: What are the one or two most important pieces of advice you'd offer a couple getting married today?

James Cordova: Talk about everything that is most important to you before you get married. I've been suprised how many couples, for example, don't discuss their plans to have (or not have) children before they get married. Next, recognize that love and intimacy are wonderfully complicated. This person that you are choosing will both be part of the best times of your life and will regularly drive you crazy. To love someone is to actively love him every day and to accept her for just the complicated person that she is and always will be.


Somewhere in Pa.: Wow, timely topic. I feel so disconnected from my husband right now... like we are just two people living in the same house who happen to be working toward the same financial, family and household goals. Making sure we pay the bills, raise a healthy child, and keep the house physically together. I don't even know what my question is, really. We're both rather stressed out professionally at the moment. Is it normal for couples to go through times so lacking in personal interaction? at the same time it seems illogical and selfish to be upset at this kind of a problem-- not financial, not physical-- when so many others do have THOSE kinds of problems to overcome.

James Cordova: Also a great question! Of course this is a common complaint these days. I suspect that we are all working so hard just to keep up with the demands of day-to-day living that not only do we have little time for each other and ourselves, we're simply tired. Tired can easily be misinterpreted as unhappy. That being said, it has been said that "attention is the most basic form of love" and I buy that 100%. So many of the couples we see in the Marriage Checkup project simply have little to no time to pay attention to each other. No loving relationship can thrive or even really survive without regular loving simple attention. Since marriages don't whine like children and bosses, we have to make a determined, vow-like, effort to carve out time to just pay loving attention to each other. Sounds simpler than it is, but it is the only place to start. Plus, it can be a lot of fun!


Ellen McCarthy: How do you think this research has changed your own approach to relationships?

James Cordova: I think it has clarified for me that the beauty of intimacy is in its complexity. A healthy relationship is a constantly moving target. If you haven't paid close and loving attention to your partner in 10 days, then you are 10 days out of touch. For too many couples, it has not only been days but years since they have genuinely tried to get to know the real, complex, person they are married to. I guess I emphasize now the absolutely necessity of really tuning into each other on a very regular basis. In some ways, I suspect this may be at the heart of the success we're having with the Marriage Checkup. One of its most powerful ingredients is that is provides a simple context for partners to turn towards each other and get to know each other again.


Female friends - really innocent?: I've been happily married for almost five years with no children. I recently discovered my husband text messages outside of working hours with an attractive single female co-worker. The texting is not excessive, maybe a few times a week, and seems comparable to the amount he texts with male co-workers and friends, but I don't know the content of the messages. It's been going on for the last several months. I've always read that men typically won't start something or engage in pursuit of a relationship outside the marriage unless they are unhappy with some element of the marriage, but what if he seems, and claims to be, really happy (i.e., no fighting, lots of laughter, plenty of sex, etc)? Could this really just be an innocent friendship without him getting something more out of it? Something to stroke his ego? It's hard for me to understand as I have no comparable relationships with men, coworkers or otherwise, like he has with this woman, and I can't help shake the nagging feeling that this seems wrong.

James Cordova: One of the interesting things that has emerged in the relationship research literature is that we often don't know what our boundaries are until they've been crossed. It sounds like for you this is playing around on the edges of a newly discovered boundary. You get to be open and honest about this. It doesn't have to be rational and you don't have to defend it logically. It is the process of discovering an emotional boundary and part of an ongoing, constantly growing, intimate relationship involves talking openly about these things. Sometimes we have to (get to)gently request accomodations from our partners only because it matters for unnameable reasons. In this case, more openness is the key. It might help to protect this boundary if your partner agreed to share these texts with you.


Washington, D.C.: What are the keys for a couple to survive an affair by one of the spouses?

James Cordova: Time, commitment, patience, forgiveness. There are so many things that have to be in place. Start by recognizing what you are fighting to keep and grow. I recommend "Getting Past the Affair" by Snyder, Baucom, and Coop-Gordon.


Burlington, Vermont: Please advise me on how to help my husband weather a really tough time at work. In little ways every day, I try to show him how much his family adores him, but he is becoming really discouraged. We are experiencing tough times financially too, which I rarely mention because it is so upsetting to him. And that means that I'm keeping it bottled up (I feel like if I talk to friends or family about it, I'm talking behind his back). His long hours at work and my long days with our small children leave both of us exhausted, and I now dread our one-on-one time because it just seems to be a rehash of previous conversations of work-related issues. My husband has an incredible work ethic and tries to problem solve with me, but I feel as though I am out of my league and don't know how to help him get to a better place. Which is discouraging for both of us!

James Cordova: In my Marriage Checkup book there is a chapter on "Healthy Miscommunication" which might be helpful. I may be missing the heart of the matter here, but it is often helpful for partners to recognize that some conversations are about good old fashioned problem solving and some are simply about keeping each other company when we're feeling miserable. Sometimes when times are tough, we just feel miserable. The answers might not be simple or near at hand, but the companionship of a loving partner is. Men sometimes have a hard time learning to experience companionship around suffering as safe and reassuring. I guess I would say to just keep trying. Be good and loving company. And, you need your own source of social and emotional support. Talk to friends or family members who love you both about your concerns. Maybe solutions will emerge, but mostly you need the loving support of the people who care about you.


Ellen McCarthy: Can you tell us what you mean by "marriage checkup?" And how often should they be done?

James Cordova: A Marriage Checkup is a once-a-year opportunity to tune into the health of your marriage. It is the marital health equivalent of your annual physical health checkup of semi-annual dental health checkup. Just like these other health checkups, much of what can erode the health of a marriage can be invisible to us, particularly given the many competing demands for our attention. Taking time on a regular basis to talk about our strengths and address any lingering concerns can help couples stay tuned in and healthy. The Marriage Checkup book can be used as simple tool for guiding you through your own Marriage Checkup.


Vienna, Va.: How do I work on not being defensive when my spouse has a complaint or comment?

James Cordova: That's a good one! In our research here at Clark University, one of the things that has become apparent to me is that to be human is to be defensive. Even the healthiest couples we've studied get defensive in the face of a complaint or "comment". The key appears to be that healthy couples don't get stuck in the defensive stance. So, go ahead and get defensive, stay gentle and kind, and as soon as you can take a deep breath and switch your attention to what you can empathize with about what your partner is saying. You might need to take a break first to let the defensiveness drain away and then get together with your partner and try again.


Ellen McCarthy: Thanks so much for all your great questions. And thanks to you, Professor Cordova, for sharing your fantastic insights today.


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