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The Short Version: Taking good care of yourself often feels like a long and dull checklist. You need to get your car checked, get your teeth checked, get your eyes checked, and get your internet checked just to keep everything working properly. With all that going on, it can be easy to forget to check your romantic relationship and make sure everything there is running smoothly. According to research from the Center for Couples and Family Research at Clark University, many married couples grow apart or encounter conflict because they don’t take the time to maintain or strengthen their bonds until after a problem arises. The Center’s research team advocates for taking preventative steps — called the Marriage Checkup — to reconnect with a romantic partner on a regular basis and build a bond that lasts a lifetime.
When I was growing up, I wasn’t fond of brushing my teeth, so my mom told me a made-up story about a boy who never, ever brushed his teeth. He’d run his toothbrush under the faucet and drop a bit of toothpaste down the sink to fool his parents. Then he would smile big, say “All brushed,” and get candy as his reward. Perfect scam.
One day when he was all grown up, he bit into an apple, and all his teeth fell out. He may have gotten away with the lie as a child, but his teeth suffered the consequences as an adult.
Although it was once commonplace for people to lose their teeth as they got older, we now have proactive and reactive measures to ensure proper dental health into old age. Thanks to my mom’s heavy-handed moral lesson, I always think twice before I skip brushing my teeth (or bite into an apple). I want my teeth to stay healthy for decades to come, so I practice good dental hygiene to take care of them.
Professor James V. Córdova, who runs the Center for Couples and Family Research at Clark University, said people should take care of their personal relationships with the same regularity with which they brush their teeth and visit the dentist.
He advocates for practicing relationship checkups either on your own or in therapy sessions to strengthen emotional connections. After studying couples for 18 years, James’ research team has put together educational materials on relationship intervention to help people cultivate healthy marriages.
“Our dream is to do for relationship health what regular dental checkups do for the health of our teeth,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is promote this model of regular self-care and tertiary care.”
According to the Couples Lab’s research, regular relationship maintenance can have a positive and long-term impact on a couple’s satisfaction and intimacy. The group’s research-driven relationship checkups have greatly benefited thousands of couples willing to do the work necessary to sustain a healthy mental and physical state.
“It doesn’t just happen,” James said. “We romanticize relationships as if you meet someone, fall in love, and live happily ever after — but that’s like saying, ‘You’re born, you grow teeth, and you live happily ever after.'”
The Center for Couples and Family Research has conducted randomized control studies focused on identifying easy and useful ways to improve the health and stability of marriages in the long run. Over the decades, the research group has found that regular relationship checkups have significantly positive effects on couples of all kinds.
The Marriage Checkup Study has involved rural participants in Tennessee as well as active members of the United States Air Force. The researchers have spoken with hundreds of couples in the US and abroad to determine how effective a marriage checkup can be for motivating healthier intimacy practices and preventing marital deterioration.
“We want to help couples maintain the quality of their most intimate relationships.” — Professor James V. Córdova
According to the research’s findings, one proactive relationship checkup can lead to significant improvements in the couple’s relationship.
From the homeless to the wealthy, from newlyweds to old married couples, everyone can benefit from the Center’s engaging sessions, which address areas of conflict or disconnection between the couple. “We try to make it quick, easy, and fun,” James said. “In two quick meetings with a relationship counselor or coach, we help couples get in touch with those things that strengthen their relationships and bring out the best in each other.”
James said the marriage checkup focuses on areas of weakness as well as areas of strength to help couples understand one another in deep and lasting ways. James noted that most relationship sticking points become areas of decay if left to fester, and so the research group promotes addressing issues as early as possible to prevent them from growing worse with time.
“We want to help couples maintain the quality of their most intimate relationships, the relationships that matter most to them,” he said. “We get people the information they need to take care of themselves or seek outside care from a professional.”
James said his researchers on his team feel confident in the validity of their conclusion that regular relationship maintenance can prevent divorce — and now their focus is on spreading the word to people everywhere.
“The best thing for us to do now is disseminate the information we’ve gathered,” he said. “We want to share the benefits of the Marriage Checkup as widely as we can.”
The way they do that is through Arammu, an organization that educates people about the Marriage Checkup’s methods. Through online and in-person sessions, the group spreads an awareness of how regular intervention can reinforce relationships over time. James said the team has conducted clinical trainings to pass on their knowledge to clergymen, clinicians, and relationship coaches, among others.
Arammu is the ancient Sumerian word for love, and love is the ultimate goal for the team. They want to instill effective relationship practices in couples who want their love to last a lifetime. Leaders in the dating industry can take the research group’s conclusions to heart and use them to improve the quality of services offered to couples going through trying times.
To use the words of the website, “When we look deeply, at the bottom of the bottom, though it could have conceivably been anything, it is in fact love that holds the universe and our hearts together.”
Over the past 18 years, the Center for Couples and Family Research at Clark University has worked with hundreds of couples around the world. “We’ve done a ton of research,” James said, “and seen significant results in improving the quality and longevity of relationships.”
Ultimately, the team of researchers aims to motivate people to get regular checkups before relationship problems arise and take steps to reinforce the bonds of love on a regular basis. James told us the Couples Lab has seen many relationships transform and strengthen during the course of a personalized therapy session.
The couples who participated in the Marriage Checkup Study had a lower rate of divorce than the national average of 50%. James said evidence also suggests that individuals have better mental and physical health, including lower rates of depression, once they’ve gotten their personal relationships back on track.
All in all, the Marriage Checkup model works well across the board and can dramatically better the lives of people from all walks of life.
“Couples who take regular and loving care of their relationships see significant beneficial effects whether they came in severely distressed or at a happy place in their marriage,” James told us. “In fact, in many cases, the distressed couples see the biggest gains.”
Today most people take it for granted that they have to take care of their teeth. If you told someone you hadn’t seen a dentist in over a decade, they’d probably think you were crazy. However, if you said you’d never seen a relationship counselor, they probably wouldn’t even bat an eye. Most people don’t think of counseling as a requirement to relationship health, and so about half of marriages are left to decay into divorces.
Clark University’s Center For Couples and Family Research aims to change that status quo and encourage couples not to neglect the health of their relationships. The research group has seen evidence of the effectiveness of positive therapy at improving and strengthening committed relationships — and now they’re spreading the word. Through regular and conscientious care, couples can increase their levels of happiness and grow closer together.
“If we can get in there early and often, couples can not only learn to tolerate areas of conflict, but they actually build deeper relationships based on those points of vulnerability,” James said. “Places where we feel vulnerable are where we find the biggest opportunities to develop deeper and more fulfilling intimacy.”