By Karen Shirer, Ph.D.
What makes a couple’s relationship distressed or troubled?
This is the question I asked myself as I began to write this recap of a recent Military Families Learning Network (MFLN) webinar, The Relationship Checkup: Support for Military Couples, by Dr. James Cordova and Kelly Smith.
A brief Internet search led to John Gottman’s research that identified the Four Horsemen of criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. He found these four behaviors weakened couple relationships, leading to distress. I’ve found in my own work on relationship skills education that this metaphor helps couples to better understand the detrimental effects of these behaviors on their relationships.
This blog post provides a recap of The Relationship Checkup: Support for Military Couples webinar, discusses the importance of healthy couple relationships, and describes a relationship checkup approach designed for military couples.
Healthy Couple Relationships Are Important for Military Family Readiness
Dr. James Cordova begins the webinar by helping us understand that relationship health is public health. He cites that 30% of all U.S. couple relationships are distressed with high levels of conflict. This distress is linked to higher rates of suicide, intimate partner violence, compromised immune functioning, and negative child outcomes. Preventing relationship distress could reduce billions in costs to society.
Dr. Cordova goes on to describe the overall benefits of healthy relationships. People in healthy relationships report a greater sense of well-being and better overall mental and physical health. They often have higher incomes and avoid taking unhealthy risks. Their children experience more positive developmental outcomes.
The Relationship Checkup
Dr. Cordova highlights that both couples counseling and relationship skills education are limited in their ability to prevent relationship distress. Counseling often carries a social stigma and many times couples seek it too late to save their relationship. Education programs are typically too general and do not target a couple’s specific needs. Instead, he proposes the use of the Relationship Checkup (RC), a brief intervention with military couples. Relationship checkups are research-informed and evidence-based tools. that help couples identify and address these negative behaviors.
The RC program is designed to remove the barriers to seeking help for one’s relationship. The RC approach is often less threatening and less time-intensive than therapy and may increase one’s comfort with seeking further assistance. In the pilot RC program, military participants reported that the RC was quick, easy, fun, and effective.
More in-depth research of the program conducted with military couples found that participants’ relationship satisfaction increased after participating in the brief intervention. They also reported high satisfaction with the RC program.
Through the Military Family Life Counselor (MFLC) program, military couples can receive the RC at no charge. Kelly Smith with Military OneSource outlined how the RC is being implemented by MFLCs as non-medical counseling. Several cohorts of MFLCs have already received comprehensive training to implement the RC, with more training opportunities planned.
The RC program begins with partners completing an online questionnaire, designed to help couples identify their strengths and areas of concern. The MFLC then works with couples to identify specific strategies to address concerns and offers ongoing support.
Military couples can access the program through Military and Family Support Centers, Child Development Centers, and other military-connected sites. As noted above, there is no charge for active duty service members and their families.
MFLN Webinars on Strengthening Relationships
The webinar highlighted here is part of the series A Close Look at Relationships: Supporting Military Couples. All webinars in the series share research on the impact of military life on the couple and family relationships and provide tools for service professionals to support military couples and families in strengthening their relationships. Find more information on the series webpage where you can access recordings of previous webinars and register for upcoming webinars.
Relationship distress is a public health issue, costing billions of dollars in the U.S. economy. Preventing this distress not only reduces costs but improves health and well-being.
RCs can help military couples strengthen their relationships and address areas of concern.
The RC program has been adapted for military couples and is available at no charge for active duty service members and their partners through the MFLC program.
Military OneSource offers relationship resources for military families and the Military Family Learning Network provides professional development for Military Family Service Providers and Cooperative Extension professionals on strengthening military families.
Karen Shirer is a member of the Military Families Learning Network Family Transitions Team and previously the Associate Dean with the University of Minnesota, Extension Center for Family Development. Karen is also the parent of two adult daughters, a grandmother, a spouse, and a cancer survivor.
Adler-Baeder, F., & Shirer, K. A. (2011). Coparenting interventions for unmarried parents. In J. P. McHale & K. M. Lindahl (Eds.), Coparenting: A Conceptual and Clinical Examination of Family Systems (pp. 191–210). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/12328-009.
Cordova, J. V., Cigrang, J. A., Gray, T. D., Najera, E., Havrilenko, M., Pinkley, C., … Redd, K. (2017). Addressing relationship health needs in primary care: Adapting the marriage checkup for use in medical settings with military couples. Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings, 24(3-4), 259-269. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10880-017-9517-8.
Cordova, J. & Smith, K. (2021). The Relationship Checkup: Support for Military Couples [Webinar]. Military Family Learning Network.
Limitsa, E. (2013, April 23). The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.
Military OneSource. (No Date). Rekindle, Repair or Reset Your Relationship [Website].