Have you ever thought of your marriage in terms of strength and growth areas? Some pieces such as your personal habits or beliefs might come together more naturally, and other pieces like your orientation to finances are going to take more deliberate work. This is the relational paradigm used as a foundation of the widely used Prepare-Enrich (P/E) marriage assessment.
We got connected as facilitators of P/E through a relationship with our neighbor, Amy Olson. She is an author and marriage and family therapist whose parents developed P/E in 1980. It is most commonly known as a tool for engaged couples but is also used by couples who are already married.
It might not be a huge surprise that in an analysis of 50,000 marriages (married couples who have completed P/E), the area that most highly distinguished between happy and unhappy couples was communication. Other potential strength or growth constructs such as financial management, partner style and habits, conflict resolution, and relationship roles may also come into play. But communication was the single biggest indicator of marriage satisfaction.
Olson shared that P/E data identified two specific communication sub-issues that best discriminated between “happy” and “unhappy” couples. These were feeling satisfied with how they talk to one another and feeling understood by their partner. Communication can be a very big subject, but thinking about these two areas can set the groundwork for practically working on it as a marriage growth area.
The other two P/E constructs that were highly related to stronger marriages were “closeness,” which measures emotional connection, and “flexibility,” which looks at the capacity of a couple to change and adapt when necessary.
After taking the assessment and getting our P/E results, we came to identify how these two issues were modeled differently in our families of origin and how this played into our marriage expectations.
Regardless of which “couple type” (vitalized, harmonious, conventional, conflicted, and devitalized) the P/E tool identifies, a “successful” couple can actually fall in any of those areas. However, it was sobering to learn from Olson that in over 2,000 “devitalized” marriages, only 23% reported high commitment, whereas 95% of couples in “vitalized” marriages reported high commitment.
In other words, the state of your commitment level to one another could either be a huge risk factor or a potential strength no matter what season your marriage is in. It is very encouraging to remember that commitment, in and of itself, makes a difference.
On the topic of marriage strengthening practices, one surprising piece of advice that Olson gave was to consider going on a double date. This actually has more beneficial evidence than going on a date night with your spouse alone. She noted how double-dating allows you to see your partner in a broader context beyond your immediate relationship while at the same time strengthening your sense of “we-ness.”
We actually tried this just recently by going to see a movie and then out for appetizers with a couple we have recently gotten to know from our neighborhood. They are friends with kids in the same classes, and it turned out to be one of the best couple times we have had all year!
We have found that using the P/E assessment with engaged couples and in married couple groups has actually strengthened our marriage. By using it to frame our relationship in terms of strength and growth areas, it gives hope that though we may always have work to do, there are practical ways to continue making our marriage stronger.
Here are a few tips for couples:
- Take turns identifying which of the P/E assessment type areas (vitalized, harmonious, conventional, conflicted, and devitalized) you believe you are currently in. Explain the specific interpersonal behaviors that lead you to this conclusion. Conclude by expressing your commitment to the other person.
- If you’re looking for a good book to read together, get “The Couple Checkup.” It combines P/E research along with exercise questions to strengthen your growth areas and an online profile.
- Ask another couple out on a double date together!
— by Colette and Jonathan Stuart
Jonathan Stuart, Ph.D., is a faculty member in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system. He specializes in training and mediation services. Colette Campbell, M.A., is an adjunct faculty member, speaker/consultant and coach. She offers workshops on connecting to your calling, working with differences, and workingbetter2gether.