Does Marriage Counselling work?
A major study in 2010 of therapies for unhappy couples has provided some important information on whether two leading forms of couples counselling practises actually produce lasting benefits for couples.
One of the world’s leading researchers in the field of relationships, Dr. Andrew Christensen led a team from UCLA and University of Washington that compared two different types of relationship therapies.
The first therapy had a focus on changing the mechanics of the way couples communicate, on how couples solve problems ‘in the here and now’, and on restoring positive experiences that couples have with each other. Previous research studies had found that this method did not produce long lasting change in couples behaviour.
While the second approach was designed, in part, to consider the limits of the first treatment approach: this second option was based on the premise that if couples were not changing very much, then maybe both partners could learn to downplay the negative or unpleasant parts of their relationship and instead to focus on the strengths of each other and the relationship.
The second counselling approach had an aim to change the way couples communicate, but the primary focus was on helping couples to accept their partner and not over-respond emotionally to the moans and groans, or slights and gripes, that frequently occur between couples.
The couples who participated in the research were aged in their early 40’s, well educated and married for an average of 10 years. Most of the couples had children. All couples were considered to be ‘chronically and seriously’ distressed.
The couples were divided equally into the two treatment approaches, which were delivered by counselling practitioners who were closely supervised over 26 couples sessions.
So the question was which treatment approach is likely to produce long-term sustained change in couples, either the first method – helping couples change so they get what they want, or the second method, of helping couples try to want what they already have.
What Christensen and his team found was that both treatment approaches work equally well over 5 years. The divorce rate was about the same in the two groups, (26-28%), and those couples who were remained together after 5 years interestingly reported the same levels of happiness within their relationship.
The most important question to consider is how much improvement occurred overall? Christensen and his team classified all couples who were receiving therapy on the basis of whether they had…
1. Those who had divorced
2. All the other couples who chosen not to divorce, but lived together in an unhappy state.
1. Those couples who remained unchanged in their relationship satisfaction compared to where they started in the treatment
2. Couples who had improved from where they had begun in treatment
3. Couples who had recovered their relationship and had improved to the point that made them indistinguishable from couples who were considered happy in society.
From this research, couples counselling is mostly a matter of improvement in a relationship, or the couple opts out of the relationship. The research found that 38% of couples had deteriorated. The rest 62% of couples…. improved or most fully recovered to becoming very satisfied and happy couples or (around 14%) had remained unchanged.
By the time couples seek help for their relationship difficulties, they are usually experiencing a great deal of unhappiness and distress, and so therapists are nearly always faced with an uphill struggle in their efforts with the couple to improve their relationship.
The researchers found that around half of all the couples improve their relationship, and most of these improvements were by a sizeable margin.
The researchers concluded that on balance, and given the enormous challenge of the task for couples as well as for the counsellors, these figures are very good.