First of all, if any of you haven’t read the recent article on the Good Men Project, “Why Marriage Counselling Leads to Divorce: 8 Relationship Secrets Your Therapist Won’t Tell You,” do so. The link is at the references at the bottom of this article. Like most of the articles on GMP it is well-written and informative. However, I would argue the title needs to be modified to: “Why Most Marriage Counselling Leads to Divorce” or even more accurately, “Why Marriage Counselling from an Individual-Focus Leads to Divorce.”
In the article, Dr. Diamond outlines many of the factors Marriage Counselling fails, some of them the fault of the client, some of them the therapist, and some from society’s pressures and attitudes. These are excellent things to know before any couple begins the journey of choosing a helper (whether coach/consultant/counsellor/therapist/psychologist or other).
Above all factors, (Dr. Diamond puts it first on the list) I believe it’s what most people understand in counselling’s focus on the individual that causes it to fail. This one person sitting on a chair or couch talking to the counsellor is what most people, both researchers and the general believe to be the standard treatment or Treatment as Usual (TAU) (I will refer back to TAU a few times in this article), and indeed it is not too different for the majority of those couples seeking help.
Let’s be clear. Standard talk therapy, when it is for an individual’s issue, does work for the majority of cases. Statistics from the Canadian Mental Health Association show that 80% of those who seek help for major depressive disorder, regardless of whether the counsellor is more psychoanalytic (think Freud), Humanistic (Rogers), or Cognitive-Behavioural (CBT) (Aaron Beck & Albert Ellis), do get better.
However, what works for the individual does not always work for the relationship. It’s pretty obvious why this approach of the counsellor helping the individual get what he/she wants fails when it’s a couple seeking help fails. But for argument’s sake, let’s put out a few of the likely reasons for us all to see, below.
The 8 Things Couples Should Know About Couples Therapy “As Usual”
1. What is best for the individual is often not right for the relationship. Keeping this belief in couples counselling can deepen existing wedges/conflicts.
2. Focuses on “happiness”and freedom above all (getting to do what I want). If you want absolute freedom, stay single, however, lasting happiness is not actually likely to follow. Probably one of the strongest effects in psychology is that it is our quality of our relationships, not the level of independence, or number or quality of things we have, that most contributes to our happiness (United Nations, 2013).
3. Focuses on short-term gain (“I just want to stop being in pain right now,” or “He/she is annoying me so much right now, I can’t tolerate it”) over long-term gain and togetherness. Did you know marriage makes you live longer? Due to the stress divorce causes (both during and after), those who split up die about 4 years earlier, and are ill 35% more often than couples who stay together (Gottman, 1999).
4. Privileging an individual perspective excludes many other cultures which put what is best for the “group” as ideal. Emphasis on tight inter-connected relationships and living with one’s family of origin even when one is married is the norm in many cultures.
5. Focuses more on past conflicts and traumas vs. present feelings. Both need to be talked about, but the focus should mostly be on behaviour changes couples can make right now. Exclusively focusing on the past can cause couples to actually reinforce bad communication, making conflict more frequent!
6. Focuses on talk (talking about talking about making a change) vs. direct application of new skills. This may be due to many therapists being uncomfortable themselves–SURPRISE–with expression of difficult feelings such as anger, as to really become comfortable with anger, a therapist needs to have gone/still go to therapy themselves, and have worked with couples/families present in the same physical room as them. Also, in some forms of individual therapy, i.e. in psychoanalytic/psychodynamic this is much more of a problem than other forms, such as CBT, which is very skills-based.
7. Focuses on one individual dominating the conversation and having the focus always on them.
8. May ignore the cycle of problem behaviours and communication (Gottman calls these the “4 Horsemen”) by shifting blame onto one or the other person, instead of both parties taking responsibility for how they contribute to the overall emotional environment of the relationship.
As you can see the focus on the individual most counsellors have is extremely reflective of our current, White North-American culture’s focus on the same thing. So is the reason why most marriage counselling fails just because it’s simply a product of our culture, or is psychology’s emphasis on the individual human being/organism the problem? I see both as an issue, however, my answer is that regardless of whether it is the “chicken or the egg,” counsellors, and the programs that train them, should know better.
Though emphasizing the importance of research or evidence-based treatments (EBTs) on one hand, counsellors trained outside a very select group of programs (e.g. a handful accredited by the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists), are not given enough experience with approaches specific to couples and family’s issues, and the number of clinical hours with actual couples and families (and a supervisor skilled in relationship approaches), to really integrate the principles into their practice with couples.
Therapists, coaches, or others, applying the same principles to couples therapy as to individuals, do real damage.
How the Right Kind of Couples Therapy Can Help, Even Save Your Relationship
Counsellors trained in methods such as Gottman or Emotion-Focused Therapy (AKA: Integrative Behaviour Therapies) specifically designed for couples, get success in the majority of cases–about 69% staying married and showing significant increases in satisfaction and communication in their relationship 2 years later–compared to those who do not seek treatment, stated one study by the Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy (2006). It’s important to note that this 69% is really very significant, as when you compare couples counselling that doesn’t use these approaches, it gets a 30-40% success rate. Consider also, the extremely late stage most couples decide to see most counsellors–in many cases, couples have already made up their mind to divorce–so a score of approximately 2/3 is not that bad. Not that bad at all.
Integrative Behaviour Therapies allow couples to experience and practice new skills, such as “how to fight fair,” and calm down one’s physical reactions (i.e. heart-rate, muscle tension), reducing frequency and intensity of conflict, as well as putting a stop to contempt, an attitude connected to resentment, superiority and disgust over one’s partner, which Dr. Gottman’s research with over 3000 couples over the last 25 years, has declared the single-most powerful killer of marriages (Lisitsa, 2013).
Choosing a counsellor, if your goal is to truly keep the relationship going (whether you go individually or as a couple) is probably one of the biggest decisions you can make. Choose a counsellor skilled in couples and family approaches and has worked with many couples. Don’t be afraid to ask directly about their clinical experience, training and qualifications. It is up to you to do your homework to make it either one of the best, or worst, investments of your life, and the life of your partner.
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Christensen, A., Atkins, D. C., Yi, J., Baucom, D. H., & George, W. H. (2006). Couple and individual adjustment for 2 years following a randomized clinical trial comparing traditional versus integrative behavioral couple therapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74(6), 1180-1191. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.74.6.1180
Diamond, J. (2015, February 22). Why couples counselling leads to divorce. Retrieved from: http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/why-marriage-counseling-leads-to-divorce-wcz/
Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Crown Publishers.
Lisitsa, E. (2013, May 13). The Four Horsemen: Contempt. Retrieved from: http://www.gottmanblog.com/four-horsemen/2014/10/30/the-four-horsemen-contempt?rq=contempt
United Nations. (2013). World Happiness Report. Retrieved from: http://unsdsn.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/WorldHappinessReport2013_online.pdf
- “The 7 Principles of Making Marriage Work” or “The Relationship Cure.” (Books)
- Married With Problems? Therapy May Not Help. – http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/19/health/psychology/19coup.html?pagewanted=print&position=
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