The concept of couple therapy or marriage counseling has been around for over 40 years, and with that comes many different expert opinions on the “right” approach to take. It can be daunting for couples who are struggling with their relationship to figure out how to understand what to look for in a therapy program.
Recently a group of psychologists from UCLA published a review of research on couple therapy that summarizes five underlying principles of couple treatment that are found across therapy approaches (Benson et al., 2012). In other words, whether the therapist uses emotion-focused therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy or any other approach in practice, provided that these five principles are upheld, positive changes can be made to the couple relationship.
1. Altering views of the relationship. During treatment the therapist will help each member of the couple to move away from blaming the other and begin to understand situational and inter-personal factors that affect the relationship more objectively. The therapist will generally begin this process by observing how the couple interacts with one another and how each partner speaks about the relationship. The therapist will then use the analysis of this information to help the couple start to see their relationship in more constructive ways.
2. Changing dysfunctional interactions. The therapist will work toward changing the manner in which the couple behave toward each other. While evaluating the couple’s interactions the therapist will be careful to watch for signs of physical, psychological or economic safety concerns. If the therapist determines that one member is at risk of harm then appropriate referrals will be made because couple therapy may not be the appropriate treatment option in that case.
3. Increasing emotional disclosure. Therapists help both partners to express the private emotions that they may be afraid to share. While some couples function perfectly fine without a lot of emotional disclosure, when a couple is experiencing distress sharing their feelings is crucial to rebuilding intimacy and restoring satisfaction in the relationship.
4. Improving communication. This principle builds on concepts in principles 2 and 3, and is a crucial aspect of the therapy process. Healthy communication goes beyond the elimination of damaging or hurtful behaviors and learning how to express your emotions. It is important for couples to develop positive communication strategies and to understand how to respond to their partner’s emotional disclosures.
5. Promoting Strengths. The therapist will be sure to focus not only on improving areas of difficulty within the relationship, but also on emphasizing strengths and building resilience. Helping the couple to focus on the positive aspects of their relationship increases their overall satisfaction.
If you find yourself struggling in your relationship and wondering whether couple therapy can help you take comfort in the fact that any approach can be effective when employed with these five principles in mind. A successful, fulfilling relationship is possible for you.
Benson, L. A., McGinn, M. M., & Christensen, A. (2012). Common principles of couple therapy. Behavior Therapy, 43, 25-35.