Doing Life Together

ID-100122426Rick and Sue announced their marital separation. As we talked, I asked, “Have you ever been to a couple’s therapist to try and work out your problems?” Their answer, “Yes, we tried, it didn’t work.”

“Can you give me a few details?”

“Well we went one time when we decided to separate. The therapist wanted to see us individually but we felt it was  too late.”

But was it? One of the main reasons couples divorce is because they wait too long to get help. Couples who need help, don’t get it. And those who could benefit, wait until they have already decided it is too late. And yet there is help that could possible prevent a number of divorces.

For example, let’s look at a few predictors of divorce and how those issues could be addressed:

1) Those couples who react strongly to disagreement and remain upset, have high stress levels. If they ruminate about arguments and can’t turn off their upset, they are more likely to divorce. Couples therapy teaches couples how to recognize the escalation of disagreement, calm it down and resolve conflict. This is a helpful skill no matter the relationship.

2) Negative communication is a sign of a failing relationship. Again we know that when couples engage in whining, criticism, irritation, resentment, accusations, etc., the relationship will turn negative. The escalation of negativity takes a progressive path towards emotional distance.  Emotional distance predicts divorce. A couple’s therapist knows how to reverse that and help the couple build back positivity in the relationship.

3) Receiving formal feedback regarding a couple’s progress in therapy has been shown to lower separation and divorce rates (Anker, Duncan &Sparks, 2009). This means going to counseling, working through issues with someone who can give feedback and comment on progress, helps work through issues.

4) Finding the right therapist matters. First you need someone trained in couples work. If they are a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), they have to pass training and supervision requirements to be a couple’s therapist. Some therapist do couples work but have little training in that area. Also there is evidence supporting the idea that a couple’s therapist who places a positive versus neutral value on marriage commitment is a good choice. The person will be supportive of marriage. And there is a positive correlation between the therapist’s well-being and couple outcome. So finding the right therapist is extremely important.

Can couple’s therapy work? Yes, but couples have to agree to work on their relationship and apply what is being practiced in the sessions. Couples do best to engage in therapy before the distress is severe. The earlier the intervention, the better. Many divorces are preventable.

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