Couples Therapy
The relationship as the client
Post WW-II history of marriage
 Economics
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Shift in type of work due to industrialization
Necessity of dual incomes
 Technology
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Industrialization
Transportation
Birth control
 Social Norms (next slide)
The change in social norms
 Shift from external, role-oriented criteria (e.g., good worker,
provider, mother, wife) to internal criteria of personal satisfaction.
 Studies of changing themes in popular magazine articles about
marriage since the '50s document increased emphasis on selfdevelopment, flexible and negotiable roles, and open
communication about problems. Surveys show similarly dramatic
changes in criteria for "marital satisfaction".
 These changes reflect increases in individualism and our
standard of living, as well as improved contraceptive methods
and greater availability of abortions.
 Could you conceive of staying in a marriage unless you're happy?
Current statistics
 The American divorce rate has increased dramatically
since the mid 19th century (peak in early '80s).
 Between 50-67% of first marriages end in divorce -- and
the failure rate for second marriages is 10% higher.
Median duration is 7.2 years.
 More marriages now end in divorce than death (true since
1974).
 Couple therapy is a growing industry: From 1,000 licensed
marital therapists in 1972 to over 50,000 today.
 Barely half of couples report significant improvement from
therapy (compared to over 75% in individual therapy) -and a third of those who improve have problems later on
(Bray & Jouriles).
Characteristics of “happy” couples
Tolstoy’s adage:
“All happy families are alike, but
unhappy marriages are unhappy
in their own way.”
 Characteristics (John Gottman)
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foundation of affection and friendship
"validation sequences“
ability to resolve disagreements
“positive sentiment override”
 a 5 to 1(or better) compliment-criticism ratio is optimal
 as the ratio decreases, marriage satisfaction decreases
Amount of conflict relatively unimportant (all relationships have conflict)
Distressed couples (Gottman cont.)
 Engage in a wide range of
destructive fighting techniques
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Personal attacks (name calling)
Dredging up the past
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Losing focus (…and the “kitchen sink”)
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 Tend to resort to the "four
horsemen of the apocalypse“
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Criticism (more common in women)
Defensiveness
Withdrawal (more common in men)
Contempt
Couples’ interaction styles (Gottman cont.)
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Three ways of understanding couples’ interaction styles:
 Validating (optimal)
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the 5 to 1 ratio (optimal)
respect partner's opinions and emotions
compromise often
resolve problems to mutual satisfaction
Volatile
 arguments, conflict may or may not be resolved
 Vacillate between heated arguments and passionate
reconciliation
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Avoiding – do not deal with problems at all (agree to
disagree)
Compatibility of interaction styles sometimes more
predictive of relationship success than the style itself
Love is a story (Sternberg)
 What are stories of love?
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They are stories about what love ideally should be
They play out in our day-to-day experiences in
relationships
They influence who we are attracted to and who we are
compatible with
They are a lens through which people experience events
 How do they form?
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Stories come from past experiences, thoughts, and
feelings about relationships
Stories can and do change, but new stories start with old
stories
Stories are affected by cultural norms
Love is a story (continued)
 Some examples
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Asymetrical stories (generally not healthy)
 teacher-student
 sacrifice
 government
 police investigation (detective/suspect)
 horror
 collection
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Coordination stories (usually healthier)
 travel
 garden:processing | attention
 sewing
 business
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Narratives
 fantasy
 war
Goals of therapy
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The most-studied form of couple therapy -- Behavioral Marital Therapy
 Help partners negotiate behavior change
 Teach more effective communication skills (e.g., active listening, how to argue)
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Gottman (microskills)
 Avoid the 4 horsemen and other forms of destructive fighting
 Focus on and encourage “positive sentiment override”
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Latest research findings
 Improving "communication skills" may not be the key to resolving many couple
problems (Baucom; Burleson & Denton).
 Good will between partners may be more important than good
communication skills
 Good language and communication skills can even make bad marriages
worse (e.g., keeps problem salient)
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Several promising new approaches
 Acceptance therapy (focus on interrupting partners' attempts to change each
other)
 Solution-focused therapy (intervention aims to identify exceptions to the problem
and reinforce strengths in the couple's relationship)
Therapeutic techniques
 Maintain balanced approach (don’t show favoritism)
 Have members of the couple talk to each other, not
the therapist
 Anticipate backsliding (habits are hard to change)