Couple Counselling - Background and Extra Reading

The couple field received a shake-up some years ago when husband & wife authors, therapists & researchers, John and Julie Gottman, critiqued the 30% “success” rate of Couple Therapy, challenging well-intentioned counsellors who “dabble” in couples and try to apply the same principles that work in one-on-one psychotherapy.  In therapy for individuals, research suggests that the qualities and skill of the Counsellor, especially their ability to create a safe, attuned relationship, is a more important predictor of successful outcome than any particular method they might be using.  However, the Gottman research suggested that the therapeutic relationship, while important, is not enough by itself to create successful outcomes for couples.  Their research suggests that Couples therapy requires specialised knowledge and skills, including a practical understanding of why and how couples get stuck in distressed negative cycles of interaction, and what helps them instead build and sustain a healthier, positive cycle.

Part of this understanding involves the science of stress reactivity, including how in couples, the fight/flight/freeze/appease reactions manifest as what Gottman calls the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” or predictors of divorce: i) criticising/blaming; ii) defending; iii) stonewalling; & iv) contempt.  Understanding this intellectually will not create change, so much as becoming aware of how this feels from the inside, emotionally, bodily and behaviourally, and learning how to slow things down in order to interrupt the reactive cycle, and practice more effective ways of getting needs and feelings heard and met.  Part of the change process can also include learning to emotionally regulate self and partner when “triggered,” as is inevitable in any close, long-term relationship.  Given the negative survival brain bias to perceive threat, even a partner as “predator,” the Gottmans stress the need for the therapy process to counter this, by supporting couples to recognise, take in, and build up more positive behaviours & experiences of safety, satisfaction and connection.

The Gottman research recommends Couple Therapists incorporate these understandings into specific models that have been proven to work for couples.  One such model with a much higher success rate of around 70% – and the one preferred by Maggie – is Sue Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples (EFT-C).  Based on attachment theory, this systematic approach helps couples track their own negative cycle or dance as a first step to figuring out how to recognise when they are triggered, how to interrupt this, and how to begin experiencing and practicing something different.  This typically involves dropping below the content or “story” of the conflict, into the underlying body sensations and emotions, and the universal but often underestimated attachment longing to feel safe, secure and understood.

Another helpful model used by Maggie, and incorporating both attachment and the neuroscience of emotional regulation, is Stan Tatkin’s Psycho-biological Approach to Couple Therapy (PACT).  Both of these models, and the Gottman research support the idea that differences and some level of conflict in relationships is inevitable.  The goal is therefore not to avoid conflict (more couples separate from drifting away from each other than from high levels of conflict), but to help couples know how to navigate differences in ways that don’t ultimately compromise safety and connection.

One of the interesting findings for Emotion Focused Therapy for Couples is that couples rate the quality of their closeness and connection higher as time goes on, including long after the therapy has finished.  This is in contrast to other approaches where couples often say their hard-earned improvements didn’t “hold” after they stopped therapy.  Increased closeness as time goes on fits with the idea that, as couples “practice” behaviours such as expressing feelings and needs without criticism, tuning in, quickly repairing, and helping each other regulate the distress caused when safety is threatened, their confidence & skills to do this grows.

Sadly, couples sometimes tolerate years of distress and increasing distance before seeking help, by which time one or both partners may feel separation is the only option. Not seeking support earlier is another reason why the success rate of couple therapy is not higher, and why some in the Couple field advocate for more pre and early marriage retreats and counselling.  Unfortunately there can be a stigma around couple therapy in Australia and an attitude that it is only for “relationships on the rocks,” rather than viewing it as helpful for any relationship at any point in time.  It is also worth noting that couples who do decide to separate, usually still find the counselling process helpful in terms of understanding more about what went wrong, what might help in future relationships, and how they can still safely navigate childcare or any other shared arrangements.

For more information, the following books & talks are highly recommended.  The first two books include practical exercises for couples that are designed to complement therapy and could also hasten the counselling process:

1)    Sue Johnson – Hold me Tight, Brown Book Group, 2011.

2)    Jennifer Fitzgerald and Veronica Kallos-Lilly – An Emotionally Focused Workbook for Couples,  Routledge 2015.

3)    Stan Tatkin, Wired for love: How understanding your partner’s brain and attachment style can help you defuse conflict and build a secure relationship, New Harbinger Publications Inc. 2011.

4)    Two one-hour interviews by Stan Tatkin with Tami Simon on website Sounds True: Insights at the Edge.  Putting your relationship first: Lessons from you brain on Love, Part 1 July 9, 2013 and Part 2 July 16, 2013

5)    John Gottman & Nan Silver – The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, 1999.