New Research Confirms: Distressed Couples Shouldn’t Wait to Get Help

A recent study conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies confirmed findings previously reported by Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute regarding the benefit of early intervention in saving relationships.

While Gottman found that couples with the most difficulties (and who waited an average of six years before getting help) had less chance of a successful therapy outcome, the Australian findings were even more dire. Their research concluded that couples counseling failed in 25% to 30% of the study participants! That’s a huge number; however, a closer look at this recent study shows that couples in “no-win” situations were included in the data.

Some of the participants deemed couples counseling “failures” were victims of domestic violence, who shouldn’t have been in counseling with their partner anyway. (The violence & anger management issues must be resolved first.)

Other examples of so-called couples counseling failure included situations where one partner showed up in counseling only to tell their partner that they were leaving the relationship. Those who’ve already decided to end their relationship are highly unlikely to change their mind in counseling, regardless of the skill level of their couples therapist.

Including these types of cases in the study’s statistics about couples counseling success rates is really misleading and definitely skewed their results!

The Australian researchers did make some good observations, however. They concluded that if the ability to “self-reflect” (or examine one’s own contributions to relationship problems) is not present, it’s hard for any issues to resolve.  Self-reflection is an essential ability to evaluate not only your own personal views, but those of your partner. Without the willingness to compromise and empathize, a successful outcome is quite unlikely.

Another strike against successful therapy outcomes occurs when a couple is severely angry or distressed and only sees “red.” In this frenzied emotional state, couples are unable to process information successfully or even willing to try to resolve any issues. Others who refuse to see their partner’s perspective are also not likely to benefit from therapy sessions.

While couples counseling is much more successful when relationships are experiencing mild or moderate distress (compared to severe distress), there are other factors that influence successful outcomes.

A survey conducted by the Household Income and Labor Dynamics in Australia revealed that households dealing with poor mental health, dependent children, or having only one partner who smoked also indicated a lower relationship survival rate.

Interestingly, the same survey found that differences such as personality, age, education, or race did not seem to affect marital success rates. However, dissatisfaction did tend to occur as time passed, with men expressing the most unhappiness in their 40s, and women in their 50s.

The Australian research also mentioned that government handouts were given in the form of credit vouchers for obtaining free couples therapy sessions. In spite of this financial assistance, only one in five distressed couples in the country took advantage of the service, and it was discontinued after only seven months. It was further determined that 40% of divorced couples never sought out professional counseling help at any point in their relationship.

Unfortunately, the stigma of counseling still gets in the way. It’s connected to one of the biggest myths about counseling (discussed here).  Many people view needing or asking for help as a weakness, or a sign that their relationship is over. Instead of utilizing available resources to become stronger, they wait until the relationship is too far gone to survive.

Couples counseling, in reality, should be viewed as “doing maintenance work.” Using your car for comparison, you know that keeping the oil changed and having regular tune-ups helps you avoid major mechanical problems. Isn’t your marriage worth maintaining in “running order” as well?  Periodic counseling sessions, before major problems arise, will be less complicated, less time-consuming and thus require less financial expenditure – just like your favorite car.

In my professional experience, couples counseling success depends on developing the quality of the therapist-client(s) relationship (including having a solid therapeutic alliance), the motivation level of the couple, and perhaps most importantly, the clients’ belief that they can have a successful outcome.  An optimistic outlook can go a long way toward achieving positive results.

This Australian study really echoes and confirms Gottman’s research (in addition to my own professional experience), that the best way to save your relationship is to seek help sooner rather than later — while both partners are still committed to each other, motivated, willing to work at keeping their relationship healthy, and expect a positive outcome.

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7 Important Considerations when Pondering a Break-Up

The consequences of divorce can be life shattering and usually include emotional and financial difficulties. The decision to separate, even temporarily, can be excruciatingly hard.

Even when couples know they are unhappy, there are many factors to consider, especially when children are involved and/or finances are tight. On the other hand, staying in an unhappy relationship can also take its toll on all involved family members.

Deciding whether to break up or not can be so overwhelming that some couples end up making a hasty, emotionally-charged decision. Others often become paralyzed, caught up in a tidal wave of confusion.

Before finalizing this life-changing decision, it may be helpful to review the following considerations. Use them to examine your relationship and make the most informed, easy-to-live-with choice, regarding the rest of your life:

(#1) Did you do everything possible to work on the relationship?

Most folks who have a healthy divorce feel okay about the outcome and themselves and recover faster from the breakup, when they believe they did everything they could to save the relationship.

In general, those who feel they didn’t give it their best shot often have lots of regrets, and wonder if their divorce was the right choice.

(#2) Examine what you consider to be the biggest problem(s) in your relationship.

It’s important to take the time to determine if your relationship problems are directly related to situational or temporary stressors, instead of more permanent issues or incompatibilities.

Sometimes, too many temporary negatives happening at once are so overwhelming, they can make it seem like your relationship is hopeless. Consider if this is your situation and, if so, realize that situational struggles will usually improve.

(#3) Imagine your future.

Project 5, 10, or even 25 years ahead and visualize both situations: Staying together versus living apart. Evaluate, and rate on a happiness scale of 1 to 10, the different scenarios in terms of your personal satisfaction, finances, and your kids’ wellbeing.

(#4) Reflect on your relationship and determine what individual needs have been met, as well as those that haven’t.

Have you expressed your needs and emotions to your partner in ways that could truly be heard and weren’t experienced as an attack? Have you assumed you did, but perhaps didn’t?

(#5) Equally important, clarify the needs and expectations of your partner as well.

(see #4 above).

(#6) If children are involved, how will they be impacted?

It’s common for parents to ask, “Should we stay together for the kids?”  Research shows that the biggest damage to children comes from any conflict between parents, even after a divorce.  Will you and your partner be able to maintain a civil relationship for the sake of your kids, and focus on what’s best for them?

(#7) Perhaps the most important piece of advice is to not make a hasty decision.

If you’re in doubt for any reason, it’s generally best to postpone making anything permanent. Consider a trial separation, or waiting six months to have a period of self-reflection.

Often an “in the moment,” emotionally-made decision by one partner can have permanent consequences. The partner on the receiving end may have originally wanted to try and stay together, but the impact of the blow is too much, and they throw in the towel too.

Deciding to break up with a long-term partner is such an important and life-altering decision that all available resources should be utilized to ensure you’re making the best decision possible. In order to process all the above factors, strongly consider seeking couples and individual counseling. Some may also benefit from the advice of a financial planner to help determine your fiscal health in both scenarios.

In order to have the peace of mind that you’ve made the best decision for your situation without any regret, take the time to process all the above considerations so that you can move on in your life in the healthiest way possible.  And if you do decide to end your relationship, you’ll be able to do so confidently, without any doubt.

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Arnold S. Perpetuates Huge Myth about Couples Counseling

On a recent Howard Stern show, actor/ex-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger claimed that going to couples counseling (with ex-wife Maria Shriver) was “the biggest mistake I ever made.”

What Arnold likely meant – it’s pretty safe to assume – was that couples counseling not only did not save his marriage, it actually contributed to its demise. This assumption perpetuates one of the biggest myths regarding relationship counseling: It will make your relationship worse off, and may even end it.

As happens in any profession, less than competent therapists, unfortunately, do end up working with couples. Although I have no knowledge about Arnold and Maria’s couples counselor’s expertise, it’s more likely that this high-profile couple chose a well-recommended professional with impressive credentials.

Also unfortunate, Arnold isn’t the only person who believes that the purpose of couples therapy is to resuscitate marriages that are on life support. (Couples wait an average of six years before reaching out for help.) This type of (faulty) reasoning allows one to conclude that whenever a relationship ends after couples counseling, the therapist was incompetent and somehow caused it.

Or to put it in technical terms, if event “B” frequently follows event “A,” this doesn’t mean that A actually caused B. When many couples decide to reach out for counseling after years of resentment, it’s foolish to then label the counseling or couples therapist as the cause of their relationship demise.

Couples therapy can help some marriages get back on track, sometimes even if they were on the brink of calling it quits, but it can also help some relationships end amicably. In some cases, it may actually be best, for the health of each partner, for the relationship to end. As research by Dr. John Gottman points out, couples counseling does a much better job of helping moderately-distressed couples than it does helping severely-distressed couples. From media reports, Arnold’s marriage likely fit the latter category.

Here are some other popular counseling myths floating around:

1. “Getting counseling is a sign of weakness. It means we can’t figure this out ourselves.”

The reality: Seeking professional help, i.e., utilizing available resources is a sign of one’s strength, not weakness.

2. “How can someone who doesn’t even know us, help us?”

The reality: A competent (couples) therapist is able to quickly assess you and your situation, in order to provide appropriate care.

3. “If we go to couples counseling, the therapist will take sides” or “the therapist will change my partner’s mind about leaving me.”

Truth: A couples counselor is not a miracle worker and cannot change people’s minds. Therapists are unbiased listeners and facilitate communication, they don’t take sides.

4. “Our problems aren’t bad enough.”

It’s an unfortunate truth that many couples think they must be on the brink of divorce or other disaster, before counseling would be worthwhile. As mentioned above, Dr. Gottman’s research proves otherwise.

5. “My aunt/cousin/neighbor, etc. went to counseling and it didn’t help him/her, so I’m not going.”

Reality: One person’s experience (such as Arnold’s) does not impact other totally different situations and can’t be generalized.

6. “If I go to couples counseling, everyone will know and it will be so embarrassing.”

Therapists are ethically obligated to honor client confidentiality. The only other people who will know are the ones you or your partner tell.

7. “It’s just not worth the money; it takes years of therapy sessions to get results.”

The reality, contrary to Woody Allen movies, is that counseling does not go on forever. And isn’t saving or improving your marriage worth the money!?

8. “Couples counseling will fix us.”

Truth: Sometimes people show up expecting that their problems will magically get better, without any work on their part. This is a totally unrealistic expectation, as effort and hard work are required by both partners to make changes that last.

9. “The therapist will end up telling us to stay together or split up.”

Reality: A couples therapist is not a judge who deems your relationship good or bad, but a trained professional who tries to improve relationships by working on less healthy aspects of your partnership.

10. “Marriage counseling can help you fall madly in love again, like the first year or two of your relationship (the honeymoon period).”

Reality: Unfortunately, therapists don’t have time machines with this capability; however, couples counseling can help you reconnect with your partner. This can certainly lay the foundation for a stronger bond, and sometimes does lead to re-experiencing the passion in the relationship. Although unlikely to actually recreate the honeymoon phase that occurred years ago, couples counseling can provide a stable base for building a much more satisfying future together.

Too bad Arnold didn’t prepare for couples counseling by researching the facts!

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How the “6 Magic Hours” Can Transform Your Relationship

Renowned researcher and couples counselor, Dr. John Gottman, recently updated the 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work, one of his best-selling books, coauthored with Nan Silver in 1999.

Lots of technical advances have been made since the book first went to print over 16 years ago. Most importantly, the explosion of social media has had a huge impact on how we live. The popularity and frequent use of digital devices has actually had a big effect on relationships. Gottman’s revised publication addresses those changes along with revealing some important new research findings.

Due to the prevalence of social media, it is becoming necessary for couples to define the terms of “tech etiquette” in their relationship. Gottman recommends that couples establish “rules” between them on what is the acceptable level of device use, if they haven’t already done so. In addition to determining technology-free time periods, he recommends that couples discuss and come to an agreement on how much time, and what situations, are appropriate to use their devices.

Gottman also points out the importance in relationships of having a clear understanding of what is okay to post on social media: what kind of content is allowed, and how much detail each partner can post that involves their partner or their relationship. Knowing each other’s personal boundaries in this area can help avoid potentially upsetting, or embarrassing, scenarios down the road.

Another interesting topic in the updated book is the result of recent research, referred to as the “six magic hours.” Gottman discovered that the biggest difference in couples whose marriage improved over time and those that didn’t, was six more hours of togetherness per week. Finding an extra six hours may seem daunting at first. However, when broken down into categories, these steps become quite manageable. Here are Gottman’s suggestions, summarized below:

1. When you say good-bye in the morning and greet each other at the end of the day, spend a minimum of six seconds hugging and kissing. Also be sure to ask, and be aware of, at least one special event expected to happen in your partner’s day. Over a five-day work week, this step should take around 20 minutes.

2. At the end of the day, schedule a stress-reducing conversation. This likely means being fully present and supporting each other as you talk about your respective day’s activities which includes following up on those “special events.” Allow at least 20 minutes each for these daily catch-up visits.

3. Take five minutes every day to show a new appreciation for something about your partner. Remember, the little things really do matter!

4. Demonstrate physical affection for your partner daily, and specifically with an embrace before sleep, which helps to end the day on an upbeat note. As with #3, do this step five minutes a day, for a total of 35 minutes per week.

5. Have a weekly date night (minimum of 2 hours) for one-on-one connection time. Ask open-ended questions, such as: “Where would you like to go on vacation?” Or “what color should we paint the bedroom?”

6. Schedule a regular “State of the Union” talk, lasting at least one hour each week, to discuss how you’re doing. What’s going right? Are there changes that should be made? Ask your partner, “What do you need from me to feel more loved this week?“

Although these steps have been proven to positively affect a couple’s relationship, don’t feel you have to implement all of them at once! Make strides in this direction, though, by starting with one or more that you feel can be most easily and comfortably incorporated in your schedule, and go from there.

Devoting six extra hours per week to “magically” transform your relationship is an investment that is sure to pay dividends. In addition, it is prudent to reach a “tech etiquette” agreement with your partner on the use of digital devices. If you run into problems in either of these areas, don’t hesitate to get professional support.

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Did You Overlook Any of These Relationship Warning Signs?

When we first start dating someone, it’s easy to overlook traits that might seem like obvious red flags to outsiders. In the early stages of a new relationship, we are automatically drawn to the most appealing qualities of our partner. If we do notice anything disagreeable, it is often quickly dismissed as “something I can handle or change,” or “no big deal.” Unfortunately, what’s initially considered to be a fixable “flaw” is often something that’s really at the core of the individual. Early on, these “minor” issues can evolve into “deal-breakers” that can doom a relationship.

After many years of experience working with clients (couples & individuals with relationship issues) in my counseling practice, I’ve noticed many recurring signs that indicate the likelihood that an unhealthy relationship is not too far ahead. It’s especially important to be alert for these red flags in the early stages.

Interestingly, when asked, many clients who complain about their partner in counseling sessions admit: “I kind of saw it at the beginning,” or “I ignored it, and chose to not let it get to me,” etc. Be on the lookout for these warning signs from the start:

  1. Intrusive extended family members can be a problem, but usually only if your partner isn’t willing or capable of setting boundaries. Is your partner enabling family members’ behaviors, or allowing intrusive behavior to interfere with your relationship?
  1. Are other relationships (or career/job) frequently prioritized over you? Sometimes what is described early on as “this person is so unselfish, always helping out others” can turn into being with a partner who prioritizes everyone else above YOU and your needs!  Additionally, someone may have an unhealthy focus on his or her career at the relationship’s expense (workaholic tendencies).  This quality can be directly tied to the core character of the individual – which makes it unlikely to change.
  1. Sexual incompatibility. This is an important issue to address at the beginning of a relationship. If there are sexual issues early on, they are unlikely to go away without mutual effort. Too many couples ignored their differences, or believed they would get better, but found their sexuality issues only exacerbated over time.
  1. Your partner has drug, alcohol or addictive behavior, especially if he or she hasn’t even acknowledged what’s happening and/or refuses to address it.
  1. Inability to take responsibility for his or her actions. If your partner doesn’t own his or her behavior early on, this is a major red flag that doesn’t bode well for the future of your relationship.
  1. If someone has emotional relationship baggage that is unresolved and hasn’t been addressed. These issues commonly involve jealousy, envy, possessiveness, or insecurity.
  1. Treating family, friends, and/or strangers poorly can be a sign of abusive tendencies, and sometimes anger management issues. When might you be next?
  1. If your partner fundamentally does not accept who you are, or tries to change who you are at your core. Does he/she want you to be an extrovert when you’re really an introvert? Does he/she want kids, but you don’t?  Assuming someone will change his or her mind, or core values and beliefs, is a huge mistake and an ominous sign.
  1. If your partner is critical or shows contempt for you. According to research by Dr. John Gottman, criticism and contempt (which is even more damaging) can destroy a relationship, sometimes very quickly. It’s a type of character assassination when your partner criticizes who you are as a person, and not your particular action or behavior.
  1. Noticing your partner has anger management problems – and ignoring it. This trait too will only get worse as the relationship progresses.
  1. Demonstrating behavior that is overly controlling and/or possessive. This can show up in how you spend your money, or even push back on your desire to be with your friends.

If you identify one or more of these warning signs, it doesn’t mean that your relationship is doomed, but it does make sense to get support and not ignore the problem(s). Staying alert for red flags and making smart decisions in the early stages of your relationship can save lots of grief and heartache down the road.

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