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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