Maybe you’ve considered couples therapy, but your spouse refuses to try it. And you’ve thought about going alone, but figured what’s the point?
Well, a new study shows that going to couples therapy by yourself really can help.
It suggests that if one partner can learn to make adjustments, then the whole relationship can be changed for the better.
Now, if you are bristling at the thought of being “the one to change,” you have misunderstood my point. Going alone to couples therapy does not mean that you have “given in” or that your spouse has “won.” In fact, being the one to work with a couples counselor allows you to increase your influence and control over the situation—and there is some interesting research going on that shows that it works!
University of Denver researchers are in the process of conducting a five-year study that examines how working with two partners who live together compares with working with just one partner, in terms of improving a relationship.
Now, the researchers didn’t use traditional psychotherapy—they used a different sort of program. It doesn’t examine either partner’s childhood to help explain his or her current behaviors. Instead, it focuses on an educational course that teaches relationship skills. When just one partner takes the course—let’s say the wife—she learns how to change her own mind-set and/or behaviors, not how to change her husband. And that’s likely to improve the dynamic of the entire relationship. Her husband doesn’t have to “consciously participate,” so to speak—his wife is instructed to share what she learned with him, but he isn’t told that he must change his own mind-set or behaviors. That said, if the wife starts acting differently, then the husband usually has to respond differently.
To date, more than 300 couples (all heterosexual) have participated. Each couple has been randomly assigned to one of three groups—in one group, both members of each couple attended a relationship skills course together…in another group, the men only or the women only took the same course…and the last group—the control group—received no training.
The researchers didn’t recruit couples that specifically had very troubled marriages at the start—some couples had more problems than others. Dr. Markman noted that no relationship is perfect and that all couples (from the very happy to the very unhappy) can benefit from improving communication.
Not surprisingly, communication techniques were a big part of the skills training. One is the “speaker-listener technique” in which one person speaks while the other only listens—no interrupting, problem-solving, leaving or minimizing the speaker’s concerns—and then paraphrases back the speaker’s point. Other skills include (but are not limited to) conflict resolution, understanding the other person’s expectations and how to identify and handle stress.
How did the couples do? To find out, I called up the lead researcher, Howard Markman, PhD, coauthor of the best-selling book Fighting for Your Marriage and a professor of psychology and codirector of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the university.
Although complete data won’t be available until the study is finished, Dr. Markman said that the overall results so far show that one year after participating in the program, relationships improved most when both partners attended skills training…attendance by only the woman ran a close second…but attendance by only the man barely helped (in fact, the husband-attendance group tied for last place with the no-training-at-all group). Nonetheless, Dr. Markman told me that in his clinical experience, couples counseling attended by only a man tends to provide some improvement in relationships—maybe it’s because these are men who choose to go.
In other words, going alone to couples counseling appears to be better than not going at all—especially if you’re a woman. These results held true no matter how troubled a couple’s relationship was at the start.
One reason that Dr. Markman thinks that women going solo may be more effective than men going solo is because women tend to be more motivated at improving a relationship and helping their partners learn the key skills for a successful relationship.
What’s interesting is that even non-attending spouses got some benefits from the program—not just the attending spouses. For example, when both attending and non-attending spouses were asked how helpful they found the three-to-five session program to be right after it ended, both partners said that the program was very helpful. It could be that the men-only group had some early success, but that the success didn’t last a year later.
There are many potential reasons that a spouse might not participate in couples therapy—it isn’t always just a simple refusal to do so. For example, one spouse might have to stay with the kids…or have a completely different work schedule…or have a physical infirmity that makes travel difficult. And of course, some couples who could benefit from therapy don’t even live in the same city as each other.
So if one person won’t or can’t go to therapy, consider trying it alone. But no secrets! Dr. Markman stressed that his approach works best when the non-attending partner knows what’s going on and also wants the relationship to improve. This study suggests that it’s an especially good idea to try solo counseling if you’re a woman.
To learn more about the program that Dr. Markman used (it’s based on something called PREP: Prevention and Relationship Education Program), visit his site LoveYourRelationship.com. He offers PREP-based workshops and couples counseling in Denver and Boulder, Colorado and relationship coaching over the phone. Or ask therapists in your area if they can teach you the PREP program. Costs will vary, as will insurance coverage.
Source: Howard J. Markman, PhD, professor of psychology and codirector, Center for Marital and Family Studies, University of Denver. He is coauthor of Fighting for Your Marriage (Jossey-Bass) and cofounder of the site www.LoveYourRelationship.com