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The changing face of couple relationships

As a couples counsellor it is important for me to keep up to date with the latest research on couple therapy. It has been a complex decade for growth in knowledge of factors that promote strong marriages, the process that lead to relationship distress and dissolution, as well as understanding the negative consequences that accompany couple conflict, separation and divorce. These findings have helped design effective strategies to overcome the challenges too.

Couples often endure years of problems within their relationship before pursuing counselling. My hope is to change the face of couples counselling so that there is a growing awareness that therapy can be helpful and so that couples see difficulties in their relationships as indicating a need for development and growth rather than a reason to walk away.

When it comes to couple relationships the good news according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics is divorce rates are decreasing. In 2013, the number of divorces decreased by 4.6%. Despite this downward trend there were 118,962 marriages registered and 47,638 divorces granted in Australia in 2013. So although divorce rates are declining many couples are still deciding to cut their “happily ever after” short.

Over the last few decades the ways in which intimate couple relationships are entered into and sustained have also altered significantly.  There have been unprecedented changes in the way couples form and end relationships and make decisions to have children.  Some of the trends in relationships include couples living together without being married and getting married at an increasingly later age.  So when I talk about couples I refer to the “long-term committed union of romantic partners” which includes married and cohabiting couples.

Throughout the last decade there has been substantial growth in our understanding of the far-reaching consequences of couple relationship distress and dissolution for partners and children involved, as well as their family and social systems.  For example, couple relationship distress is associated with increased risk of mental and physical health problems. Children of parents who separate, or have high levels of relationship conflict, may also experience poorer outcomes in their social-emotional development.

The serious and wide-ranging negative effects that relationship distress can have on individuals and their children highlights the need for a greater understanding of strategies to support couples. One tool that has become increasingly beneficial for married couples is couple counselling.

Once seen as a last resort, a final step before separation and divorce the last decade has seen considerable advances in methods of couples counselling. Much of the quality research on couple therapy has focused on two approaches, integrative behavioural couple therapy (IBCT) and emotion focused couple therapy (EFT). Research now shows couples counselling is increasingly helpful and positively impacts 70% of couples that have therapy.

The challenge is many couples wait until their distress and the risk of losing their relationship is high. Seeking support early can be the best way to ensure things don’t get harder. When couples come to counselling before their unhappiness reaches a critical level or longer term damage is done, they are better able to work together, understand the dynamics of their relationship, how to communicate and deepen their connection. 

The reasons couples attend relationship counselling can be wide ranging. Common concerns include communication difficulties, conflicts over beliefs, values and roles, infidelity, physical or mental health issues, financial disagreements, problems with child rearing or as a step towards separating. Relationship counsellors tend to focus on the specific issues that each couple present with.  

Given the complex nature of the issues and high levels of distress couples may present with, relationship counselling often involves multiple sessions over an extended period of time. For couples who seek relationship counselling, the process works most effectively for couples who have a good relationship with their counsellor, who believe in the value of therapy and its likelihood of success, and who are committed to making their relationship work.

Relationship research resources 

Australian Institute for Family Studies (2015). Relationship education and counseling. Recent research findings. CFCA Paper No. 33.

Lebow et al (2012). Research on the treatment of couple distress. Journal of Marital and Family therapy.

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