The Cyberspace Connection

The inter-weavings of Internet relationships.

Online Couples Therapy: Gaining Data, Losing Connection

How can online couple therapy capture the uniqueness of a relationship?

What would be the usefulness of online couples therapy? Not a lot, I believe. In her article, "Seeking to Pre-empt Marital Strife" which appeared in The New York Times on 6/29/2010 ( http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/28/seeking-to-pre-empt-mari...), Tara Parker-Pope laments the finding that "only 19% of currently married couples have taken part in marriage counseling." This is a remarkably encouraging affirmation of couples treatment--I don't think that a fifth of the country has participated in mental health counseling! Secondly, she reports that a "recent study of two types of therapy found that only about half the couples reported long-lasting improvements in their marriages." Bravo for couples treatment, which actually exceeds the effectiveness of many other psychotherapeutic approaches.

These "negative" findings are then associated with the hopeful potential of online couples therapy, a possibility which leaves me feeling lukewarm at best, and concerned at worst. I do think that online indexes of relationship satisfaction can be informative, and provide fodder for useful couple exploration. But the quantification Pope reports from the Brigham Young University assessment called Relate, with its attendant graphs and percentages of effort, further endorses a current belief that relationships are mechanical, rather than organic entities. We are treating ourselves as machines in today's culture-expecting perfect multi-tasking efficiency--and now we are encouraged to treat our marriages the same way.

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The power of couples therapy, when executed by a well trained professional, is to recognize the individual signature of the couple, while holding as back-drop models of typical dynamics and patterns of relationship. In my practice, I help individuals to wonder about their partners, to ask questions they've never dared ask, to sharpen their vision of self and other. People have to take the blinders off their own early experience and pay attention to the ways they refusing to recognize the uniqueness of their partner, and even more threatening, how they are restricting and halting the growth of a partner. None of this can happen in an online survey or an online therapy model. Instead, individuals are encouraged to see each other as "types" of people, as instances of data.

Unfortunately, or perhaps quite fortunately, we are still individuals, or as Tolstoy so pithily began Anna Karenina "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. "

I'll end with two caveats: I think that online surveys and therapy are likely better than no therapy for those in remote areas, but I think they should be used as investigations, not solutions. And, ironically, I think that the process of working in an online format, might just wake people up to what is missing in their lived, breathing and totally unique way of being with each other.

Mary-Joan Gerson, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist on the faculty of New York University.

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