Therapy

If You Needed a Good Enough Reason to Try Couples Therapy, Here It Is

Couples therapy is a gamble, but it may be better than waiting it out.

Posted Jul 31, 2020

If you’re dissatisfied in your relationship, you’re certainly not alone. 

Photographeeeu/Shutterstock
Source: Photographeeeu/Shutterstock

If we only look at married couples (not counting unmarried couples in a committed relationship), research suggests that roughly 30% are unhappy. And if you’ve been thinking about trying couples therapy in the hope of improving your bond but are feeling a bit (or a lot) wary, you have plenty of company there too. 

The prospect of sitting with your partner and opening up to a complete stranger about your relationship can feel intimidating and scary, making the idea of leaving things as they are rather than leaping into the unknown rather tempting. Plus, it’s a risk to try couples therapy. After all, what if things don’t get better? It’s possible they might not. And research indicates that one reason we humans tend to feel mixed and unsure about something is to shield ourselves from the possibility that we won’t attain the result we’re longing for, particularly when we’re more doubtful we’ll reach it.

However, studies point to a reason to step into the uncharted territory of couples therapy that may feel a bit more persuasive: Not only is couples therapy beneficial, but relationships that are struggling may also be harmful to both partner’s health and they generally don’t appear to improve on their own in the short-term. To get a clearer sense of what this means, let’s unpack it a bit more.

Relationships with stressful dynamics are apt to remain that way in the short-term without help.

A recent study followed the relationships of newly married couples over two and a half years. The results showed that the way couples interacted with each other was steady across time, including partners who related to each other in a manner that was less useful, more antagonistic, and less kind or friendly. And an analytic review of couples therapy found that partners on a waiting-list (i.e., a comparison group of couples who don’t receive couples therapy for a limited time and then get treatment a little later) don’t enhance their relationship on their own while they're waiting. Now, this doesn't mean that couples will never reach a more connected, satisfying place without couples therapy. But what the available science does tell us is that, in the short-run (i.e., two to three years), distressed relationships are unlikely to change by themselves.       

A relationship with more discord may be detrimental to the health of both partners. 

Two new studies found a link between relationship strife and physical well-being. In a sample of middle-aged couples, partners who interacted in a more antagonistic, bossy, and uncaring way during a dispute were also more likely to have elevated blood pressure. And among middle-aged and older couples, partners who were on the receiving end of more criticism were significantly more likely to die within the next five years, regardless of how many friends and family members they had in their life. 

On a cautionary note, the authors of this study questioned how broadly the results could be applied because there were meaningful differences between partners who provided complete and incomplete data. At the same time, they also pointed out that other studies have also identified a link between relationship strain, increased risk of death, and lower well-being.

Couples therapy really works.

In July of 2020, a review of studies on the utility of couples therapy found that it’s powerful in helping couples feel happier in their relationship, and this result held up to two years after therapy ended. The investigators couldn’t determine whether the impact lasted beyond two years, as this was generally the longest time couples were monitored. They also looked at assorted types of couples therapy and compared them with Behavioral Couples Therapy (BCT), which has been studied the most extensively. They found that the type of couples therapy didn’t matter; they all worked just as well.

Coming back to where started, if you’re undecided about whether to give couple’s therapy a try, as a couple’s therapist, I understand that. It’s scary, vulnerable, and unfamiliar, and no one can guarantee that you’ll get the positive results you’re hoping for (although I certainly wish I could). In the end, no one knows your relationship or your circumstances better than you, and only you and your partner can know whether it’s the right time, the right place, and the right context to start couples therapy. I can only say that if you’re just a little intrigued by it, if you’re even slightly open to the idea that it could help (even 1% open–that’s fine), and if you’re just looking for a good enough reason to nudge you in that direction, I hope this helps.

I wish you and your partner all the best and thank you for reading.     

References

Baucom, D.H., Hahlweg, K., & Kuschel, A. (2003). Are waiting-list control groups needed in future marital therapy outcome research? Behavior Therapy, 34, 179-188.

Bookwala, J., & Gaugler, T. (2020). Relationship quality and 5-year mortality risk. Health Psychology, 39, 633-641.

Reich, T., & Wheeler, S.C. (2016). The good and bad of ambivalence: Desiring ambivalence under outcome uncertainty. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 110, 493-508.

Roddy, M.K., Walsh, L.M., Rothman, K., Hatch, S.G., & Doss, B.D. (2020). Meta-analysis of couple therapy: Effects across outcomes, designs, timeframes, and other moderators. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 88, 583-596.

Smith, T.W., Baron, C.E., Deits-Lebehn, C., Uchino, B.N., & Berg, C.A. (2019). Is it me or you? Marital conflict behavior and blood pressure reactivity. Journal of Family Psychology, 34, 503-508.

Whisman, M.A., Beach, S.R.H., & Snyder, D.K. (2008). Is marital discord taxonic and can taxonic status be assessed reliably? Results from a national, representative sample of married couples. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76, 745-755.

Williamson, H. C. (2020, July 13). The development of communication behavior over the newlywed years. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/fam0000780