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Can Relationships Improve When Just One Partner Gets Help?

Can a relationship skills course offer an alternative to couples' therapy?

Key points

  • Individual therapy for a married person can increase a couple's difficulties. Best for both partners to participate in a couple's treatment.
  • Couplehood, and especially marriage, is a high-skills activity. Relationship skills training helps couples sustain a loving partnership.
  • Relationship skills training generally is one component of couples' therapy. Therapy also focuses on clarifying underlying roots of problems.
When a relationship gets strained, both partners suffer.
Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

In a previous post, I wrote about the importance of couples getting help together if they are having difficulties. New research on this issue, however, is broadening my mind on this issue.

As I described in my earlier post, multiple research studies have shown that treatment by one therapist who can work both with the couple and/or with the individuals has the highest odds of yielding relationship improvement. Individual therapy for relationship issues can worsen the problems. In part, that's because clients generally appear very likable when they alone are talking with a therapist. The therapist has no way to observe and, therefore, to fully understand the problematic habits that their clients may be bringing to their couple interactions.

Options Besides Therapy for a Couple With Relationship Problems

A strong alternative to therapy can be a marriage skills course. Research has shown that a skills upgrade can offer a highly effective alternative to therapy.

Yet, what if an individual wants to upgrade their love relationship but their partner does not want to participate? Are the options only (1) going to therapy or a relationship skills workshop together, (2) suffering continued dissatisfaction, or (3) ending the relationship?

Fortunately, there is a fourth relationship-upgrade option. I stumbled recently on an excellent research study by Tavakolizadeh, Nejatian, and Sooric, published in the journal Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences. The outcomes of this study opened my mind to further explorations of the issue of individual treatment for relationship issues. This study found that when even just one partner upgrades their cooperative communication habits, anger management practices, and collaborative conflict resolution skills, significant marital improvement can result. That is, one partner's skill training can yield positive impacts on a couple's relationship overall.

For instance, what happens when one spouse stops complaining, controlling, and criticizing? If they learn instead to make requests and then express sincere appreciation for responsive reactions? If one partner changes for the better, is the other likely to make positive changes as well?

What Participants in This Research Project Did

Sixty married women, all of whom had been referred to health centers for marital difficulties, were randomly divided into two groups.

Both groups began by taking the same pretest. The pretest consisted of a questionnaire that included information about the women's communication skills and about their marital conflicts. Only one of the two groups then received a marriage skills training course.

The training involved ten 45-minute sessions over a period of two weeks. The focus was on skills for sustaining a collaborative relationship.

Both groups then filled out post-intervention questionnaires.

The Outcome

The results showed that, in comparison to the control group, the group that had undergone communication skills training emerged with significantly reduced marital conflicts (P=0.001).

The skills-training course also significantly influenced five additional aspects of marital functioning: cooperation (P=0.048), sexual relationship (P=0.001), emotional reactions (P=0.019), personal communication with relatives (P=0.033), and familial communication with spouse, relatives, and friends (P=0.20).

The study's conclusion overall: It recommended that women who have been experiencing marital conflicts receive communication skills training.

My Conclusion

Marriage is a high-skills activity.

Without the required skills, people get hurt. With skill improvements in even just one partner, both partners become happier.

I am reminded of a potent lesson I learned when I was growing up. My parents decided that since we lived in New England, we should take up skiing. We traveled from our home in Massachusetts to the mountains of Vermont for a family ski vacation. On our very first day on the slopes, under bright sunshine and a cheerfully clear blue sky, my youngest sister took a fall. She screamed. The fall had broken her leg. Hmmm.

In response, my parents from that point forward enrolled the rest of us in ski lessons. We kept taking ski classes until all of us had become ski-competent. My parents realized that even a fun activity like skiing can be quite dangerous if participants lack the necessary skills.

So, too, with couplehood and marriage. Skills keep partners emotionally safe.

Fortunately, as the above study found, skills training that enables at least one partner to become more effective at initiating positive interactions, preventing fights, and calmly finding win–win solutions to their differences can improve the marriage for both partners.

Improvement in a couple's relationship happiness that comes from skills training for just one partner may be less broad and deep than the improvement that may come from participation by both partners in either a couples therapy or skill-building program. Mutual participation in both skill training and exploration of underlying issues may most comprehensively enable new positive interaction patterns to replace the old negative interaction cycles.

Yet, a marriage skills training program for just one partner apparently can still prove to be significantly beneficial.

Yes, skill-building classes do not generally include therapy's explorations of earlier-in-life experiences. Yes, it can be harder to make changes when just one partner is learning the new skills. Yes, also, the partner who is not involved in the skill training does need to be open to responding positively to their partner's new skills

Yet, for sure, any rise in relationship harmony and happiness can be a big improvement over more of the same old fighting, distancing, and dissatisfactions.

I wrote my book and workbook called The Power of Two to teach couples who want to learn from home rather than from therapy or a workshop the essential skills for relationship success. Similarly, my podcast called Conflict Resolution For Couples teaches the skills for sustaining a harmonious relationship.

In sum, opportunities for one partner to increase their competence in the skills that sustain loving relationships can be well worth pursuing. While the ideal may be for both partners to learn the skills, it's important to be sure that they, as the saying goes, 'Don't let the best become the enemy of the good!'


Tavakolizadeha, J, Nejatianb, B, Sooric, A, The Effectiveness of Communication Skills Training on Marital Conflicts and its Different Aspects in Women. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences. Volume 171, 16 January 2015, Pages 214-221

Improving Marital Satisfaction: An Enrichment Program for Couples in the Huntington, New York Seventh-day Adventist Church. 2018, Benoit, E. B., Andrews University

O’Halloran, M. S., Rizzolo, S., Cohen, M. L., & Wacker, R. (2013). Assessing the Impact of a Multiyear Marriage Education Program. The Family Journal, 21(3), 328–334.

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