Contrary to popular opinion, healing a distressed marriage does not often require months or years of therapy. Dr. Gordon Davidson, local director of the Couples Clinic, and a team of local therapists, have recently published research indicating that as few as three sessions of marital counselling can be effective in reducing marital discord. The article is entitled "The effects of three sessions of brief couples therapy: A clinical trial", and was published in the December, 1997 issue of the Journal of Family Psychology published by the American Psychological Association. It is based on Davidson's doctoral dissertation at the University of British Columbia.
The study compared twenty couples undergoing three sessions of marriage counselling to a control group of couples who were waiting for treatment. The counselling focused on two communication styles which have been found to be the most common in distressed couples. The first repetitive cycle is know as the "pursue-distance" cycle, in which one partner acts as a "pursuer". He or she attempts to get their partner to reveal his or her thoughts and feelings, often with the hope of creating emotional closeness. Questions as light as "What do you think about Ross Rebagliati?", "How was work today?", or as deep as "How are you feeling about us these days?" may produce a "distancing" response on the part of the partner. Distancing responses include ignoring, changing the subject, or retreating to the shop or computer. The pursuer then often becomes more persistent, causing the distancer to distance more, thus setting up a "vicious cycle". The second cycle is that of an escalating power struggle, where one or both partners perceive each other as attempting to change or control them. Each partner reacts more vigorously in resisting the perceived influence attempt of their spouse, leading to a different type of vicious cycle. At this point, it often is more important to "win" than to be have a close relationship.
The primary thrust of Davidson's study was addressing perceptions in relationships, known as spousal cognitions. Previous research has found that as the degree of relationship distress increases, so does the degree to which spouses misinterpret the intent of their partners. For instance, many spouses in the "pursue-distance" cycle perceive attempts by their partner to bring out their feelings (eg. to foster closeness) as intrusive. This behaviour may, in fact, be intrusive, but the positive intent is likely not understood by the recipient. The counsellor, in searching for the possible positive intent behind these types of behaviours, helps partners see the behaviour in a less negative light. This realization, in turn, can reverse this vicious cycle, creating instead "virtuous cycles". In this reversal, the distancer, if he or she can realize that their partner is actually searching for closeness, may distance less, causing the pursuer to, in turn, pursue less. In the power struggle cycle, attempts to encourage or give advice are often viewed as control tactics; the counsellor helps to clarify possible positive intent behind this behaviour. If spousal behaviour appears to have a truly malicious intent, other strategies are employed.
At the conclusion of the third counselling session, couples in Davidson's study showed significantly more improvement in presenting complaints, conflict resolution, and overall relationship satisfaction than did couples not receiving treatment. Seventy five per cent of the participants reported at least some improvement. This improvement rate is similar to a recent survey of 4000 people conducted by Consumer Report, which found that 80% of participants in individual and marriage counselling reported they were helped at least somewhat. However, the Consumer study included counselling programs having up to 24 sessions. A recent study from Germany suggests that short term therapy may, in fact, be more effective than long term therapy. Couples receiving between 6 and 10 sessions were found to have improved more than did couples participating in more than 15 sessions.
Marriage counselling and communication skills training can also have a powerful impact on the prevention of divorce. A recent study found that couples trained in communication and conflict resolution skills showed half the rate of divorce over a ten year period compared to couples not receiving the training. Recent advances in marital therapy, therefore, show considerable promise in inexpensive treatments for the enhancement of marital quality and in the prevention of divorce.
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