Tuesday, April 19, 2005

I'm not all that surprised that marriage counseling doesn't work

The NY Times today has an article on marriage counseling and - shock- it doesn't work all that often...

[D]oes marital therapy work? Not nearly as well as it should, researchers say. Two years after ending counseling, studies find, 25 percent of couples are worse off than they were when they started, and after four years, up to 38 percent are divorced.

Many of the counseling strategies used today, like teaching people to listen and communicate better and to behave in more positive ways, can help couples for up to a year, say social scientists who have analyzed the effectiveness of different treatments. But they are insufficient to get couples through the squalls of conflict that inevitably recur in the long term.

At the same time, experts say, many therapists lack the skills to work with couples who are in serious trouble.

Unable to help angry couples get to the root of their conflict and forge a resolution, these therapists do one of two things: they either let the partners take turns talking week after week, with no end to the therapy in sight, or they give up on the couple and, in effect, steer them to divorce...

With an experimental approach called integrative behavioral couples therapy, for example, 67 percent of couples significantly improved their relationships for two years, according to a study reported in November to the Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy.

Instead of teaching couples how to avoid or solve arguments, as traditional counseling techniques do, the integrative therapy aims to make arguments less hurtful by helping partners accept their differences. It is based on a recent finding that it is not whether a couple fights but how they fight that can destroy a relationship.

Especially encouraging, all of the couples in the study were at high risk of divorce. "Many had been couples therapy failures," said Dr. Andrew Christensen, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles and the lead author of the study.

But some experts who were trained as couples therapists have now become so disillusioned that they question the value of couples therapy in any form. They say that couples are better off taking marriage education courses - practical workshops that teach couples how to get along and that do not ask them to bare their souls or air their problems to a third party.

There's several reasons why the traditional models don't work:

1. Are marriage counselors trained to train couples to negotiate well? Generally not I'd say. While the aspects of listening and communicating are important, there's other aspects to having needs met and agreed upon, that if these counselors had training in that, they'd be working in business for far more money.

2. Marriage counselors often have a vested interest in continuing the counseling- they get paid per session.

3. This is pointed out later in the article- but in any marriage, it is a human being you marry, complete with foibles, weird personality traits, annoying habits, and is somebody quirky enough to have loved you in the first place. If you don't take the whole package, as they are, it's an act of greed, not love. OTOH, if you don't focus on your own behavior, and cultivate your own discipline (spiritual and/or what you might think of as "otherwise,") your spouse may have married a dead person, for all intents and purposes. Unfortunately, for all the vaunted American religiosity, most Americans do not highly value religious self-discipline.

4. Finally, stressors in marriage tend to be a lack of money and time, especially when kids are involved. It's not for nothing that America has such high divorce rates- it's indicative of the decline in our quality of life.

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