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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Even Seriously Distressed Marriages Can Be Helped

If both spouses want to make their marriage work, even greatly troubled marriages can benefit from professional therapy, according to the newly published findings of a study led by Andrew Christensen, professor of psychology at the University of California Los Angeles. He stressed that while “it takes only one person to end a marriage,” it takes two “to make it work.”

Christensen said that for marriage therapy to be successful, both partners need to be strongly committed to saving their marriage, and both need to be willing to work at the relationship. It won’t work for spouses simply to blame each other for the problems in their marriage, he suggested.

Couples who participated in therapy sessions as part of the Christensen-led study were chronically, seriously distressed. These couples were “consistently unhappy,” Christensen said. The study excluded nearly 100 couples who desired therapy but “did not meet our criteria of consistent and serious distress,” he explained.

UCLA described the study as “the largest, most comprehensive clinical trial of couple therapy ever conducted.”

When their therapy sessions were completed, a large percentage of couples in the study – couples who at the outset fought continually over points of conflict — had shown significant improvement. Results of the study were published in the April 2010 edition of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

How couples handle conflict has been an ongoing point of interest in Christensen’s work. A couple’s conflicts need not be interpreted in entirely negative terms, he has written.

Christensen was co-author with the late Neil Jacobson, a psychologist at the University of Washington, of a 2000 book titled “Reconcilable Differences” (Guilford Press). Their book described how couples get trapped by conflicts; many couples end up with a sense that their disputes are the sign of a “chasm” between them that appears “impossible to breach.”

A couple’s conflict can offer either “the promise of greater connection” or “the threat of alienation” for them, Christensen said in the book’s Preface. In fact, he wrote, “conflict is a window on the vulnerabilities and sensitivities of warring partners.”

In the new study, 134 married couples, most in their 30s and 40s, received up to 26 therapy sessions within a year. Follow-up sessions were conducted after the therapy ended. Upon completion of the therapy sessions, about two-thirds of the couples overall had shown significant clinical improvement.

Five years after their treatment concluded, about half the couples were improved significantly over the situation that existed for them at the start of their therapy. About one-fourth were unchanged, and another one-fourth were separated or divorced.

Couples in the study received one of two forms of therapy. Some received TBCT, or traditional behavioral couple therapy focused on making positive changes by improving communication and developing better problem-solving skills, for example. Others received IBCT, or integrative behavioral couple therapy, which employs similar strategies, but focuses on the spouses’ emotional reactions and works at understanding each spouse’s emotional sensitivities.

The integrative therapy approach was found to be more effective than the traditional approach during the first two years of follow-up with couples in the study. However, the university said that the difference between the treatment approaches was not dramatic and did not endure over time.

Couples read a book as part of their treatment. Some read “Reconcilable Differences,” which focuses on the integrative therapy approach. Couples following a traditional therapy approach read another book. Christensen and Jacobson, co-authors of “Reconcilable Differences,” are closely associated with the development of integrative behavioral couple therapy.

Acceptance of each other is a way out of a troubled couple’s sense that their conflicts have led to an impasse, “Reconcilable Differences” proposed. It said to couples:

Each of you can feel stuck, not knowing how to cope with unwelcome differences in the other and resorting to blame, criticism, defensiveness and withdrawal. These ways of coping serve only to hurt each other’s feelings.”

There is a natural inclination “to try to change” the other person, though “efforts directed solely at such change often make the conflict worse,” the book said. What is needed instead is acceptance, it proposed – acceptance that paradoxically often paves the way to change. The book said, “Acceptance offers a route for you both to move toward a happier and closer union.”

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.