UCLA psychologists Lisa Benson, Meghan McGinn, and Andrew Christensen recently published a major review of over 40 years of research on couples therapy (Benson et al., 2012). They found five basic elements all successful couple therapy must contain.
1. Successful therapy changes the couple's view of the relationship. Because of pain and distress, couples often get stuck in a perception of the relationship or other that starts to feel immutable. Throughout the therapeutic process, the therapist attempts to help both partners see the relationship and each individual's reactions and contributions in a more objective manner thus creating a different narrative or story and helping them step out of the "blame game."
2. Modifies dysfunctional behavior. Effective couples therapists attempt to change the way that the partners actually behave with each other. This means that in addition to helping them improve their interactions, therapists also need to ensure that their clients are not engaging in actions that can cause physical, psychological, or economic harm.
3. Decreases emotional avoidance. Couples who avoid expressing their private feelings put themselves at greater risk of becoming emotionally distant and hence grow apart. Effective couples therapists help their clients bring out
the emotions and thoughts that they fear expressing to the other person. The goal of this is to help the couple understand each other better, feel closer and heal past hurts.
4. Improves communication. All effective couples therapies focus on helping the partners to communicate more effectively. This can be accomplished with active listening instruction. However, it often happens when a skillful therapist steps in and really helps the couple slow down the process. Distress, pain, confusion and past hurt get couples stuck in rapid fire communication patterns that need literally to be put out and replaced with completely different interaction styles. Good therapy interrupts these patterns and helps the couple replace the negative communication with more congruent, clear, and emotionally vulnerable talk.
5. Promotes strengths. All couples have strengths in their relationship. From the beginning of therapy it is important to look at these and even celebrate them. In the mist of conflict or distress, a couples strengths can create hope.
Benson, L. A., McGinn, M. M., & Christensen, A. (2012). Common principles of couple therapy. Behavior Therapy, 43(1), 25-35.