Effective Couples Therapy Factors

If you have ever had the experience of going to couples therapy and leaving more confused or dissatisfied than you were going into therapy, you are not alone. Unfortunately, many couples have not found the clarity that they were looking for in couples therapy, and having put forth substantial effort to engage in the process, couples may blame themselves and feel reluctant to re-engage in couples therapy services. Although the reluctance to return to couples therapy is often valid, and sometimes justified, based on prior circumstances, the altogether dismissal of couples therapy based on a prior experience is often not warranted and causes further damage in the long run.

To provide an illustration

I think back to my experience taking my vehicle to an auto mechanic that lived nearby my home. Although the mechanic was less expensive than other mechanics and their hours worked with my schedule, I was repeatedly frustrated and confused by extra repairs that did not seem to solve the problem. In fact, the expenses added up to more than I imagined over time, and the problems with my vehicle were worse over time. This auto mechanic did not know how to solve the problem that I was paying them to solve. When I finally switched mechanics, I was fortunate enough to find a mechanic that knew how to solve the problem. They made the diagnosis. I paid the price, and the problem was solved. I am glad that I did not give up on auto mechanics altogether, even though I left the first one.

couples making heearts with their hands dbt couples therapyOver the years, as I have gained more confidence about finding a mechanic, I began to gradually notice factors that distinguish mechanics that have the knowledge and skills to effectively solve my car problems. Couples therapy is similar. There is, unfortunately, no clear-cut website or book that delineates which couples therapists are the most effective. Even though every professional has their recommendations and preferences, these referrals will not fully replace the power of learning the factors that increase the likelihood of couples therapy effectiveness. In this blog post, I will highlight three of these factors of a couples therapist: they provide a thorough orientation, they emphasize behavioral specificity, and they provide feedback and techniques that appropriately address the problem.

A Thorough Orientation

When meeting with an effective couples therapist, clients should not expect the first session to be an open-ended “tell-me-about-your-life” conversation. Although all therapists will ask open-ended questions (as a part of the assessment progress), these questions do not replace the process of being oriented to how sessions will unfold, what techniques will be used, and what is expected of the couple throughout the process. Providing a thorough orientation increases the effectiveness of treatment by increasing the degree to which the therapist is collaborating with the couple to reach specific objectives. If the therapist is expecting to teach skills, one partner is hoping for open-ended dialogue, and one partner is hoping that the therapist will intervene and tell their partner what to do, these divergent expectations complicate the therapeutic process and lead to further misunderstandings. Instead, a therapist that provides clarity from the onset about the style/format of couples therapy, asks for the couple’s consent to participate, and continues to clarify details throughout treatment will generate more effective therapeutic results.

Emphasize Behavioral Specificity

Furthermore, an effective couples therapist will frequently direct the couple away from speaking in generalities and toward specific behaviors and transactions in the relationship. Although speaking in generalities takes less effort (e.g., “We have had a money problem over the last years, and I just feel she is not responsible at all”), lack of specificity often leads to circular arguments and a lack of progress. Instead, when discussing specific transactions, both partners will describe in detail their emotions, thoughts, and sensory experiences related to specific moments in time. The therapist can be instrumental in helping the couple to do this effortful task. Once the couple is engaging in an accurate and descriptive expression of specific moments in time, understanding can take place and effective solutions can be generated.

Provide Feedback and Techniques that Appropriately Address the Problem

One additional consideration when looking for an effective couples therapist is to consider whether the therapist is providing specific feedback and solutions that apply to the difficulties that the couple is facing. A couples therapist is not a sounding board. In fact, an effective couples therapist will often cut off whichever partner is venting about the other partner’s patterns with the knowledge that this ineffective behavior, while cathartic, will not only fail to solve the problem, but could make it worse by reinforcing the behaviors that are leading to disconnection and dissatisfaction in the relationship overall. An effective couples therapist will stop the couple in these exchanges and ask a partner whether they are willing to use a skill in that situation to change the transaction, or stop the couple and ask them to validate their partner in the session. An effective couples therapist will also model these solutions by demonstrating what it looks like within the couples therapy session.

couples standing holding hands in one hand and shoes in another standing by ocean dbt couples therapy

In sum, although the effectiveness of couples therapy depends on a variety of different factors, finding an effective couples therapist is a crucial step in the process. Although you can look at reviews of therapists online or specific theoretical orientations, those guidelines will not fully replace having the ability to be able to detect whether appropriate couples therapy techniques are being used. Determining whether your couples therapy includes an orientation process, behavioral specificity, and feedback/skills, can help you to decide whether you are receiving quality services. I wish you the best of luck as you search for a couples therapist who can effectively work with you to help you to increase satisfaction in your relationship.

About the Author
Samuel Eshleman Latimer (he/his), Psy.D., is a clinical psychology postdoctoral fellow that specializes in effective conflict management and dialectical behavior therapy. Samuel also works to help individuals, couples, and families decrease interpersonal difficulties and manage challenges associated with borderline personality disorder. Samuel believes that people do not need to choose between learning effective techniques that are based on science and developing warm, genuine relationships, as both of these styles complement each other. Click Here to learn more about Samuel’s experience and therapeutic style.