Couples seek therapy to achieve better communication, increase trust, and enhance intimacy, among other reasons. Surprisingly, almost half of couples who enter relationship therapy do so with the goal of determining if the relationship is viable enough to continue. Although there is much research examining how therapy goals influence outcome, little attention has been given to the relationship between viability goals and outcome in couples therapy. To this end, Jesse Owen of the Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology at the University of Louisville led a study that looked specifically at how treatment goals expressed at the beginning of therapy affected eventual outcome with regards to maintaining the relationship.
Using data collected from 249 couples treated by various therapists, Owen looked at goals of improving the relationship compared to goals of clarifying the relationship’s viability. Owen examined intake paperwork to determine goals and discovered that the partners who had a goal of improvement had better outcomes than those who sought clarification. Specifically, couples who entered therapy to find ways to improve the existing relationship were nearly 80% more likely to be together six months after treatment than the couples who entered therapy wanting to know if they should separate or not. More than half of the couples who wanted clarification at the beginning of therapy had split up six months later.
Owen believes that these results underscore the impact of goal assessment, both for the couple and individual, at the beginning of treatment. Additionally, Owen emphasizes that the clinician has a significant influence on outcome, noting that even when a couple’s primary goal is clarification, they may consider other options as a result of the clinician’s hope and encouragement. The re-evaluation of goals throughout treatment is essential to achieve a positive outcome, even if that outcome is dissolution of the relationship. “The complex intersection of varied hopes, goals, and expectations, occurring often within an emotionally charged atmosphere, requires that clinicians ‘dance’ simultaneously with different partners.” Owen added, “Determining and tracking goals from the outset appears likely to help ensure that the therapist does not step on too many feet too often.”
Owen, J., Duncan, B., Anker, M., Sparks, J. (2012, February 13). Initial Relationship Goal and Couple Therapy Outcomes at Post and Six-Month Follow-Up. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026998
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