Initial Goal in Couples Therapy Predicts Separation Rate

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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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • margie reeves

    February 18th, 2012 at 9:45 AM

    I would think that most couples go into therapy already knowing whether or not this marriage can be saved so to speak. They know if it has the backbone to survive all of the things going on within, it is up to the therapy to give them the strength they need to save it.

  • Nancy

    February 18th, 2012 at 4:08 PM

    The job of a therapist is to get everone on the same page and headed toward the same thing.
    That can be difficult when the couples are getting along fine, much less when they are at differing points in their lives!
    It takes a really special person to be able to do that, and sometimes even the best effort won’t put back together again that which has already been broken so far apart.

  • Johnstone

    February 19th, 2012 at 6:34 AM

    Therapy can be tricky for anyone, but a married couple on the brink of a divorce is even harder then most. It is hard to get two people who are essentially at war with one another to talk or hear what the other partner has to say.

  • Ginger

    February 20th, 2012 at 7:51 AM

    Yeah I can definitely see how these two views of the marriage can have differing outcomes on the marriage results.
    If they are going in to this and thinking that there is a possibility that they don’t want it to work out them chances are huge that it might not work out.
    But if a couple is going into therapy thinking that they want to improve what they have then yeah, there is a lot better chance that they are going to survive this bump in the road.

  • Darcy t

    February 21st, 2012 at 5:46 AM

    Why does it not surprise me at all to know that the more negative a couple is when they enter into therapy that this becomes so telling about the future of their relationship?

  • lea

    February 21st, 2012 at 11:35 PM

    is it so surprising to see that the couples which set smaller goals end up achieving far less than those who set sights at not just saving the relationship but also improving it?

  • DJ Frankee Cee

    August 31st, 2013 at 4:00 PM

    I should think that the initial goal would be
    to find out if they are both willing to bring
    important changes to table (as needed,) which
    will help them stay together. If both aren’t
    willing to do what it takes and make many
    compromises, then no amount of counseling
    will make any difference. They violate the
    terms of “good communications” constantly.
    Frustration with the other spouse who claims
    to be doing everything but at home is a different
    person, that frustration come out in the form
    of bad words or abusive words. But there are
    so many personalities problems. Narcissists
    will NEVER admit to doing anything wrong and
    always try to shift blame. They never take
    critical looks at themselves or consider them
    selves to be a root source of chronic relationship

    My experience is that even after making contracts about what we each expect, and then agreeing to them terms of the contract are often broke. My wife signs
    these contracts and then violates all the terms
    and the excuse for the violations is that she
    was “forced to sign”. So the contract was invalid and deserved to be violated.

    Contracts sound like a good idea, because your
    figure in the event of a violation you could
    whip out the contract and say “remember this.”
    But not every person in a relationship is a
    mature person, who feels that their word or
    promise on a contract is their bond. Some
    have no integrity. That’s why later in the divorces
    it comes out how they lied to police, filing false
    domestic abuse charges. No integrity.
    What good is it making a contract with someone
    who has no integrity. It’s like making a peace
    treaty with Adolph Hitler. Then of course you
    have people with hormone issues that cause
    mood disorders and mild mental illness, like
    menopause, cushings,..
    When some spouse thinks they should be in control
    and some aspect of therapy threatens their control
    they aren’t going to cooperate.
    Example: most women like to control sex and use it
    as a reward/punishment tool. If you tell them they
    have to stop the withholding and controlling to
    make their marriage work, THEY AREN’T GOING TO
    GIVE UP THAT CONTROL. The only women who would
    not try to control are the “sex starved” women
    who can’t get enough intimacy in the first place.
    Sex starved women (women with normal libido)
    never say no. I have a feeling those marriages
    where sex, intimacy and emotional bonding are
    NOT withheld,… will last longer.

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