About Relationship Problems
Cognitive-behavioural approaches are often used to help people with relationship problems. Although couples sometimes attend therapy together, individuals often seek therapy alone for help with their relationship problems. So although we offer therapy only for individuals, and not couples, we do often become involved in helping with certain relationship issues.
There are different approaches to working with relationship issues. However, the form of therapy with arguably the most evidence supporting it is called Integrative Behavioural Couples Therapy (IBCT). This approach is based upon earlier forms of behavioural couples therapy, which emphasised training in three key behavioural strategies:
- Communication skills training, including empathic listening and assertiveness, etc.
- Collaborative problem-solving methods
- Behaviour exchange, scheduling positive actions to benefit the relationship
For example, a simple rule such as the “XYZ method” is used to develop healthy communication: “When you do X, in situation Y, then I feel Z.”
However, over time research led to the development of a more flexible and less rule-governed approach, which combines some of these traditional behaviour change methods with modern “mindfulness and acceptance-based” approaches to therapy. These may help to replace a vicious cycle, such as “attack-withdraw”, with one where self-expression and sincere disclosure is followed by genuine empathy and acceptance, a “disclosure-validation” cycle. For example, IBCT employs three broad strategies to promote mutual acceptance:
1. Empathic Joining
This involves the couple expressing personal feelings about the relationship that have not been fully disclosed to each other in the past. This may include “hard” or angry feelings but also, perhaps more importantly, “soft” or vulnerable feelings. Expressing unspoken feelings is often an important first step in developing mutual understanding and empathy, although care is taken to ensure this results in a constructive exchange.
2. Unified Detachment
By contrast, unified detachment involves creating a shared sense of intellectual distance from the relationship problem, by viewing it objectively. Both parties become more aware of the context and sequence of events that lead to typical patterns of problem behaviour.
3. Tolerance Building
This approach assumes that some differences between partners will not be resolved, and so a degree of tolerance is often required, i.e., a willingness to accept each others flaws and live with mutual fallibility and imperfection in the relationship.
Research on this approach has found it to be more succesful than traditional behaviour change methods. For example, in one important study 80% of couples reported substantially improved satisfaction in their relationship following IBCT compared to only 64% of those receiving more traditional couples therapy.
The founders of IBCT published the following popular self-help book, based on their extensive research in this area:
Aaron T. Beck, the founder of cognitive therapy, also published a popular self-help book on relationship problems from a more cognitive perspective: