Feb. 19, 2001 -- Trouble at home? If you and your spouse are
headed for marriage counseling or therapy,
be forewarned of its less than stellar track record. Only about half of the
couples that seek professional help for crumbling marriages are able to
meaningfully improve their relationships. And many
relationships that seem to improve are in trouble again within two years,
according to researchers.
Andrew Christensen, PhD, a professor of psychology at UCLA,
hopes to improve those odds with an innovative new type of marriage therapy
called integrative couple therapy, or ICT.
On my last day of vacation in Italy, a chatty café owner in Rome introduced me to a tall, charming Italian man. He was a local artist, I learned; his name was Marco. Just a day earlier, my friend Lynn and I had sat in a piazza in Florence talking about how hard it is to meet nice guys. It had been two years since my last relationship, and, admittedly, I'd grown a little standoffish with the opposite sex. Lynn and I agreed that I could open up a little more. So when I met Marco, I figured...
The prevailing mantra of couple therapy is that, in order to
minimize conflict, partners in an unhappy union should work toward common
ground by changing their behaviors. An extrovert husband, for example, might
agree to more romantic evenings at home if his homebody spouse agrees to join
him in nights on the town with their friends.
ICT turns this approach around completely by encouraging
couples to accept the very differences that are tearing their relationships
A study of the technique, published in the April 2000 issue of
the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, compared the impact
of ICT with the impact of behavioral couple therapy (BCT), a popular form of
therapy that emphasizes behavioral change. Following therapy, 70% of the
couples undergoing ICT were significantly improved compared with 55% of the
couples undergoing BCT, according to Christensen and his co-authors.
Although the preliminary study was small -- involving only 21
couples, randomly assigned either to ICT or BCT -- the results were striking
enough to impress the National Institute of Mental Health, which has granted
$3 million for a five-year follow-up study comparing the two techniques. It is
the largest grant ever awarded by the NIMH for research on marital therapy.
ICT, more popularly dubbed "acceptance therapy," is the
brainchild of Christensen and the late Neil Jacobson, PhD, who was a professor
of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle until his death in
The two therapists, both experts in BCT, found themselves
frustrated at the high failure rate of that approach, and decided to
de-emphasize the push for change. "The natural inclination is to try to
change your partner, but efforts directed solely at change often accentuate the
conflict," Christensen says. Sometimes people just can't change, he says,
but even if they can, requests for change from a partner often foster
Acceptance therapy shifts the emphasis to developing empathy
between partners through understanding. "When you genuinely accept your
partner, and understand what he or she is experiencing emotionally, you can
stop pushing each others' buttons," Christensen says.
In acceptance therapy, a couple and therapist develop a clear
description of the couple's relationship -- one upon which both partners can
agree. Christensen calls this process writing the "story" of a