What Couples Therapy Techniques are Effective?

Revised 1/7/20

A lot goes on in couples therapy. But have you ever wondered what couples therapy techniques actually work? Most people believe helping couples attain a healthy relationship means improving communication.

Or that it’s a simple matter of teaching excellent listening skills. Or the therapist being a fair and impartial referee.

It’s actually more complicated than that.

What are the essentials of effective couples therapy techniques?

And how do you select a couples therapist who is right for you?

One research project study looked at the essence of the most successful couples therapy techniques.

They wanted to identify the strategies and techniques employed by science-based couples therapists regardless of their therapeutic orientation.

These researchers boiled it all down to 5 enduring couples therapy techniques.

 Here are the 5 Effective Couples Therapy Techniques

1. Changes the Perspective on the Relationship.

I like how Susan Johnson describes this in Emotionally-Focused Therapy. During couples therapy, the therapist helps both partners see the “Demon Dance” and “Protest Polka” that they are engaged in.

Most problems are harmful patterns repeated over and over. “The more you say this…the, more I say that.”  If you can help couples to see that pattern, they can develop a new perspective.

Gottman also focuses on changing perspective by building up the Friendship System.  As a couple’s friendship is repaired, they learn to stop blaming each other and become more aware that change involves both of them.

They stop seeing “enemies” and start seeing each other as allies, and begin to see their marriage in a new light. These are some ways that couples therapy techniques work for motivated couples.

Building Empathy

Science-based marriage therapists do more than just watch and listen. They collect “data” on the interaction between the partners by watching how they interact. This is often done with video analysis.

Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy helps spouses to reveal thoughts and feelings they avoid expressing to their partner. They learn to read each other’s faces and encourage transparency.

Different couples therapy models will use various interventions, vocabularies, and strategies. But all good couples therapy techniques focus on changing the way the relationship is understood.

Couples can then begin to see each other and their interactions with greater empathy.

The work begins with changing a couple’s perspective and setting realistic expectations.

2. Change Dysfunctional Behavior.

couples therapy techniquesCareful assessment is the key here. Couples come in a lot of pain around their presenting problems. Different models will use various interventions, vocabularies, and strategies.

But all good therapists focus on changing the way the relationship is understood. A couple can then begin to see each other, and their interactions with greater empathy as well as clarity.

Individual problems are also significant. You can’t save a couple’s marriage with couples therapy techniques if personal problems require individual counseling.

If a partner’s behavior is so bad that it’s an unfixable relationship, the couple is probably not ready for couples therapy.

A Word of Warning…Couples Therapy Techniques Don’t Work for Every Couple!

Science and research tell us whether or not a couple is suitable for couples counseling. This is the biggest weakness in “General Practitioners” They take every couple on because they don’t know any better.

Claiming that you work with couples is one thing, but having the training to turn some couples away because you only work with appropriate couples is another. Proper science-based marriage counseling and premarital counseling require a careful assessment before jumping headlong into treatment.

Some Couples Can’t Do Couples Therapy

Couples therapy techniques are useless if either partner has a severe addiction issue, is involved with some else, is violent and abusive, or wholly disengaged. You have to be motivated for couples therapy techniques to be effective. Science-based couples therapy is incredibly effective 70-92% of the time, but if you’re not willing to work at it, you’re not a good candidate.

A good science-based couples therapist has a specific treatment plan to address bad behavior. But this knowledge starts by understanding which cases are not appropriate for marriage counseling work.

This is the perpetual rookie mistake of the “General Practitioner” Therapist. Divorce counseling can take any couple as they are, but marriage counseling requires careful assessment.

3. Decreases Emotional Avoidance and Distancing.

Conflict Avoidant couples avoid expressing their inner feelings.

They learned in their family-of-origin that conflict was unhealthy and should be avoided.

But research tells us that they put themselves at a higher risk of becoming emotionally distant and growing apart by doing so.

Too often, a couple waits for their partner to change first.

Science-based couples therapy techniques help a couple express themselves. Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy is particularly good at this. An EFT therapist allows each partner to share thoughts and feelings they have been reluctant to talk about. Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy helps people be less afraid to express loneliness or fear.

4. Improve the Clarity of the Couple’s Communication

couples therapy techniquesGood couples therapy techniques teach a couple how to communicate with clarity and skill.

Couples need to understand where their communication goes wrong, so they can see how they stay stuck, despite their best intentions.

Gottman Method Couples Therapy helps couples stay calm in order to improve communications.  Emotional regulation and clear communication go hand in hand.

Gottman Method Couples Therapy teaches couples the skillset for regulating their nervous systems and co-regulating each other.

The therapist provides practical instruction. Then the couple keeps working on it until they retrain their nervous systems. Emotionally regulation enables couples to manage conflicts instead of bickering and escalating. This is a critical strength in the Gottman approach.

5. Promote Strengths.

Couples in negative sentiment override often can’t even see a positive behavior coming from their partner. Good couples therapy techniques help you to see beyond the current anger and resentment. Effective couples therapy techniques help you to build on and appreciate your strengths as a couple.

Couples Therapy Techniques Are Tested Carefully

Evidence-based couples therapists don’t apply a particular theoretical model just because they read it in a book.

Good marriage counseling matters because it is tested against alternative methods. The gold standard is randomized controlled trials.

To become an expert in couples therapy requires pursuing formal training and clinical supervision.

Many clinicians start with a background in family therapy. Then they adapt their approach to ensure that they are using the best that modern research has to offer.

Becoming a science-based marriage counselor requires skills of assessment and observation.

Depending on their degree, science-based marriage counseling takes years of rigorous coursework and clinical supervision.

Therapists Have to Prove their Ability to Use Couples Therapy Techniques

It’s a grueling process that happens only after licensing. Formal training in science-based marriage counseling requires coursework.

It requires submitting tapes of your work to both your supervisor and an objective review of your couple therapy techniques at the training institute. There is typically a several-year certification process.

Many couples therapists are licensed, but not all. Some work under clinical supervision. There is also a self-selection process involved in who decides to become a science-based couples therapist.

Marriage counseling is not just a specialty. It is also a passion and a calling. Emotions can run high, and it requires a calm and level-headed professional.

Science-based couples therapy techniques are often taught in weekly in-person sessions, and online. However, research indicates the couples who make the most progress attend an intensive marriage retreat, which is the equivalent of 6 months of couples therapy that can be conducted over a single weekend.

Are You Ready For a Science-Based Marriage Counseling Online?

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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