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Why Most Marriage Therapy Fails


Did you know that studies show that most marital therapy has only a 35-50% success rate?

This is explained in the Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman. In his 1990 book, Dr Gottman explains that Neil Jacobson had the best type of marital therapy. This was at the time of Dr Gottman's research.

Neil's studies showed that his therapy led to only 35-50 percent of couples seeing a meaningful improvement.

A year later, much less than half of that group – or just 18 to 25 percent of all couples who entered therapy – retained these benefits.

A troubling thought, isn't it?

Millions of marriages aren't getting the support they need. Millions of couples enter therapy together, but their hopes aren't met.

Is this a surprise to you?

If you’re struggling in your relationship, you need to learn why it is that most marital therapy fails.

You need to learn what it is that goes wrong and how you can do it differently.

You can’t afford to make the same mistakes others have.

 Fortunately, there’s a solution.


The Manicurist's View

If you've ever had trouble in your relationship and told other people, you've no doubt got advice.

Everyone seems to be able to throw ideas about how relationships work.

I'll bet at least once, if not several times, you've heard that you need to resolve your conflicts.

Even a lifelong bachelor will tell you this is the path to an enduring, happy marriage.

Most marital therapists, relationship blogs, TV psychologists, and even manicurists believe this.

The message you get is consistent: everything will be alright if you learn to improve your communication.

On the face of it, this advice makes sense.

Surely if you listened better and understood each other more, then everything would be okay?

But that's only half the story…

Can you think back to the time of your last argument with your loved one?

If you're like most people, you became focused on your hurt. For a second, all you could think about was proving you were right.

The result?

You exchanged heated words, making you both angry and dissatisfied. Or you withdrew, giving your partner the cold shoulder, shutting down the conversation.

Compared to this ugly outcome, calmly and lovingly listening to each other's perspectives has got to be an improvement.

If anything can help you find solutions and regain your marital composure, surely improving your listening can?


Why Listening Isn't Enough

Marriage professionals call the most common method recommended for resolving conflict active listening. It's used in one guise or another by most marital therapists.

For example, a therapist might try some form of listener-speaker exchange.

Let's say Mike's upset that Sarah works late most nights. The therapist asks Mike to state his complaints as "I" statements. He should focus on what he's feeling rather than hurling accusations at Sarah.

Mike will say, "I feel lonely and overwhelmed when I'm home alone with the kids at night while you're working late."

Next, the counsellor will ask Sarah to paraphrase Mike's message's content. Then check afterwards if she's got it right.

She might say: "It must be hard for you to watch the kids by yourself while I'm working late."

This shows she’s listening to him.

The counsellor also asks her to show that she understands how he feels. She needs to show that even if she doesn't share his perspective, she respects and emphasises with him.

Both parties must remain calm and avoid any flare up at all.

By now, you'll be wondering what's wrong with this? It sounds brilliant. Just what Mike and Sarah (and your relationship) need.

And you're not a million miles away.

There is a crucial place for listening skills and problem-solving techniques in a healthy relationship.

A good part of the work I do with couples is exercises like this. Activities that help each person see the other partner's perspective.

But active listening isn't enough.

Therapy that focuses solely on active listening and conflict resolution doesn't work.

A Munich-based marital therapy study by Kurt Halweg and associates found that the typical couple were distressed even after employing active listening. Those few couples who did benefit from this approach relapsed within a year.

One of the most startling findings from John Gottman's research is that couples who have maintained happy marriages rarely do any active listening when they're upset.

After all, behind all your partner’s soft statements are criticisms – directed at you. And it's hard to remain calm when you're talking about differences fundamental to your view of relationships and life.

Yet if you don't problem solve in the way the experts emphasise, they consider you doomed to fail.


You Need More Than a Compass

Think about it this way:

Active listening is a navigational skill like using a compass.

But to get to your destination, you need a map with recognisable landmarks.

And you need other skills too.

Compass reading skills alone are not enough.

Instead, Dr Gottman proposed a detailed map that leads couples through a path to a healthy relationship.

Called the Sound Relationship House, it includes all the areas that need to be strong for the relationship to work.

As well as conflict resolution, there is:

  • Trust
  • Commitment
  • Understanding
  • Positivity
  • Shared goals
  • Meaning
  • Fondness and Admiration

The Sound Relationship House addresses your relationship in its entirety.

But in addition to a complete map, you also need various skills. You need to use a compass and navigate by the stars, read maps, and pinpoint your current location.

You need to be able to apply all these skills to different situations.

Dr Gottman's approach includes skills in emotional regulation, avoiding criticism, helping each other with stress, staying positive, building rituals of connection, managing gridlocked problems and more. It's not only about listening and conflict management.

The truth about the active listening approach is that it's limited. It has a significant problem. It's recommended whatever the specific issue.

But a conflict over your grocery bill's size is different from one over differences in life goals.

A single approach doesn't work.


New Paths to Your Destination

Do you understand now why so much of marital therapy fails?

The popular approach to conflict resolution, advocated by most marriage therapists, isn't that effective!

Putting yourself in your partner's shoes, listening to what they say, and communicating with empathy is a decent method if you can do it.

But most couples can't.

Even happily married couples.

Knowing that even happy couples don’t follow the experts' rules is liberating.

And knowing that this isn't the only tool you need or the only area of your relationship you need to focus on is empowering.

So don’t just work on your communication. Work on other areas too. You can identify which parts of your relationship are strong and which parts need more work.

You can focus on one area at a time, knowing that when you've dealt with it, your relationship will be on a sounder footing.

And most of all, you won't feel like a failure during those moments when you do get angry, when you can't listen, and when the conversation does break down.


A Therapy Approach That Works

Most marital therapy fails.

A lot of the counsellors I know hate doing couples work.

And there's a reason for both these facts. Most therapists don't have a framework for helping couples mend their relationships.

Instead, they use the only model they know, which centres on improving communication. They don't realise that communication is only a part of the problem.

It's like navigating through a desert with only the ability to read a compass — when you need a map and a sense of direction to be able to recognise landmarks and navigate by the stars.

If you've tried and failed at therapy or who know others who have, now you know why.

You need an approach that will look at your relationship in its entirety. You need a system that will teach you multiple skills. And you need a strategy that recognises excellent communication is an ideal to aspire to, not something you can do all the time.

Dr Gottman's therapy is a well-researched approach. I use it regularly with couples, and I love helping them solve their marital problems.

And the approach works well.

In my experience, couples report lasting benefits after a handful of sessions. When I follow up with couples 12 months later, only a small minority, less than 2 percent, have decided to go separate ways.

Many of the couples I work with go on to become lifelong fans of Gottman's work.

I'm confident that if you're struggling in your current relationship, you could benefit too. You'll learn to assess your relationship’s good and bad points. You'll discover a whole suite of new relationship skills – communication among them.

The only question remaining is: are you going to let your marriage continue to suffer, or are you going to give Gottman marital therapy a try?

Contact me at matt@topexpatcounselling.com or use my online calendar to book a session, if you're ready to use Gottman marital therapy to strengthen and improve your relationship.

About the author

Matt is a therapist who specialises in Stress, Anxiety and Anger Management as well as Relationships. He writes on a number of topics including Mindfulness and achieving Transcendence.

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