UW Today

November 15, 1996

New marriage therapy treatment achieves extremely high success rate in pilot study, UW and UCLA psychologists report

A new approach to marital therapy that focuses on acceptance and tolerance appears to be significantly more effective than today’s standard treatment where partners often strive to change each other. Details about a pilot study involving 20 very troubled marriages will be presented in New York next week by researchers from the University of Washington and University of California at Los Angeles at a meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Behavioral Therapy.

UCLA’s Andrew Christensen and UW’s Neil Jacobson, both professors of psychology, will report that 89 percent of the couples treated in the pilot study with the new approach, which is called integrative couples therapy, said that their marriages improved or had fewer major problems after counseling. None of the couples were separated or divorced a year later.

By comparison, of the couples who received what the researchers call traditional behavioral couples therapy, 64 percent reported improved marriages following treatment. However, three of the couples receiving this type of therapy were separated a year later. All of the marriages in the pilot study were badly distressed with the couples in some state of crisis or considering divorce before they received counseling.

“Traditional behavioral couples therapy is the gold standard for marital therapy,” said Jacobson. “It is the only empirically validated treatment and it has been tested in repeated trials in five different countries. Other treatments have done well, but have not been tested to this degree.

“But even with traditional behavioral couples therapy, there has been a ceiling of about 50 percent success in marital counseling. As recently as three years ago I thought that was the limit. Then suddenly we come up with a nearly 90 percent success rate. I have been doing marital therapy research for 23 years and I have never seen anything that is in the same ballpark as integrative couples therapy.”

The focus of integrative couples therapy is on having couples accept and tolerate the differences that often exist between partners rather than having them try to change their spouses, according to Christensen and Jacobson. They emphasized that the concept of acceptance is not new and that integrative couples therapy incorporates many of the elements of traditional behavioral couples therapy.

Acceptance, they said, fosters the idea that individuals learn to love and embrace, or at least tolerate, some of the characteristics of their partner that lead to difficulties. In addition, this therapeutic approach looks at problems as vehicles for promoting intimacy and that people can get closer, not farther apart, by dealing with them. Once a person lets go of trying to change his or her partner, acceptance actually enhances the chances change will occur.

“One of the most striking results of our pilot study was that acceptance-based therapy led to more change than did traditional behavioral couples therapy which is change focused. This confirmed our belief that the pressure to change is often a barrier to change rather than a facilitator of change,” said Christensen.

“Acceptance has been around for a long time and it is a common sense notion that you need acceptance for a relationship to work,” said Jacobson. “But in the past, most therapists have only focused on change. This new method includes both change and acceptance. The real power of integrative couples therapy is that it creates a climate in which change can occur.”

Christensen and Jacobson believe the new therapeutic approach may enable marriage counselors to do significant work in divorce prevention, but only after it is more thoroughly tested. The pilot study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, involved couples in the Seattle area. The researchers have submitted a grant proposal that would enable them to evaluate integrative couples therapy on a more diverse sample of 180 troubled marriages in Los Angeles and Seattle.

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For additional information contact:
Jacobson at (206) 543-9871 or by e-mail at
{njacob@u.washington.edu}
Christensen at (310) 825-7732 or by e-mail at
{christen@psych.sscnet.ucla.edu}