3 Common Types of Couple & Marriage Counseling – Gideon Killion

A few weeks ago, I blogged about six common types of counseling and psychotherapy, and I promised that I would describe a few more at some point in the future. Since I am currently out in the Los Angeles area to attend a training seminar on Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (known, for unknown reasons, as EFT, rather than EFCT), I figured I would take this opportunity to describe three common types of counseling for couples. (And please remember that there are quite a few others.)

People search Google for “marriage counseling” more often than any other counseling-related topics. I believe this is because committed, intimate relationships, even good ones, have always been hard. And in our fast-paced and superficially-connected culture, we look to our partners more than ever for companionship, pleasure, and satisfaction.

Most approaches to couple counseling will involve some mix of improving communication, changing behaviors, and developing insights. Most will also approach the relationship as a system in which the partners interact and react in a repetitive cycle with each other and their environment, as well as with their own inner thoughts and feelings. And yet, as you will notice, each of the three common types below have a unique understanding of what makes relationships work.

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1) Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT)

EFT is a research-supported methodology developed by Sue Johnson and Les Greenberg. It is based on the principle that humans have an instinctual drive to form a safe, emotional attachment to an intimate partner. This need is no less important than other primal needs for food, sleep, and physical safety. As such, when our attachment need is threatened, it has the ability to trigger our biological fight or flight response. The unhealthy relationship behaviors that we exhibit toward our partners are seen as attempts to either meet these attachment needs or to protect from attachment injuries. Secure attachments are formed when we can be emotionally vulnerable yet safe with our partners. An EFT therapist begins by learning the couple’s interactive cycle, then helps the couple identify and communicate their underlying emotions and unmet attachment needs. As the partners experience, in session, being vulnerable, safe, understood, and accepted by each other, they become more attached to each other, and the health of their relationship improves.

2) The Gottman Method

This is perhaps the most research-driven form of couple therapy. John Gottman and his research collaborators have spent several decades watching couples interact in order to identify the behaviors that create stability and satisfaction, versus those that produce instability and dissatisfaction. For example, his research has shown that stable, satisfying relationships require a minimum ratio of five positive interactions for every negative one, and that four types of behavior — criticism, defense, contempt, and stonewalling — are especially harmful. A counselor using this model will spend a significant amount of time assessing the couple’s constructive and destructive behaviors. From there, the counselor will help the couple learn, practice, and implement new skills in order to increase the positive behaviors and decrease the negative ones. Special attention is paid to helping the clients recognize when they are becoming upset, sooth themselves, and avoid the destructive communication that often occurs when a partner is upset.

3) Relational Life Therapy (RLT)

RLT was developed by Terry Real. Whereas EFT is largely driven by emotional experience, RLT focuses on developing insight into current, dysfunctional behaviors, and replacing them with more relationally-effective ones. RLT views each partner’s position and behavior in the relationship in terms of two continuums: self-esteem, and boundaries. Non-relational (ie., dysfunctional or unhealthy) behaviors occur when there is too much or too little of either. Often, people learn these behaviors during childhood as a means of getting their needs met. RLT therapists will confront both partners about their non-relational behaviors and the role those behaviors play in the relationship. RLT also recognizes that partners in a relationship tend to create stories to make sense of each other’s behavior. It teaches clients to recognize and discuss these interpretations, rather than simply assuming that they are accurate. It also teaches clients to ask directly for what they want rather than demanding, manipulating, or simply expecting the other to know without being told.

EFT, The Gottman Method, and RLT, are just three of the many available types of couple therapy. There are others, such as Internal Family Systems (IFS), or Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy (ICBT), that definitely deserve attention as well. Hopefully I have provided enough information to help you consider how couple or marriage counseling could be helpful for you and your partner.


About the Author: Gideon Killion is a former intern counselor in the People House Affordable Counseling Program. Gideon now has a private counseling practice and is a Private Practitioner at People House. You can find him online at www.lifecraftcounseling.net

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