Home is where the heart is: Why we're getting couples therapy wrong

July 28, 2016 by Priscilla Dunk-West, The Conversation
The generic space of therapy cannot compare to the feeling of a relationship in its natural setting. Credit: Shutterstock

These days individuals often engage in a kind of self-evaluation in which their interactions, relationships, jobs and identities are placed under a microscope.

Larger questions such as "who am I?" and "who do I want to be?" have arguably become the biggest life project of all. They require endless reflection and action to bring about personal change.

This so-called modern day phenomenon of the "project of the self" has its critics, with some arguing that an increased focus on individuals does little to account for culture or class, for example.

Notwithstanding these criticisms, there is a widespread belief that the inward gaze and "work done" on ourselves will improve our lives, happiness and intimate relationships.

The marketing of this concept can be seen in the so-called "self-help" literature, a billion-dollar industry in which people's romantic relationships, for example, are promised a blooming renaissance. It is no mistake that intimacy falls under the self-help banner, since the concept and patterns of romantic attachments are so embedded into therapeutic ideas of the self.

So what about couples therapy?

Much of what is undertaken in draws from the therapeutic notion of self. It is designed to help struggling couples find common ground in the face of life's challenges. Therapy promises to unlock communicative blocks and, with it, all of the emotional attachments, meanings and tensions.

British sociologist Frank Furedi theorises that the turn to the therapeutic for a range of day-to-day issues is to the detriment of society. This means that instead of liberating individuals, therapy has become so much a part of the culture that it creates an "emotional deficit" in its wake.

Relationship breakdown remains a consistent feature of the modern era. Yet despite high divorce rates, Australian couples continue to formally recognise their partnerships through marriage and other commitment ceremonies.

At the moment there are no meaningful ways to improve relationship quality aside from traditional counselling. Turning away from a deficit-led approach – one that focuses only on experiences with problematic relationships – means asking new research questions.

So instead of asking "what goes wrong?" for couples who separate, asking "what goes right for couples who continue in relationships?" has potential to offer new insights that can be applied to couples wishing to improve their .

Enduring love study

In the UK, the Economic and Social Research Council funded a study that sought to understand how couples stay together in the 21st century. The survey from the UK study was then used in the US and Australia.

One of the key findings from the study was the importance of the seemingly mundane day-to-day gestures. Making your partner a cup of tea or cooking dinner, for example, were reported as positive relationship work.

Most participants in the Australian sample had some level of significant stress in their lives, with the majority having recently experienced a life-changing event such as major illness, redundancy or job loss. In light of this, it appears that the everyday gestures around the home provide a kind of inoculation against traumatic events.

It is also evident that couples see the home environment as the relationship crucible – the house is the site in which day-to-day decisions are made and household labour divided and lived out. In this context, the home becomes the relationship site, and the flow of everyday interactions its lifeblood.

A new intervention?

Furedi's assertion of the emotional deficit model of self-evaluation links up with the contemporary treatment of couples "in trouble".

The ABC series Making Couples Happy, for example, saw a team of professionals working with couples on the brink of . Though the "boot camp" format used some behavioural interventions, the professional involvement largely involved talking therapy and other psychological approaches.

Other social and historical factors such as the rise of the professional and the growth of counselling have had an impact on approaches to relationship problems.

Yet continue to see counsellors in the counselling room, rather than somewhere more revealing, such as the family home. If people were wanting to experience nature, they might drive in a car or walk. They could choose between the vacuum-like cabin of a car or the crunch of stones beneath their feet; the breeze moving the trees and their hair.

In the same way, relationships cannot properly be felt in the confines of the counselling room. The generic space of therapy cannot compare to the feeling of a relationship in its natural setting, where the flavour of interactions, the division of labour, the daily mundane activities are lived and symbolic gestures of love are forged.

So perhaps we have got couple therapy wrong. Drawing from what we know from the international study into long-term relationships, therapy should be informed by the resilience of those who have been able to sustain long-term relationships and carried out in the home setting.

Explore further: Relationships in distress find support in web-based program, OurRelationship.com

Related Stories

Relationships in distress find support in web-based program, OurRelationship.com

April 5, 2016
Relationships in distress are linked to mental and physical health problems in partners and their children. Within the U.S., one-third of married couples are distressed, and almost half of first marriages (and more than half ...

Daters move toward (or away from) marriage in four different ways—where do you fit?

February 10, 2016
A University of Illinois researcher has identified four distinct approaches that dating couples use to develop deeper commitment.

Free program helps couples identify emotional 'hot buttons'

August 3, 2015
QUT psychology researcher Katherine De Maria is looking for volunteer couples to help her investigate ways in which people's emotional intelligence can be enhanced to improve their ability to communicate with their intimate ...

Stress shared by same-sex couples can have unique health impacts

January 30, 2015
Studies of stress and its effects on health have typically focused on the worries of an individual: money, love, health, work. But what about stress shared by two people in a romantic relationship?

Recommended for you

Study shows how bias can influence people estimating the ages of other people

October 17, 2018
A trio of researchers from the University of New South Wales and Western Sydney University has discovered some of the factors involved when people make errors in estimating the ages of other people. In their paper published ...

Infants are more likely to learn when with a peer

October 16, 2018
Infants are more likely to learn from on-screen instruction when paired with another infant as opposed to viewing the lesson alone, according to a new study.

Researchers use brain cells in a dish to study genetic origins of schizophrenia

October 16, 2018
A study in Biological Psychiatry has established a new analytical method for investigating the complex genetic origins of mental illnesses using brain cells that are grown in a dish from human embryonic stem cells. Researchers ...

Income and wealth affect the mental health of Australians, study shows

October 16, 2018
Australians who have higher incomes and greater wealth are more likely to experience better mental health throughout their lives, new research led by the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre has found.

Linguistic red flags from Facebook posts can predict future depression diagnoses

October 15, 2018
In any given year, depression affects more than 6 percent of the adult population in the United States—some 16 million people—but fewer than half receive the treatment they need. What if an algorithm could scan social ...

Early changes to synapse gene regulation may cause Alzheimer's disease

October 15, 2018
Alzheimer's disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia, involving memory loss and a reduction in cognitive abilities. Patients with AD develop multiple abnormal protein structures in their brains that are thought to ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.