Behavioural Couples Therapy

  • Do you and your partner argue frequently?
  • Have you noticed that you spend less time engaging in enjoyable activities together?
  • Are you, as a couple, having communication problems?
  • Have you stopped listening to one another?
  • Has there been a decrease in sexual intimacy or affection?
  • Is it possible that one, or both of you may be depressed?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you and your partner may be candidates for behavioural couples therapy. Contact us for an informal chat to discuss whether you would benefit from couples therapy.

What Is Relationship/Marital Distress?

When a relationship is in distress, this means that one or both partners are not feeling as satisfied or fulfilled as they know they can feel when in a relationship. The relationship may see an increase in negative communication (i.e., criticism, personal attacks, name-calling), hostile behaviours or one or both partners may feel ignored. Similarly, the relationship may see a decrease in positive communication (compliments, empathy, caring), expressions of love, fun, shared pleasurable activities, sexual intimacy and affection (note: affection is not the same as sex).

Marital and relationship distress are not as uncommon as you might think. The environment at large can place great stress on a relationship. Environmental stressors include when one partner loses their job, financial problems, a bereavement or illness in the family, the birth of a child; moving house, etc. Life can throw us curve balls, and if you, as a couple, do not know how to  support one another, and manage the stressors, you may find that your relationship becomes stressed and distressed.

How Can Behavioural Couples Therapy (BCT) help?

BCT involves targeting many areas of a relationship, specifically, helping couples to improve their communication skills (listening and speaking), their decision-making skills, their problem-solving skills, and the way they express their feelings towards one another.

You will also learn about standards, and look at whether your standards are conflicting, or whether you and your partner are on the same page.

For example, do you both believe that your relationship should be given top priority, over your parents (and their needs) or does one of you think you should drop everything if your parents or in-laws need you? Do you agree on how much affection should be expressed between the two of you, or does one of you have a much greater need for affection? Can you both talk about how you feel or does one of you have difficulty sharing feelings, good or bad? Do you hold the same standards regarding how much to share with one another, or does one of you think 100% honesty is the way to do it, while the other thinks “I should keep certain things to myself”.

Are you getting the sense that when two people have different standards for how to behave (either individually or as a couple), this can put a strain on a relationship? That would be absolutely correct!

Whilst many couple therapies have traditionally focused on decreasing the negative behaviours in a relationship, BCT places as much importance on helping couples increase the positive behaviours, specifically, helping each other out more (with household chores/tasks, child care, picking up the food or dry cleaning), showing more affection towards one another, showing an interest in the other, and spending more time together engaging in mutually pleasurable activities, to name but a few.

However, many couples who argue frequently will find it difficult to increase their positive behaviours; your therapist may want to address this first, by teaching you better communication and problem solving skills, which will pave the way to engaging in more positive behaviours.

Behavioural Couples Therapy is recommended by NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) for the treatment of moderate depression for people “who have a regular partner, and where the relationship may contribute to the development or maintenance of the depression, or where involving the partner is considered to be of potential therapeutic benefit” (see 1.5 Step 3 in the following NICE Guidelines or p. 5 of this Quick Reference Guide) for NICE’s recommendations for the treatment of depression.

About Depression

Most people who suffer from depression find it very difficult to explain to their “non” depressed partner how they really feel. They are therefore left feeling that their partner does not understand how badly they feel. Depression is not just about having a “bad day” or feeling tired, lacking in energy. Somebody with depression will have had a number of symptoms every day for at least two weeks.

These symptoms can include:

  • Low mood/sadness
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Feelings of Guilt
  • Tearfulness
  • Suicidal Thoughts
  • Lack of energy
  • Poor concentration
  • Disturbed Sleep
  • Isolating oneself

Depression is often described as a “black cloud”; emotion is not only low, but is often flat (the depressed person just doesn’t feel anything); they have little or no energy to do even the smallest tasks (getting showered, getting out of bed, boiling the kettle), etc. Tasks that were once upon a time so easy, i.e., they were done without thought, now feel like a huge effort.

Normally, when one or both partners is depressed, they stop doing the things they used to gain enjoyment from. This only serves to keep depression going.

How is Depression Related to Relationship Distress?

We know that where one partner in a couple is depressed, 50% of these couples are normally in distress. We also know that when a relationship is distressed, there is a 50% chance that one or both partners is depressed, or will become depressed. In other words, when a person is depressed, this will have a significant impact on their relationship, and likewise, when a relationship is in distress, it can have a very negative impact on how one, or both partners feel.

Will I learn how to help my depressed partner?

This is a very good question-if you happen to be in a relationship where your partner is depressed, it is very natural to want to help them. However, sometimes, the non-depressed partner will help in ways that (unknowingly) actually keep the depressed person depressed. For example, fetching them a cup of tea, washing up after them, etc. Helping with these tasks feels the right thing to do at the time, however, in the long-term it may not be helpful to the person who is feeling depressed.

If there is one thing that psychologists agree on, it is that the way to overcome depression is by doing even if you don’t feel like doing!

If you continue to do the things that your depressed partner can do for themselves (granted, they may not feel like doing them)….you will be reinforcing their depression, because they need to start doing small things that will help them feel useful, and give them a sense of achievement. The best way you can help your depressed partner is to provide them with lots of encouragement and gentle prodding, without being too forceful. Depression can make it really difficult to do even the smallest things, and the last thing you want to do is make your partner feel like a failure for not achieving day-to-day tasks.

In behavioural couples therapy you will learn how to help your partner while they are working on overcoming their depression.

Who can benefit from behavioural couples therapy?

If you are in a relationship where one or both of you are experiencing depression, and your depression is affecting the relationship, you can benefit from Behavioural Couples Therapy.

If you are in a relationship where neither of you is depressed, yet the relationship is just not bringing you the satisfaction you know you could potentially feel, Behavioural Couples Therapy can help.

Why is it important to deal with my relationship problems?

Relationship problems can have a devastating effect on one or both partners, rendering either or both of them vulnerable to depression. Once either of them become depressed, this feeds back (negatively) into the relationship, and the relationship has an even lower chance of success; this is because depression makes it difficult for the sufferer to “be there” for their partner, to contribute to the relationship, and to participate generally, in life.

What is the goal of behavioural couples therapy?

The goal of BCT is to identify the problem areas within “the couple”, and to help the couple find ways of improving in the areas that require the most help; this might involve improving communication skills; decision-making skills; it may involve helping one or both partners lower their expectations of the other (or of themselves), and it may also involve helping the couple make more time for each other, and equally, for themselves. BCT can also help one or both partners manage their own depression, if indeed, either of them is depressed. It will also involve helping the non-depressed partner learn ways of helping their depressed partner, without “feeding” the depression.

Need help with your relationship? Get in touch by phone or email to arrange a 15 minute free phone consultation.