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New study calls for more recognition of the positive effect relationship counselling has in improving family dynamics together with the mental health of adults and children. 

Despite the fact that almost 1 in 5 couples are in ‘distressed’ relationships  and that ‘family relationship difficulties’ is the most common reason why children present to mental health services,  a recent YouGov poll, commissioned by Tavistock Relationships, has found that 64% of people in long-term, committed relationships would be unlikely to seek help from a couple counsellor if their relationship was in difficulty; by some margin the biggest reason for this reluctance, or uncertainty, was scepticism about whether couple therapy works (43%).or uncertainty, was scepticism about whether couple therapy works (43%). 

This is important because there is  strong evidence which shows the negative impact of  interparental conflict on children’s long-term development, as well as on the health and wellbeing of the couple themselves. Given how much this matters, why are so many people not aware of the potential positive effect of seeking help from a counsellor or therapist?  This is important because there is  strong evidence which shows the negative impact of  interparental conflict on children’s long-term development, as well as on the health and wellbeing of the couple themselves. Given how much this matters, why are so many people not aware of the potential positive effect of seeking help from a counsellor or therapist?

In reality there is strong, converging evidence from many studies demonstrating that couple therapy can be very effective. This includes evidence from mental health delivery of Couple Therapy for Depression, a mental health intervention (available on the NHS) showing it to be the most effective of all approaches within IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) services nationally in helping both partners to deal with and recover from depression, as well as several academic studies from various parts of the globe. Tavistock Relationships (a charity specialising in helping couples with their relationship difficulties) recently undertook the largest naturalistic study of couple therapy ever published, which showed the effectiveness of couple therapy in improving both the couple’s relationship and also the psychological wellbeing of the partners in the couple.

The survey provided some hope for the possibility of reaching couples in difficulty and encouraging them to seek professional help. One quarter of those who responded initially said that they would consider couples therapy. Of those who said they would NOT, more than one in three (36%) said they WOULD be inclined to try couple therapy if they were provided with evidence that it had the potential to improve their relationship.

Andrew Balfour CEO of Tavistock Relationships comments:

“I think that what is being exposed here may be one of the last great public health taboos: the idea that seeking help for a relationship that is in trouble, where partners are struggling with conflicts they cannot resolve, is in some way so difficult or so unlikely to work, that it’s better to struggle on alone. The idea that couple therapy doesn’t work is simply not true – and the evidence is clear on this: it can help couples to change repeating patterns of negative behaviour, decrease conflict and improve understanding and communication, with consequences for their psychological health and wellbeing – and that of their children. The evidence is that couple therapy can, in the majority of cases, make things better.

“It’s important that we get this message across because over a third of those surveyed said they would be more likely to try couple therapy after hearing about the evidcence for its effectiveness. It is also encouraging that, despite the survey results showing the reluctance to contemplate seeking help, within our couple therapy services in London over the past few years, we have seen an appreciable and sustained rise in demand.; indeed, the number of couple therapy sessions we delivered last year was higher by two thirds compared with the number six years ago.

Survey participants demonstrated an awareness of the potential negative impacts of unresolved couple conflict when they were asked to rank what they imagined to be the top three benefits of couple therapy. They listed, mental health concerns (53%), followed by improved family life (49%), and children’s quality of life (37%). An enhanced sex life was cited by just 24% as a reason.

Andrew Balfour responds:

“It is concerning that even though people understand the negative impacts that unresolved relationship problems can have on the mental health of the partners involved and on their children’s wellbeing and development, they are still reluctant to take the step of seeking help.

I think that we are at the point where the issue of mental health was a few years ago – where the stigma that surrounded it kept many people from getting help and left them suffering in isolation. We have made significant strides as a society in recognising how common it is for us to experience mental health problems at some point in our lifetime. As a consequence, the government is now committed to directing more resource to mental health services – and celebrities, politicians and others across society, in talking about their own mental health difficulties, have helped to break down that stigma. And now we need to start a national conversation about the importance of getting help for our couple relationships. If I break my leg, I go to a medical professional and yet, although there is help available for couple relationship difficulties, many who need such help are not seeking it. The consequences of this are far reaching both for the adult partners involved as well as for their children and future generations.

“Evidence shows that adult mental health is strongly affected by problems in people’s relationships and the painful reality is that the impact on children’s mental and physical health, as well as their educational attainment, can also be considerable. This holds true across the lifespan – and we know that couples who are better equipped to negotiate the normal ups and downs of a relationship and continue living together in later life are in a stronger position to cope with the effects of serious illnesses such as dementia.

“That is not to say that all couples who have therapy necessarily stay together. Therapy can support couples to negotiate a break in the best way possible, and to continue to co-parent their children effectively, and can help to reduce the negative impacts on those around them as well as on their own mental health and wellbeing.

The YouGov survey highlighted that people who are unsure about couple therapy feel that it would be difficult for them to trust in a couple therapist, with an average of 23% of participants citing this as a reason they would not seek therapy. Younger respondents (34 or under) showed the highest level of distrust and men were considerably less trusting (27%) than women (20%).
When couples do decide to seek support, it can in fact be a positive move that actually creates trust between each other, aided by the therapist. Couple Louise and Dennis said:

”We knew we were in trouble but spent six years pretending it was OK. The children and jobs brought it all to a head. We knew something had to change and it was not enough for each of us to want it, we had to want to tackle it together, we are glad we did. The children were anxious about us, our friends were anxious about us; it was only taking that big step together to see a relationship counsellor that has helped us understand all the strain we’ve been living with and how we can both make things better”.

Andrew Balfour wonders if the portrayal of therapists in Hollywood and on TV might have played a part in building this mistrust:

“Perhaps there is a temptation for scriptwriters to stereotype couple therapists as unethical for comic effect. Our role is to counter that by giving the public the facts. In reality the training is very thorough, involving many years of postgraduate study and supervised practice, and the ethical guidelines for the profession are robust. We would recommend that anyone looking for a couple therapist ensures that the person they see is registered with one of the professional registering bodies, such as the British Psychoanalytic Council, the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy or the British Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy.”

Tavistock Relationships’ couple therapists have typically undertaken at least four years of academic and clinical training, and the organisation operates according to a strong ethical framework, and quality assurance procedures and safeguards which ensure the highest standards of professional practice.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2,073 adults of which 1,247 were either married, living as married or in a civil partnership. Fieldwork was undertaken between 29th–30th June 2017. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

A more extensive report on the findings including infographics can be found at www.TavistockRelationships.org 

References: 

  1. Sserwanja, I., Marjoribanks, D., (2016) Relate Distress Monitor: Estimating levels of adult couple distress across the UK.
    Wolpert, M. (2017) Outcomes for children and young people seen in specialist mental health services -
  2. http://www.newsavoypartnership.org/2017presentations/miranda-wolpert-updated.pdf

About Tavistock Relationships

Established in 1948, Tavistock Relationships is a registered charity internationally renowned for delivering and developing advanced practice, training and research in therapeutic and psycho-educational approaches to support couples.

Working from two London bases (Warren Street and New Street) as well as operating a nationally available online service, Tavistock Relationships has over 100 professionals providing an effective and highly-regarded form of couples’ counselling and psychotherapy.

Last year, Tavistock Relationships held nearly 17,500 therapy sessions, helping thousands of people with their relationships. The charity received very positive feedback, with more than 93% of its clients saying they would certainly rate the organisation’s services as good and would recommend its services.

For more press information contact:

John Fenna, Head of Marketing & Communications
T: 020 7380 1974 E: jfenna@TavistockRelationships.org

Paula Scott, PR consultant T: 07932 740221
E: paula@limegreencommunications.co.uk

Debbie Walker, PR Consultant T: 077486 40577
E: walker.debbie@sky.com

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