The January issue of the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy included an article by Shannon and Bartle-Herring, in which they present result from their study on the differences between cohabiting and married couples in therapy. The article's title is Unique Characteristics of Cohabiters Seeking Therapy, and in this post, I summarize the authors' conclusions and present implications for therapists.
The study included 197 heterosexual couples, mainly Caucasian, and was conducted in a clinic setting. In total, 143 married couples and 54 cohabiting couples were included in the study. The following four factors were discussed as pertinent to the study's results: relationship satisfaction, therapy termination, commitment, and problem-solving. I summarize the authors' findings below and include my thoughts on each factor.
1 | Relationship Satisfaction
The researchers concluded that relationship satisfaction was higher for cohabiting couples presenting for therapy, as compared to married couples. This was due to two factors: Cohabiting couples present earlier in the relationship for therapy, and they have typically been together a shorter time than married couples presenting for therapy. Their perspective on their relationship may be more optimistic due its shorter overall length, as compared to married couples.
2 | Therapy Termination
Cohabiting couples, according to the authors, terminate therapy sooner than married couples. The authors attribute this finding to a higher commitment and openness toward change than married couples, a general acknowledgement of the benefits of therapy, as well as acceptance of the need to make behavioral adjustments within the relationship. It's also possible that cohabiting couples terminate after fewer sessions due to the fact that problems are not as engrained as they might be in married couples, and can therefore be improved in a shorter amount of time.
3 | Commitment
Commitment for study participants was assessed by self-report on a scale of 1 (low commitment) to 10 (high commitment). Cohabiting couples reported a higher level of commitment to the current relationship than married couples. This is interesting. While commitment level may influence (or be correlated with) a partner's motivation to make changes, married couples already have "built in" commitment by virtue of the relationship. Potentially, the commitment inherent in marriage could influence reported commitment.. For example, perhaps reported commitment is lower for married couples, because partners have a level of comfort in the commitment available through their relationship status (married), and that status makes it somewhat "safe" to be less motivated or committed to change. However, this same level of comfort could lead married partners to minimize, or not recognize, the significance of relationship difficulties, which, in turn, results in them seeking therapy later in the problem cycle.
4 | Problem Solving
The authors mention that cohabiting couples tend to have lower communication and problem-solving skills than married couples. Those with higher skills in these areas may attempt to solve problems on their own, before seeking therapy. While, for cohabiting couples, the lower level of skill may influence them to seek therapy sooner. One thing we know from research, is that married couples tend to wait too long to seek help, which means that trying to solve problems on their own may not, in the end, be the best course of action. The fact that cohabiting couples recognize their need for help earlier in the problem cycle may mean better relationship and therapeutic outcomes.
Cohabiting couples are proactive seekers of couples therapy. In order to effectively work with cohabiting couples, therapists must understand why couples are seeking therapy. In addition, therapists must embrace cohabiting couples as a growing segment of the population that is motivated toward maintaining relationship quality. Higher reported satisfaction for these couples may also imply the need for therapists to assess and treat presenting problems differently from those of married couples.
- What is one difference you've noticed between working with married and cohabiting couples in therapy?
- What is one thing you're taking away from these study results?