Relationship education and counselling

Relationship education and counselling

Recent research findings

Cathryn Hunter and Joanne Commerford

CFCA Paper No. 33 — July 2015
Relationship education and counselling

Key messages

Relationship education programs have been found to produce significant moderate improvements in couple communication and relationship satisfaction in the short term. There is a lack of research demonstrating the effectiveness of relationship education in the longer term.

There is an inconsistent evidence base, with a lack of long-term follow up, supporting the use of relationship education as a universal prevention program. Relationship education may work best as a selective intervention aimed at couples at high-risk of relationship deterioration, although this is still a growing area of research with some inconsistent findings.

Many groups, such as cohabiting couples, are under-served by relationship education programs. Incorporating relationship education in to other programs, such as those run by nurses and midwives at the transition to parenthood, offers a potential opportunity to reach such under-serviced couples.

The effectiveness of relationship education programs may be influenced by the individual characteristics of the couples undertaking the program. Some couples are at higher or lower risk for relationship distress, and the couples’ experiences of these risk factors may affect the likelihood of a successful outcome.

Several approaches to relationship counselling have been found to be moderately effective in reducing relationship distress or increasing relationship satisfaction compared to no treatment. However, there has been limited new research in the past decade. There are a number of widely practiced approaches to relationship counselling that still remain largely untested.

Research to date suggests that relationship counselling does not work for approximately 25-30% of those who attend, regardless of approach. Couples facing the most relationship difficulties and the highest levels of distress tend to have worse outcomes in counselling.

The relationship between couple distress and mental health problems (such as depression) is cyclical with both negatively affecting each other. As the two are interlinked, mental health practitioners should assess for relationship difficulties and those working with couples should assess for individual mental health problems that may need to be addressed.

There is continued debate, although currently limited evidence, regarding exactly why relationship counselling is effective, with research focusing on explanations of change based on specific theoretical models or factors common to all approaches.

This paper reviews the research on relationship education and relationship counselling. The paper investigates the effectiveness of these strategies in working with couples who are at varying stages of their relationship - from highly satisfied at the beginning of their relationship, to highly distressed and considering separation. The paper addresses some of the complexities and issues surrounding how and why these strategies work in order to assist practitioners in engaging more effectively with couples and families.

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Authors and Acknowledgements

Cathryn Hunter is a Senior Research Officer and Jo Commerford is a Research Officer with the Child Family Community Australia information exchange at the Australia Institute of Family Studies.  

The authors wish to acknowledge the valuable contributions of Robyn Parker, Senior Manager, Research and Evaluation at Interrelate, Rosalie Pattenden, Counselling Psychologist, and Elly Robinson, Manager, Child Family Community Australia (CFCA) information exchange, for their feedback.

Publication details

CFCA Paper
No. 33
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, July 2015.
24 pp.

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