Lasting couple relationships: Recent research findings and implications for practice

Lasting couple relationships: Recent research findings and implications for practice

Robyn Parker and Rosalie Pattenden
19 June 2014

This webinar outlined findings of recent research into lasting couple relationships, and discussed the implications for practice.

Audio transcript: Lasting couple relationships

Audio transcript (edited)

Webinar facilitated & speaker introduced by Shaun Lohoar


Good afternoon everyone, welcome to today's Child Family Community Australia webinar, "Lasting couple relationships: Recent research findings and implications for practice", my name is Shaun Lohoar and I'm a Senior Research Officer here at the Australian Institute of Family Studies. Firstly I'd like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands on which we are all meeting, and I pay my respects to their Elders both past and present. I have the pleasure today of chairing a webinar that I'm sure will be of great interest to the Family Relationships support sector and especially to those involved in marriage and relationship education. The webinar is part of our Focus On… series, which consists of a range of resources and publications relating to strong couple relationships. Now there's been a good deal of research about how younger recently married couples can maintain healthy stable relationships, yet today we explore whether studies of these couples can be generalised to those who have been together for much longer periods, particularly in light of more recent advances in analytic methods.

Our speakers today are Robyn Parker from Interrelate Family Services, and Rosalie Pattenden, a counselling psychologist working in private practice. Robyn is Senior Manager of Research and Evaluation at Interrelate in New South Wales. In previous years as a researcher at AIFS her focus was on couple relationships and how they can be strengthened through our prevention and early intervention efforts. Her focus is now on research that can be used to inform the day-to-day practice of those working with couples in education and therapeutic settings. Rosalie Pattenden prior to her current work in private practice, was the Clinical Practice Manager and Training Co-ordinator for CatholicCare in Melbourne and previously worked at Relationships Australia Victoria where she's had extensive experience working as a manager, counsellor, relationship educator, student co-ordinator, family violence supervisor and media representative. Many hats.

The presentation is being recorded and the recording will be available on the CFCA website in due course. Please give Robyn and Rosalie a very warm virtual welcome - we'll now hand over to you, Robyn.


Hi, thank you Shaun and hello everyone. I'd also like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the many lands on which we're meeting today and pay my respects to their Elders past and present. I'd just like to start with a little bit of background as to where this paper came from. A year or so ago the CFCA manager put out a request to the Advisory Council for some topics of interest to the service sector that the CFCA could start to write on, and I very cleverly said I'd be really interested to find out what the current research is on couple relationships and particularly lasting couple relationships because I had done a paper on that topic way back in 2002 when I was a rather green researcher at AIFS. And they said that's a really good topic, would you like to write that and in a weak moment I said yes. But it's still an interesting area and it's a fascinating area and if you could ever get to do some reading in this area of some of the earlier studies it's really quite affirming.

So the 2002 paper was based largely on articles that were qualitative and if I took one key finding away from that literature it's that the couples who lasted longer times had very much a purposeful or an intentional approach to their relationship and realised that you had to keep paying attention to the relationship rather than taking a said and forget point of view or perhaps thinking that it will all work on autopilot. A problem with the earlier research though apart from there not being very much of it, was there was very few statistical methods that were able to analyse couple data and longitudinal data and to manage both elements of that. A lot of the research does involve both men and women but will treat them as separate entities if you like, in the last decade or so there's been an emphasis of saying well actually the couple data is the important thing here.

And so as those techniques have emerged we can now examine quite complex data sets and I have to point out that that's a bit of a double-edged sword, which I will refer to a bit later on. And also as time passed those ongoing studies that started in the 80s and the 90s got to the point where the couples had been together long enough to be of interest to a growing number of researchers who thought that the idea of learning about how older couple relationships are sustained and maintained was an interesting thing to do. But there's still not a lot of research on older couples, as the number of papers that we included will testify.

So we started to think about what can we learn from older, intact couple relationships. My co-author Jo Commerford from CFCA had the wonderful job of finding the relevant studies for us to look at. We kept it to recent past research in the last ten years, partly to keep it current, partly to keep it manageable and partly because it's a fairly short paper. And we wanted to actually get the most up to date material that we could and to keep it sort of manageable and to pick the highlights out of it. The papers that we eventually could include, we had ten studies originally, one I eliminated because it methodologically wasn't very sound and others we eliminated because they weren't directly talking to the issue of how couples in older relationships keep the relationship going. So that left us with just a few papers that use a range of methods, a range of analytic techniques, had different participant groups and so on, and whose participants had been together at least or married for up to around about 56 years, so that's a significant achievement for those.

The findings from these studies give us some newer knowledge and also some knowledge that confirms what we've seen in previous research and also it confirms what many of you as practitioners will already know from your work with couples. And because there's a few studies here but we've sort of not taken the view that these are findings that you could take to the bank in the sense that with research there's always a sense that we need to replicate that in order to be able to say this is a consistent strong finding and so on. So the typical research message at the end of any research presentation is we'd like to see more research please.

So the key messages from these particular studies is that relationships are complex, if you weren't aware of that, there you go. Relationships need to be actively engaged in, there needs to be an intentionality about them. There are some similarities between couple partners and having slightly rose-coloured glasses can help with couple satisfaction. Earlier satisfaction for the individual partner is linked to their later health so there's a unidirectional relationship there. And that men's experience of early years of parenthood is particularly important and I will come back to each of those points as we go through. I'd just like to mention though that there's not a lot of going into detail results here, what we want to do is to highlight the findings that can be of value to the practitioners and not exhaustively examine them. Part of the problem with having super clever statistics is that the detail can be devilish and especially when you're working with quite a few variables and particularly in personality, we've got five personality traits there that are incorporated in the research and so it can make it tricky to interpret all the individual results. What I'm hoping to achieve today though is just to add to what could be called the tapestry of knowledge for practitioners that you draw on when you're working with couples.

So the first key area of interest is around commitment and we know generally speaking that commitment is grounded in our experiences and judgments of the relationship beyond satisfaction and commitment is how we can explain why partners stay in an unhappy relationship, it maybe unhappy but it may not necessarily be unstable because of the level of commitment of the partners. So we're fairly clear that commitment isn't the same as satisfaction and one of the questions for the researchers who did this particular study was whether commitment looked a bit different in couples who've been in longer relationships. The three key components of commitment in terms of wanting to be in the relationship, having few alternatives outside of the relationship and having an investment in the relationship are what we commonly understand as the key dimensions of commitment.

Underneath that these particular researchers examined the element of allegiance to the relationship and what they noted was that you can see that if allegiance, it's not always followed up by action. So you can have allegiance to a cause, to a group, but you may not actually follow up by participating in group activities or voting or contributing donations and so on. So allegiance itself is probably not enough to sustain a relationship. So they essentially extended the thinking about commitment to include both the desire for the relationship, to be in the relationship and the desire for it to continue, but also the inclination to engage in behaviours that support the ongoing nature of the relationship. I've summarised it in this slide as engagement but it's slightly more complicated, it's about actually demonstrating the behaviours that will support the ongoing nature of the relationship. So you need both the desire and the inclination to help the relationship. So you can want it to last but that's not going to be enough, you actually need to demonstrate that particular desire.

And some of those behaviours would include being thoughtful, engaging with both the positive and the negative aspects of being in a relationship, so not avoiding the issues as they arise, trying to resolve problems, apologising, making sacrifices, contributing to the nurturing of the relationship as opposed to the two individuals, so taking that kind of you, me and us kind of view. And what the researchers found is that when that inclination was there the satisfaction of the partners was higher. So it's an important element of a relationship that people need to actually demonstrate that they want the relationship to continue. And it's an important distinction I think for working with couples and it's something that perhaps would be a key message for anyone working with young people and I'm thinking of perhaps programs in schools talking about potential relationships, that it's important to actually demonstrate to your partner that you want to be with them. And there are constructive ways to do that, so there are some skills building involved in that as well.

So moving on to the next key part of the research is personality traits and need to note here that we're dealing with - the research dealt with five personality traits. So the neuroticism, extroversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness which is collectively known as the big five. And in this particular research this is where the sophisticated statistics come into play, you've got those five personality traits, you've also got data for husbands and for wives and variables that are created based on both of their information. So it can be a little bit tricky in trying to interpret these findings meaningfully. One of the first findings is that neuroticism is still not good for relationships. It's very much almost a truism in some of the early research that with younger couples that neuroticism was a strong factor in poor satisfaction for couples. It still is a factor in older couples as well but this wasn't as strong a finding as it was for the role of conscientiousness in relationship satisfaction and this was shown to be quite important. So the more conscientiousness there was between the couple, between the partners or as a couple, the better the relationship satisfaction is for both partners.

And I think it's interesting here because I don't think that the measurement of the five personality traits here is context-specific and I maybe wrong about that, someone may actually be able to tell me that but I'd be interested to see what the understanding of this personality trait was and how that's actually reflected in a relationship context. So what does having a conscientious partner mean in that sense. The traits range from organisation and thoroughness through to carelessness and negligence and you can see how those qualities can be relevant but I'd like to see some work done that actually tries to actually describe those, what does that look like in a relationship context. And so with this particular study what they were able to show is also that there's a positivity bias, so when you look at the partners rating of each other and themselves in terms of their personality traits, the finding is that the rose coloured glasses are helpful. It essentially means I'm happier if my partner has a shinier view of me than I do, and I really like that term "shinier" because it conveys quite a lot I think in this space. I will come back to that in a second.

The particular authors of that study, a similar group of them did a second study and found something a little bit different. For them extroversion as in the couple related to higher satisfaction for both partners, but for husbands in particular openness to experience, having similar levels of this particular trait was important for husband satisfaction. For wives, the quality of agreeableness in the couple was important for their overall satisfaction. So it just seemed in older couples there are other aspects of the personality 0-their own and their partner's personality that becomes more salient, neuroticism is still perhaps in the background there, but obviously over time couples would adapt to the particular foibles with their partner and so these other qualities have come to the fore I guess. And these findings are also reflective of the findings from the qualitative work back in 2002 the quote on the slide is, "We all need someone to be the president of our fan club" and that comes from that original work. These people weren't talking about having blind adoration, they were quite aware of their partner's faults but they all understood the need for us to have someone who's our biggest fan if you like. And it's very easy to personalise that as well that finding.

So moving on to the study about transition to parenthood. This was quite a methodologically interesting study but the findings are actually very interesting as well and also quite salient for current practice environment I think. In the past we've seen evidence for the U-shaped curve of relationship satisfaction where it starts very high and declines until roughly middle aged when the kids have gone through school and starting to leave home, and then satisfaction picks up again into the older years. But there's also been evidence for a linear decline from the original heights, early in the relationship there's a steady decline as the time goes by which doesn't necessarily mean that it will decline to the point of breaking down. This particular study found support for the linear trend although they did acknowledge that this is an 11-year long study, they did acknowledge that the trend may still reverse in later years so there's still perhaps some variability to be seen in that particular kind of data.

So they found satisfaction declines steadily over time. They also noted very interestingly that the key predictor of later relationship breakdown was the husband's satisfaction with the relationship around the time that the first child went to school. And I guess from a practice point of view this is not a particularly surprising finding and it's one that's becoming consistent in the literature because there's a lot more emphasis now on including both fathers and mothers in research about parenting. And when you think about it, this finding is consistent, there's a lot going on at the time when a couple's children are starting to go to school. There's the accumulation of the responsibilities from the time that they became committed, there's the changes along the way, there's the challenges they've met along the way, there's the increased expenses associated with having kids and schooling, there's possibly the changes in roles and mothers going back to work, there's more of a focus on children, there's less time for themselves as individuals and for the couple.

And as my colleague Linden pointed out, when you look over that, if they don't deal with the early challenges successfully then by the time this period comes along then there's a little bit more weight against them if you like and so it's important for there to be support for couples along the way both at the transition to becoming a couple and along the way to becoming parents as well and then into the later years. Clearly a point where interventions could be useful and we know that there are a number of programs emerging that deal with that particular topic.

So finally just talking about the question around health, which has not been looked at in terms of what the relationship is between health - physical health and the health of the relationship. And the research question for these researchers was around what happens to health when relationship satisfaction changes and also what happens to relationship satisfaction when health changes. Need to point out here that this is self-rated health, so this is essentially from an individual point of view, this is my ratings of my own health and my ratings of relationship satisfaction. And they also examined marital problems as well. The key finding here is that poor relationship health is not good for physical health so the finding is around my reports of my relationship satisfaction now, if I was more satisfied now that self-report was linked to a self-report of better health later.

One of the problems that is considered in the paper and it's sort of fairly obvious is that self-reported health is obviously a fairly subjective measure and there are other ways that are a bit more objective to measure physical health including things like weight gain and chronic illness and lifestyle behaviours like exercise and smoking. And this particular finding because it's not a one-way relationship, and so it's about the relationship health having an impact on later health but health changes don't actually predict later satisfaction directly. The question that the researchers posed is that other measures of health might actually have a direct or an indirect impact on relationship health down the track. And it's easy to see how that happens if a partner has a chronic illness or some other sort of condition, the changes in roles, changes in the activities hat the couple can engage in, changes in level of energy, changes in finances if there are high costs associated with a particular illness. So while there are a lot of other factors that may actually impact on this, this is actually quite a new finding in terms of identifying that the direction of this relationship is at least on a self-reported level, one way.

The researchers also point out that it’s not perhaps one's own health that matters but it could be the partners or could be both and for instance if both partners' health declines at a similar rate then perhaps the relationship might not be as badly affected as it might be if only one partner's health declines. And just thinking along the lines of prevention and early intervention, this suggests that health can actually be a useful element or a point of focus for some programs or counselling for couples. And I'm not sure how many there are now but I know that there have been programs written for couples where one partner has a serious illness, perhaps cancer, and there are some work done way back I think in the early 2000s which is essentially an education program that helped couples manage not just the illness but the effects of the illness on their life as a couple. And I think that's probably an area that perhaps could use some more focus, identifying this relationship between physical health and relationship satisfaction can probably give some impetus to developing some more of those, an interesting area of future work.

Sp to sum up, we can see in these findings, in some of the findings at least that generalising research findings from younger couples who haven't been committed or married for very long is not perhaps the most useful thing to do. So that older couples, the dynamics are probably different, you can see that some of the personality factors have a different role to play. So there's some evidence there to suggest that we should perhaps be looking even more commonly at older couples and what we can learn from them. I mentioned earlier that we've got the sophisticated statistical methods now to cope with the complexity of the data that we can collect which is a great thing but it can also be tempting to get bogged down in some of the detail of the analyses. As I mentioned, we have five personality traits but you've also got individual data and you have couple data and other factors that can be included there, it can be tricky to tease out what the gist of the findings are and getting bogged down in the detail and probably on a practice level is not going to be particularly efficient for you or effective.

I would also like to just mention that I think these findings come out at an interesting time in the broader policy context. Given that there's more emphasis on prevention and early intervention in relationships and perhaps unprecedented support at a broader level for relationship education and counselling efforts. So these findings can sort of add to the evidence base and highlight the need for education and counselling interventions in couple relationships across the lifespan because a number of thee findings point to factors that are amenable to change through education and counselling. And I guess the takeaway message from all of the reading that I've done on relationships now is that there needs to be that intentional mindset if you like in the partners when they enter and try to maintain and sustain the relationship. So I'd like to leave my part there and hand over to Rosalie now.


Thanks, Robyn, I think it was a really interesting paper and I like the fact that what happened was that Robyn pulled together all the research and pulled out the most important factors. In talking about the implications for practice I though oh my goodness I could go on for days and days with that, so what I've done is I've picked out some issues that I think are of particular interest from her findings following on from what the researchers found, and I'm not sure of the experience of the people listening in so I humbly apologise if what I'm saying to you is very well known by you, hopefully, it will be of interest all the same. So Robyn reported that an active engagement that's supportive of the relationship is needed to maintain relationship stability and it's interesting that I was working with a fellow not so long ago in counselling and he said that his was his second marriage and they were coming along to counselling to make sure this relationship would last because he learnt from his first relationship that you do require to put in effort. He thought just being there was enough and couldn't understand why his wife complained over a long period of time and realises now that what you have to do is you have to actively work on keeping your love alive and so he brought his partner along to make sure that everything was well, he wanted this relationship to last forever.

So that's a nice little reminder I think that relationships require a lot of things including effort and attention and making sure that your partner feels loved by you, you need to love your partner and you're more likely to get loving back. It's interesting when we're talking about commitment; commitment is a decision that you make about being in a relationship with someone. It's more than that. It's also an active involvement, it's also giving and receiving love, it's also a lot of things, but I think a commitment, thinking of it in terms of a decision that you make is really important. It's interesting that a fellow called Scott Stanley in 2005 was asked in America to study couples, well particularly single women who had been in a series of relationships with a series of children from each relationship and the government wanted to know what was it about these particular people that they were unable to commit long term or their partners were unable to commit long term.

This spread out into a wider lot of research that he did on commitment generally and what he found is that couples who - particularly co-habiting couples who just live together for a while it doesn't necessarily lead to an ongoing commitment in marriage say because these partners who came and went with their partners, with their female partners, tended to be there because it was oh so convenient to be there and they were waiting to see if something better would come along before they decided to commit. So Scott Stanley called this sliding into a relationship, sliding without that decision to commit, and what he found was that as problems always inevitably arise in any relationship, if they hadn't made that commitment, that decision to commit, then they could slide out of a relationship as well as they could slide into it and that was what was happening. They found also that women, because women release oxytocin when they have a relationship with talking and children and all of that sort of stuff, oxytocin is the bonding chemical and women tended to commit to their partners once they were having sex and children, it's not the same for men. So men tend to slide in and out but women stay committed to the family.

As I said problems are inevitable in any relationship no matter how good it is to begin with, there are always ups and downs and we need couples to keep on committing to the bond and keep on behaving as a way of staying committed because otherwise, commitment is likely to waver as they go along. Stanley again found that couples who made a decision that they wanted this relationship long term, till death do us part, tended to strike problems along the way and say OK we've got a problem here, what are we going to do to solve it. Whereas couples who were not so committed, were sliding in the relationship, started to compare alternatives, you know, do I want to stay in the relationship, or would I be better off leaving the relationship.

And it's interesting that John Gottman has also talked about this comparison analysis in couples who are wondering whether to stay together or go, comparing the likelihood of this relationship giving me satisfaction long term or would I be better off with somebody else. If you've got that going for you, if you're comparing your relationship with perhaps more happiness away from the relationship, then what you've got is one foot in the door and one foot out the door. So if you strike a problem along the way it's either getting you more evidence to leave or more evidence to stay, it's not such a healthy way, particularly if you've got one person committing long term to the relationship and the other wondering whether they're only staying because of the children, because of the investments, because of the time together, because no one else better has come along.

I think John Gottman is very good on looking at long-term commitment and what happens. He says that if you want an ongoing commitment there are three basic areas that you really have to look after. One is that as differences arise in your relationship and they inevitably do, then you have to have skills and the commitment and the desire to manage the difference and conflict in a non-destructive way. If you can do that then your friendship stays strong and that's the foundation of the relationship really, a strong friendship. And if you have a strong friendship and you're managing the differences in conflict then what happens is that you can draw out shared dreams, not only as a couple that you have your couple dreams to realise, but also you support each partner in being able to realise their own dreams. So it's a witness to your life, somebody who encourages you and is with you as a team member.

Of course John Gottman, you probably all know about his research by now because it's so well known and it's so good. He says that if you break down those three areas that I just talked about then you can really work on helping couples to develop their relationship. He studied couples, as you probably know he had couples in his love lab, thousands and thousands of couples where he analysed the couples that he called the masters and analysed the couples who he called the disasters who were likely to separate without intervention. And he built up what he called the sound relationship house, which talked about all the traits that he noticed the couples in happy relationships were using that really strengthened their relationship. And I'm sure you can go away and read Gottman if you don't know him already or you probably know him quite well, and when you're working with couples whose relationship commitment has started to slide, then a lot of these ingredients of getting your relationship back on track are ones that we focus on.

They're about being able to keep your partner in mind and to remember to pay them attention, to give them affection, to put your rose coloured glasses on about them to manage the conflict and to realise dreams. Couple goals. It's also important to know that if you're studying early couples in relationships, that's where I like to get them when they're still early on, perhaps pre-marriage or in the first year or so, because there hasn't been a backlog of disappointments and grievances and you usually can work through things pretty fast, that's why I think pre-marriage education is so good. But what we do know is that relationships go through a predictable series of steps. In the beginning when couples fall madly in love and release lots of lovely oxytocin and bond together, what happens is passion prevails and those rose coloured glasses are well and truly on. In fact couples see the differences in each other as being something that they really like, part of the reason they fell for their partner was that they really enjoyed the differences and perhaps thought that they could learn from those differences.

What happens a few years down the track, unfortunately, is that those very same differences that might have been part of the attraction in the first place become the reason that difficulties and problems and complaints start coming into the relationship and partners think what on earth was I thinking, have I married an alien. And then a little bit further down the track when the conflict starts really getting in place, it's called by people like Michele Weiner-Davis, that they get into what's called a blame game, everything would be great if you only changed and became actually a clone like me because if you were a clone like me you'd have it all right, obviously you've got it all wrong. And the funny thing is that no partner likes hearing from their beloved that they're getting everything wrong. So this is where we really start seeing people come in with their complex problems into relationship counselling at Number 2 level or Number 3 level when they're getting into the blame game and unless you can start helping them work through that and getting that couple dynamic out of the relationship then the relationship is likely to start sliding into at least one of them wondering about the commitment long term.

If they can get through that stage then they get to a state where they think that’s just the way my partner is and they start accepting their partner for their differences and being able to accommodate those differences without it causing conflict. And if you talk to old married couples then they are very accepting of each other and what's happened is that their commitment to each other feels like we're together at last. When we get couples in the counselling room when maybe they've been struggling along with their difficulties and not managing to sort them through, what we hear is that John Gottman's work says that they go into a negative cascade. The requests to their partner for change or for something that matters to them, if they don't get met over time then instead of requesting a change the partner starts becoming critical. Of course that feels like an attack on the other partner so that's usually met with defence or attack back. If those two don't seem to get the results required, then the criticism becomes contempt and the defensiveness becomes shutdown or stonewalling as Gottman calls it.

Gottman says that once people get to contempt and stonewalling and finally belligerence, "Yeah, as if you'd know", then what happens is that the couple's really in trouble and he says that he could predict at that point with 98 per cent accuracy that that couple will separate. This negative cycle that the couple get into and I've got one down here that's John and Mary but it could be John and Hames and it could be Betty and Mary, it could be any couple, it could be mother and daughter. What happens in a very close couple relationship of any kind is that when the dynamic between the two people gets into trouble, gets into that negative interaction cycle, that blame game, then it starts affecting their thoughts, their feelings, and their behaviours and they start wondering whether they can maintain the relationship or not.

So for example here we've got Mary making requests to John and John doesn't meet them, she might be saying to him, "It's really important that we spend more time together" and John might be refusing that. So she starts thinking, "Are you my soul mate, are you my companion for life, and are you my friend or my foe?" So she starts thinking things like, I" don't think he cares about me", and she might also start thinking about herself and think "Maybe I'm unlovable to him". Deep down that might trigger off some childhood memories or some earlier experiences that leave her feeling worthless or unlovable or alone or not good enough but instead of showing vulnerability to someone when you don't know whether they're your friend or your foe, defences are likely to kick in and instead of showing her vulnerability to someone who mightn't take care of her, she will criticise him which sounds like an attack to him.

So that sends off in him a whole lot of messages and he might think, "I can never get anything right, oh yeah that's right, I'm hopeless", which could trigger off old feelings for him like from family of origin or from earlier relationships or from bullying at school or something. But as it goes on and on and she keeps on complaining and critically attacking him, he starts thinking, "She might be mad and I might be better off without her". Underneath he might be feeling a complete failure and his reaction to that might be that he shuts down and withdraws from her which is a real trigger for her because it looks again like he doesn't care and she's invisible and unlovable for him and she starts feeling worthless again and so on, around and around and around they go. Now by the time we see couples in couple relationships difficulty, it could have been many hears down the track and depending on how severe that cycle has become it depends on how well we are likely to be able to help them to work through that.

I really like EFT, emotionally focused therapy practice for couples and Sue Johnson's work. She's written a lovely new book called, "Love Sense" which is terrific for both couples and for therapists, so I really recommend it to you. What she says is that couple relationships are actually attachment bonds just like a child attaches to a parent and a parent has responsibility for the child that's triggered off so that other than - unlike reptiles who can leave their eggs and wander away, mammals have an attachment bond that's set up between them and their child in order to keep them protected and safe. And that means that the child has got a safe haven to grow up in, somewhere where he feels loved and of worth and protected, very important to be protected. Also encouraged to be the best of themselves as individuals and if a child grows up in a nice secure relationship like that they're likely to seek a nice secure relationship in later life and if they're not growing up in that sort of secure environment, then they may not feel so confident about forming a couple relationship later on or it might get into difficulty more easily.

What she says about adult relationships is that they're an attachment bond just like children except the difference is that it's a reciprocal bond. So each partner needs to show the other that they provide a safe haven for them and a secure base to leap off from in order to be the best of themselves as an individual but hat your partner will be there to protect you and bring you home if something goes wrong. She says when the couple gets caught in unresolved unmanageable negative conflict cycles both can become overwhelmed with separation distress, she calls it a primal panic and I think that describes it beautifully because when couples are in danger of separating when they come to counselling, they are expressing life and death statements like, "This is killing me, I don’t know if I can survive this" and I'm sure you've all heard it too. And the deprivation and emotional starvation comes from emotional disconnection when the attachment figures fails to respond to that sound house that Gottman talks about, they fail to respond to bids for attention, they first of all start protesting then get angry, might get clingy, might try and reach out to their partner continually, but if they don't get a compassionate response from their loved one, then despair and depression and a comparative analysis sets in and they often get into that cycle that we've already talked about, often for years and it gets worse and worse and the commitment wavers.

I like this quote, according to EFT for couples, when an individual experiences disappointment, hurt or a threat in their couple relationship they'll have an emotional response. Its purpose is to elicit from the other partner behaviour necessary for restoring a sense of security in the relationship. Often there's the primary emotion, which is fear or hurt, but it's a vulnerable emotion. So it's pushed out of awareness and replaced by a defensive secondary emotion such as anger that's expressed to the partner and vice versa. And that's a really unhealthy place to be in for a long, long period of time. Those secondary emotions don't bring out in the partner the compassion, reassurance or love that's really being sought for and that's what is needed to secure the attachment bond again.

So the EFT framework focuses on the systemic nature of the cycle that couples get into and help them to get that cycle out of their relationship in order for the love to return. She says that the three things to re-establish commitment are that your partner is accessible to you, so when you want your partner to stay open to what you're feeling and open to your vulnerabilities, open to making sense of the emotions that you feel and to step back from disconnection with your, to be responsive to you emotionally and to put a priority on how you are feeling and by responding well and engaging with you to show that you value your partner. So with a more secure attachment that you're hoping to help the couples get back to, then they're more likely to be able to meet the ongoing challenges in their life, you're helping them along the way to deal with their differences and disputes of course.

We know that there are times when couples come to us that there are clear transition points and they put extra pressure on their relationships such as the birth of the first baby and we know that that's a particularly important time from Robyn's review, particularly important for fathers at those early stages when the mother might be struggling with becoming a parent and very involved in the child and the father might feel pushed out, neglected, and not as important in the relationship. Both partners can tend to neglect the partner relationship because they're so focused on the co-parenting relationship and that's really important. The other pivotal points in relationships, of course, are ones like dealing with adolescents, empty nest, retirement, also grieving, you know, when there's loss of a child or a parent, difficulty with IVF, all these things can be pivotal points in the relationship and depending on whether the couple can pull together and work as a team to work through these things or whether they feel isolated, pushed out, rejected, criticised, then will depend on how they manage to move forward.

This is where I think pre-relationship groups or prepare focus early in a relationship can help the couple to really make sure that they can manage differences in their relationship, understand what's important to keep a relationship growing, it's almost like a safety net for them so that when inevitably they strike problems along the way they can understand each other and deal with those differences. We need to be the empathic helper who can contain the couple and hold their hope while they're working through these issues. I think I've said the rest of that. We know now too that one of the things that we need to do is look at the stress levels in our couples. When couples are in that negative conflict cycle the stress levels are really high. You've got adrenalin running through the system, you've got stress hormones running through the system and those are not good for health. They can be underlying immune diseases and cancer, those sorts of things, but they can just bring down general wellbeing for the couple. So it's important that we work to help the couple stay together.

I really love this quote by Anais Nin, "Love never dies a natural death, it dies because we don't know how to replenish its source, it dies because of blindness and errors and betrayals, it dies of illness and wounds, it dies of weariness, of witherings of tarnishings” I think that counsellors and pre marriage educators and educators in general for parenting and for long term relationships, we need to be advocates of healthy satisfying long term relationships. We have to help our couples to strengthen their relationships and get their relationships back on track and away from the high divorce rate that we've got in our community, not only for the couples' sake because most marriages should be able to be saved, but also for the sake of the children. But if the relationship is beyond saving, to help the couple separate with understanding, respect and dignity. It's hard work but it's really worth it.



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Slide outline: Lasting couple relationships

Slide outline

  1. Welcome to Lasting couple relationships: Recent research findings and implications for practice
    • Presenters: Robyn Parker and Rosalie Pattenden
    • Chair: Shaun Lohoar
    • This webinar is part of the CFCA information exchange webinar series: Please note: The views expressed in this webinar are those of the presenters, and may not reflect those of CFCA, the Australian Institute of Family Studies, or the Australian Government
  2. Learning from lasting couple relationships - applying recent research findings
    • Robyn Parker
    • Senior Manager, Research & Evaluation Interrelate
  3. Background
    • 2002 - literature based on long-married couples (15-50+ years)
    • Overall --- relationships need ongoing & intentional attention
    • Needed statistical procedures that could manage individual trajectories, & analyses of couple data
  4. So what can we learn from older, intact couples?
    • Very few studies have involved lasting intact couples
    • Literature search found ten studies since 2004; four eliminated
    • Couples together 11 to 56 years; some followed up from earlier studies
    • Findings – some new, some confirmatory
  5. Key messages
    • Relationships are complex (!)
    • Relationships need active engagement – intentionality
    • Similarities & rose-coloured glasses help
    • Early satisfaction linked to later health (but not vice-versa)
    • Men’s experience of early years of parenthood is important
  6. Commitment
    • Expanded construct to include desire and engagement
    • Wanting the relationship to last is not enough
    • Need to show that desire through behaviour
  7. Personality traits (1)
    • Neuroticism is still not good for relationships
    • Conscientiousness is good for relationships
    • “Rose-coloured glasses” are good for relationships to some degree
  8. Personality traits (2)
    • Similarity in personality is good for relationships
    • In older couples, satisfaction is about more than neuroticism
    • Consistent with earlier work – “…we all need someone to be the President of our fan club”
  9. Transition to parenthood
    • Satisfaction declines steadily over time
    • Early parenting years critical for husbands – impact on relationship breakdown in longer term ---
    • --- a lot going on at this time
  10. Health
    • Poor relationship health is bad for physical health
    • This is a one-way relationship: early health does not predict later satisfaction
    • Relationship health a way to promote physical health?
  11. Over to Rosalie…
  12. Research Exploring factors contributing to relationship stability in long term relationships
    • Implications for Practice
    • Rosalie Pattenden
  13. A Commitment is a decision
    • Schoebi, Karney and Bradbury (2012) suggest that an ongoing commitment to a relationship is closely related to an inclination to engage in behaviours that support the relationship.
    • As Robyn reported from her review of findings, an active engagement that is supportive of the relationship is needed to maintain relationship stability--simply wanting the relationship to continue is not enough.
    • Scott Stanley (2005) proposed that couples who are unsure of their commitment to another tend to ‘slide’ into a relationship at the beginning rather than to make a decision to engage in the relationship and commit to it long-term. Even in the life of the relationship, commitment can begin to ‘slide’. Problems that inevitably arise in any relationship can then have couples less likely to engage in the bonding exchanges of behaviour, and couples commitment is more likely to waver.
  14. Gottman-Core goals to maintain ongoing couple commitment
    • Manage difference and conflict
    • Develop friendship
    • Draw out shared dreams
  15. John Gottman
    • The Sound Relationship House
      • Create shared meaning
      • Make life dreams come true
      • Manage conflict
      • The positive perspective
      • Turn towards
      • Share fondness and admiration
      • Build love maps
  16. Robyn's review of research findings suggests that similarities between partners and viewing partners through rose coloured glasses appears to support marital satisfaction, but we know in practice:
    • The marriage map
      • Passion prevails
      • What was I thinking?
      • Everything would be great if you changed!
      • That's just the way my partner is.
      • Together at last.
  17. John Gottman’s negative cascade:
    • Criticism
    • Defensiveness
    • Contempt
    • Stonewalling
    • Belligerence
  18. Negative interaction cycle, beliefs and feelings and behaviours
    • John
      • Failure
      • I am hopeless and she is mad
      • Withdraws
    • Mary
      • Criticizes
      • He doesn't care and I am unlovable
      • Worthless
  19. A relationship in trouble
    • There are many theoretical frameworks and models which therapists can use in order to help couples re-establish couple commitment. One I find particularly useful is EFT-C based on attachment theory
      • Sue Johnson ( Emotion Focused Therapy) says adult relationships are an ‘attachment bond’
      • When the couple get’s caught in unresolved, unmanaged negative conflict cycles, both can become overwhelmed with separation distress—a ‘primal panic’—expressing life and death statements such as ‘this is killing me’
      • The deprivation and emotional starvation comes from emotional disconnection.
      • When the attachment figure fails to respond to bids for attention, the sequence of protest, first hopeful then angry, then clinging and reaching out occur.
      • Without a compassionate response from a loved one, despair and depression occurs—often in the form of a demand-withdraw cycle that happens over and over (often for years) leading to consideration of therapy—or separation, as the commitment wavers.
  20. Cycles of Interaction
    • “According to EFTC, when an individual experiences disappointment, hurt, or a threat in their couple relationship, they will have an emotional response; its purpose is to elicit from the other partner behaviour necessary for restoring a sense of security in the relationship……..Often there will be a ‘primary emotion’ (e.g. fear or hurt), which is pushed out of awareness and replaced by a defensive ‘secondary emotion’ (e.g. anger) that is expressed to the partner” and vice versa ( Crawley and Grant ’05)
  21. Unfortunately these secondary emotions (such as anger resulting in a vicious verbal attack, or withdrawal) are not likely to evoke in the partner the compassion or reassurance or love really being sought in order to restore the secure attachment bond.

    Yet it is the ‘attacker’s’ fear of being abandoned that leads him to lash out, and the partner’s resultant feelings of hurt, or fear of rejection or abandonment that evokes the defensive response.

    EFT-C is a framework which focuses on the inherent systemic and interactional nature of the couple relationship, apparent in the destructive pattern of the negative interaction cycle, which is the centre of the difficulties that partners experience.

  22. A.R.E.—to re-establish commitment
    • Accessibility—can I reach you, stay open even if feel insecure, struggle to make sense of emotion and step back from disconnection
    • Responsiveness, can I rely on you to be responsive to me emotionally—need to accept and place priority on emotional signal partner conveys and responds
    • Engagement—do I know you will value me and stay close. Special attention, emotionally present to a loved one—gaze at them, touch them, show they are attuned and emotionally empathic, to restore the bond.
  23. As Hirshberger et al suggest, having a more secure attachment orientation may help challenges encountered in married life.

    Working with couples it is clear that there are clear transition points in relationships which put extra pressure on the relationship—such as the birth of the first baby, dealing with adolescents, empty nest and retirement. There are other pivotal points that can stress the relationship bond, such as decision to have a child or not, IVF, death of a child or a parent, retrenchment or unemployment, managing in-law involvement-- to name a few, where different beliefs and styles exhibited by partners are not understood or managed, and lead to partners pulling apart.

    Relationship education groups, or therapy can help couples to understand each other’s position and develop the skills and coping strategies needed to ‘manage’ these often unsolvable differences without destroying the attachment bonds. Gottman says 69% of the problems couples experience are ‘unresolvable’, so couples have to learn to manage them.

  24. Cohen et al (2005) say “An empathic helper who understands couples can often help improve the climate in which partners tackle their problems. Partners can learn gradually to take on this role themselves so that they can deal with future problems in more empathic and constructive ways”.

    Those educators who use re-marriage inventories such as Prepare and FOCCUS or run pre-marriage groups can help new couples to develop understanding and empathy and build resilience for their long-term commitment.

    For those couples in longer term relationships Cohen says “If they can renew their ability to feel empathy for each other’s thoughts and feelings, we believe that they will be capable of recapturing the friendship, romance, and happiness they experienced years ago”.

  25. Robyn’s review of research findings into couples in long term relationships quotes that there is considerable evidence documenting the relationship between health and marital quality, for example that better health is associated with being in a satisfying marriage (Lundstad, Birmingham and Jones, 2008)—however there is also evidence establishing a link between marital stress and health, a new generation of research is set to explore the ways in which couples can mitigate the damaging effects of relationship stress

    “Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don't know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings”. Anais Nin

  26. As advocates of healthy, satisfying long-term relationships, both educators and therapists can support couples to strengthen their relationships, overcome impasses, and thus support their health and happiness long term But if the relationship is beyond saving, we can help a couple separate with understanding, respect and dignity Our work is a privilege, and a challenge indeed.
  27. Questions

This webinar was held on 19 June 2014.

A good deal of research about how couples can maintain a healthy, stable relationship is undertaken with younger, recently-married couples. This raises questions about whether studies of these couples can be generalised to those who have been together for much longer periods.

Recent advances in analytic methods and the availability of access to couples from past studies have offered new opportunities to examine the characteristics of long-married couples and their relationships.

In this webinar, Robyn Parker and Rosalie Pattenden outlined some of the findings of this recent research, and discussed the implications for practice.

The feature image is by Christian Gonzalez, CC BY 2.0.

About the presenters

Robyn Parker

Robyn Parker is Senior Manager, Research and Evaluation at Interrelate Family Services, NSW.

Rosalie Pattenden

Rosalie Pattenden is a Counselling Psychologist working in private practice. For 6 years she was the Clinical Practice Manager and Training Co-ordinator for CatholicCare in Melbourne. She was previously the Clinical Practice Leader for Relationships Australia (Victoria) and over the 25 years she worked there she was a manager, counsellor, relationship educator, student co-ordinator, family violence supervisor and media representative. Rosalie is a relationship counsellor, and is an advocate for couples and families to work through difficulties, and repair their relationships where possible. If separation must occur, she helps couples to do this with respect and dignity, with the well-being of children a priority.