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Couples Therapy Is Effective — For Both Men and Women

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male_female_symbolsWe recently posted an article written by Institute Clinician Nikki Lively, MA, LCSW that asked the question “Does Couples Therapy Really Work?” Today we’re taking another look at that very question — this time with research that comes out of The Family Institute.

In a new study, researchers at The Family Institute studied the effectiveness of couple therapy, both for improving relationship adjustment (the quality of the couple’s relationship), as well as for enhancing individual functioning (the ability of each partner to manage well in daily life). The results of this study indicated that both these factors saw a positive response to couples therapy–for both genders.

Our winter edition of Institute News features an article by Lynne Knobloch-Fedders, PhD, Family Institute Director of Research and Kovler Scholar, about this very study. From her article:

Overall, men and women showed remarkable similarities in how they changed over the course of treatment. Although women began treatment reporting more relationship dysfunction than men, men and women did not differ in their changes over time in relationship or individual adjustment. This similarity suggests that couples in treatment improve in unison, with similar pathways and rates of change. 

Visit our website to read the full article and to learn more about our couples counseling services.

How to Support Your Partner — Under the Radar

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Helping HandsWhile Valentine’s Day tends to be about grand gestures–the dinners, the flowers, the chocolates–it’s important to remember that there are other less visible ways to support your partner and show that you care.

Research reported in the Journal of Psychological Science (December, 2010) describes two types of support in a relationship: visible (when both partners notice the supportive actions) and invisible (when support originates outside the recipient’s awareness).

Invisible support flies under the radar, without a partner having to ask for it, without a partner necessarily knowing you’ve provided it. Too often overlooked, it can be especially effective when a spouse has a hard time acknowledging the need (or desire) for help, and prefers to handle things on his own no matter how rough the going gets.

Especially when your partner finds herself in a really stressed-out period, invisible support is about asking yourself what you might do to make her life a bit easier — and then doing it, with no fanfare.

Here are examples of invisible support that can make a difference during a time of stress (or any time):

  • Take care of household tasks that don’t ordinarily fall to you: doing the laundry, changing the kitty litter, setting out the recycling.
  • Shine your spouse’s shoes the night before his big presentation, or take her car to the car wash before she drives out of town for that business meeting.
  • Prepare your spouse’s favorite food or suggest her favorite restaurant, without advertising how thoughtful you are.
  • Fix a pot of tea or coffee for your spouse’s late night work session before she has a chance to do it herself.

It’s about smoothing the way for someone we love without needing to be asked, and without needing appreciation.

The Family Institute offers affordable counseling throughout the Chicagoland area. Our couples therapy services provides effective care to help couples strengthen their relationship. Visit our website to learn more.

A Beginner’s Guide to Couples Therapy

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couples_in_doorwayFor many, February means one thing: Valentine’s Day. At The Family Institute, we’re taking this opportunity to explore one of our favorite and most widely-discussed topics: couples. Today’s post comes from Institute staff therapist Jaime Henry-Juravic, LFMT.

We’ve scheduled our initial session- Now what?

Now that you and your partner have scheduled your initial couples session, you are probably wondering what to expect. And you are likely feeling a bit nervous. While all couples therapists approach the process in a unique manner, there are some fairly universal Rules of the Road when it comes to this type of treatment. Here are a few of those “rules”:

There will be questions- LOTS of them: The initial several sessions are considered the assessment phase of treatment. The therapist will want to hear from each of you about how you decided to come in for couples therapy. You may each have different versions of what led you here. That is perfectly ok.

The therapist will gather information about the present as well as the past, often dating all the way back to the family in which you grew up. This will help to provide context for each of you as individuals, as well as you as a couple.

These initial meetings may be a combination of individual and couples meetings, depending on the style of the therapist.

Some of these questions will be about sex and intimacy: While you may not be coming to treatment to discuss this area of your relationship, this is an important part of romantic relationships, and as such is important to discuss. It may become clear after the initial assessment that this is not an area in need of further exploration, or there may be some aspects of this part of the relationship that are in need of some work. This may feel a bit uncomfortable, which is totally normal. Rest assured (as best you can) that couples therapists are trained to explore this area in gentle and respectful manner.

You will learn alternative strategies to replace finger pointing and blame: These are two common pitfalls in a relationship, and both tend to elicit feelings of defensiveness in the partner that is in the “hot seat”. Rather than getting stuck in the cycle of blame, the therapist will ask each of you to focus on your own contributions to the strengths and challenges in the relationship. This doesn’t mean that you can never discuss how the other person’s behavior or communication style impacts you, but it will help you to do so in a more productive manner.

The therapist will not be the relationship referee: While having a referee during a conflict often sounds appealing, the therapist is not in the role of deciding who’s right and who’s wrong in these instances. Both of you contribute to the dynamic when the interactions are fulfilling, as well as when the interactions are difficult. And both of you have valid experiences and points of view. The therapist will help each of you to discuss these in a more productive manner, without getting stuck in the right vs wrong trap. (*Note: There are certain instances, such as domestic violence, where one or both partners have violated a safety boundary. In these instances, the therapist will be far less neutral and will work to ensure each partner’s safety in the relationship.)

You will be asked to try something different: If you have found yourselves attempting the same solutions to the same problems over and over again, with no success, it may be time to try something new. This may be framed as an “experiment” by the therapist and you will likely practice it a bit in session, before trying it on your own at home. These experiments will often focus on how you communicate with one another, including both speaking and listening. They may also focus on shifting your typical responses in times of conflict, so that each of you feels more validated and respected by the other. The assumption is that not all experiments will work; so trial and error is the name of the game here.

And, finally, you will be seen as the expert on your relationship: You both live in your relationship each and every day, and have a lot to teach the therapist about what works and what doesn’t in your unique relationship. The therapist will help you to better utilize the tools you already possess (but have perhaps been overshadowed by months or years of conflict or disconnection), or teach you new tools to more effectively navigate the relationship in a fulfilling manner.  Conversely, you may decide throughout the course of the work that what is needed is a dissolution of the relationship. Couples therapists are not always “relationship savers”. They may also help you navigate a safe and respectful separation or divorce.


Whatever the ultimate outcome of the couples work, a couples therapist is here to help each of you feel heard and validated, and to navigate the continued relationship or dissolution of that relationship with safety and respect for one another.  While each therapist has a unique interpersonal style and theoretical approach, I hope these general Rules of the Road will help to lessen some of the anxiety that can often accompany this type of therapeutic work.



Does Couples Therapy Really Work?

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LoveIn honor of Valentine’s Day, this month we’re discussing all things couples. Today’s post comes from Family Institute staff therapist Nikki Lively, MA, LCSW, one of the Institute’s couples counseling experts.

I was meeting with a couple last week who are relatively new to our work together in couples therapy. Towards the end of the session, one of the partners asked, “So, does couples therapy really work?” I asked him more about what he meant by “work” to which he replied, “Is it possible for us to be happy together again?”

These are both incredibly poignant questions, and I think representative of questions many people have about couples therapy. To answer this question, I want to share a summary of the research in the type of couples therapy I practice called Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), as well as share my observations about what seems to lead to increased relationship happiness in couples therapy from my experience as a couples therapist.

First of all, the research on couples therapy has historically been somewhat limited because frankly, relationships are complicated, and the process of therapy difficult to operationalize for research. However, more recently, EFT research starting in 1999 and to the present has shown that using the road map of Adult Attachment Theory (for a good overview on the theory click here), therapists are able to understand the distress that couples are dealing with, and have effective methods to increase safety and security in relationships, and change the ways couples interact and bond with one another.

One exciting study that came out in 2013 involved MRI brain scans in women in distressed relationships before and after a course of EFT.  The female partner was put in an MRI machine and given a slight shock while holding her partner’s hand.  Before EFT, the contact with one’s partner did not ease her perception of the pain of the shock and there was a lot of brain activity on the MRI.  Post EFT, the same procedure was done, only this time, with contact from her partner, brain activity was diminished, and she reported that the same shock from before was much less painful.  More research needs to be done in this area, but these initial findings suggest that EFT can change our ability to receive comfort from our partner, and thus help repair adult attachment bonds! (To watch a video describing the study click here)

In my experience working with couples, I have also observed 5 key factors in couples who have made progress in couples therapy and report higher levels of relationship satisfaction after couples therapy:

  • One partner expressing their feelings leads to a change in the perception of the listening partner
  • Learning to express needs, generally, but specially for reassurance and affection directly
  • A stance of curiosity and interest in understanding of one’s partner better
  • Taking responsibility for one’s own experience
  • Cultivating openness to receiving validation and comfort from one’s partner

In my experience, it is completely normal for couples to enter couples therapy with the fantasy or hope that their partner will change, or with the belief that it is their partner who is “the problem”.    However, the couples who end up getting the most from couples therapy are those that use the therapy as a place to learn more about themselves (why do I react this way to my partner?), who stay curious about who their partner is and what makes them “tick” (vs. thinking they already know everything about their partner), and last but not least, those that cultivate a willingness to change their own behavior.

Couples therapy also seems to work best when it is aimed at the prevention of problems in the relationship. I recommend that couples come to therapy anytime they are headed into a major life transition such as moving in together, getting married, preparing to become parents, before retirement, etc. It’s easier to prevent hurts and resentments from building up than it is to heal them once wounds have already been created. This doesn’t mean that couples therapy cannot help couples who have struggled for a long time with their issues, but in these cases, couples therapy will likely take much longer as each partner builds up a tolerance for being vulnerable again in a relationship where they have learned to protect themselves from further hurt.  So come early and often to get the best results!

I hope this helps answer some questions about couples therapy, and if you are currently receiving couples therapy, that it helps inspire the courage to look more at yourself and how you can use your relationship as a place to heal and grow.

Nikki Lively, MA, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with over 10 years of experience providing individual, couple and family therapy. She leads The Family Institute’s therapy group The Mindful Couple, where couples learn to live and love more effectively using the principles of mindfulness and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). In this group, couples learn to understand why feelings of anger, sadness and/or distress are common and normal reactions in relationships, as well as skills for managing those reactions and communication strategies.

To read Nikki’s full bio or make an appointment, please visit our website.

The Family Institute offers affordable, effective mental health treatment for families, couples and individuals. Learn more about us on our website.

February is Couples Month at TFI Talks

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One paper heartFor many, February means one thing: Valentine’s Day. At The Family Institute, we’re taking this opportunity to explore one of our favorite and most widely-discussed topics: couples.

Love and the desire to connect is a fundamental human need. Healthy romantic relationships are linked to all types of positive outcomes for the entire family system; and the converse is equally true. In fact, couple distress is one of the most frequently encountered difficulties. The divorce rate in America continues to hover around 50% with half of these divorces occurring in the first seven years of marriage. The divorce rate for second marriages is even higher at 75%.

The good news is that couple therapy, when conducted by a well-trained therapist, has consistently been found to be effective. In fact, research has found that couple therapy leads to positive outcomes in approximately 70% of couples. At The Family Institute, we offer couples counseling that is comprised of staff who not only have received extensive education and training in conducting couple therapy, but we all stay on top of the research literature and conduct empirically informed couple therapy. This month, we’ll be featuring content from those experts about how couples can strengthen their relationships during Valentine’s Day month and beyond. Stay tuned!


The Family Institute offers affordable counseling for couples, individuals and families at our Chicagoland locations. Visit our website for more information.


Important But Not Urgent: What are your priorities?

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“On the treadmill of modern parenting, we rarely stop and ask ourselves, ‘How important is this? What’s truly at stake here?'”


Today_tomorrowThis month’s Family Institute Couples Tip of the Month asks whether or not our marriages’ needs–as opposed to our children’s needs–are merely important, but not urgent. From this month’s tip:

For a great many couples with children, it isn’t the spouse who’s most valued — it’s the kids. At least within the middle and upper-middle-class, today’s couples tend to place kids at the top of the priority ladder, with the partner relationship landing in second or even third place (behind career). Many of us pay lip service to the importance of our marriage, but the great amounts of time, energy, and financial resources we devote to the youngsters betray those words.

Read the whole Tip to find out more about how to make your marriage a priority while still attending to the needs of your children.

For additional tips and to sign up for our Tip of the Month email, visit our tips webpage.

The Family Institute offers affordable counseling for families, couples and individuals. Find out more about our services on our website.

To get support at The Family Institute, visit our Find-A-Therapist page.

What Makes An Apology Real?

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I'm_sorry_postit_noteThis month’s Family Institute Couples Tip of the Month deals with this question: What makes a true apology? From this month’s tip:

Who among us doesn’t sometimes say the wrong thing or act in a way that triggers — even accidentally — a spouse’s hurt feelings? And who among us, after a misstep, doesn’t want to be forgiven? We want our partner to move on without harboring ill will. Research has found that an authentic apology increases the likelihood of being forgiven, and reduces feelings of anger in the “injured” spouse. It seems that we’re viewed as a more valuable partner through our acts of apology, and our injured spouse feels less risk of being hurt again if we apologize.

Visit our website to read the full tip and sign up to receive all our monthly tips in your inbox.


The Family Institute’s mission is to strengthen and heal families from all walks of life through clinical service, education and research. We offer affordable counseling for families, couples and individuals.

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