A couple needing relationship counselling

The original version of this article was first published in Psychology Today by Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D. (Follow him on Twitter).

For couples in trouble during ordinary times, seeing a couples counsellor or therapist might seem to provide a pathway to relationship restoration. During the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, not only might you be more stressed than ever, but you’re limited in getting that help on a face-to-face basis in the office of a trained professional. You may be able to take advantage of teletherapy, but even this might present a challenge if you don’t even know where to start looking.Perhaps you’ve seen some online help sites as you’ve browsed the web to find some advice to help set your relationship back on track. They’ve got plenty of compelling graphics, testimonials, and offers of free trials with attractive couples inviting you to join them on your journey to relationship bliss. However, you’re not looking to purchase furniture, toothpaste, or socks. Beautiful people, though pleasing to look at, aren’t what’s going to convince you to invest your time, and more importantly, your relationship’s future, to this seemingly untrustworthy site.

Comparing Online and In-Person Training

According to Kansas State University’s Chelsea Spencer and Jared Anderson (2021), you might want to give one of these websites a try. Noting that in-person relationship education programs have strong empirical support, Spencer and Anderson decided to see how well their online counterparts might fare. In their words, “in-person programs may not be suitable for all couples due to time, logistical, geographical, and financial constraints. And, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, online-centred services of all kinds—educational, financial, clinical—are not only increasing exponentially in demand but are likely to remain central moving forward” (p. 2).

To delve into the question of whether online relationship programs could meet these demands, the Kansas State authors conducted what’s called a meta-analysis, or compilation of findings from other studies, on six leading websites for which there is published data. To meet the criteria for inclusion into the meta-analysis, a study had to include statistical information on the size of the observed effects, and importantly, test the outcomes of the program. Ideally, studies on a therapy method’s effectiveness also had a control group to which couples were randomly assigned, and 9 of the 12 studies met this criterion as well.

The Benefits of Online Relationship Training 

Turning now to the 12 studies left for the meta-analysis, these were the 6 programs the authors evaluated: “Our Relationship Online,” “ePREP,” “The Love Guru,” “PAIR: Promoting Awareness and Improving Relationships,” “Tapping Deep Intimacy,” and “Power of Two Online.”  One study evaluated an online “relationship excitement” program that was not widely available. There were 80 unique statistics based on these studies that the authors were able to input into their overall effect size equation.

Among the outcomes, the authors of these studies investigated were such key factors as relationship confidence, relationship satisfaction, negative/positive relationship qualities, and communication skills. Several studies also evaluated the effect of the program on such individual outcomes as anxiety, quality of life, depression, and even beyond these qualities, health and occupational functioning measures.

So far, so good. It seems as though Spencer and Anderson were able to accumulate enough information on these online programs to conduct an objective and thorough evaluation of their effectiveness. You might wonder about how scientific a program called “The Love Guru” could be, and although it did not measure up to the gold standard of having a randomized control group, it did provide usable data.

Putting all of these findings together, the Kansas State researchers concluded that, indeed, these programs all had beneficial effects. Participants who went through these interventions reported higher relationship satisfaction, higher confidence that their relationship would continue, more positive and fewer negative qualities, and even favourable effects on those measures of individual levels of functioning.

Men and women benefitted equally, and there were no particular differences between couples who appeared “distressed” versus those who did not. Interestingly, relationship programs had beneficial effects whether or not they met the criteria of being “enhanced,” the ones in which couples could purchase additional individual support from relationship experts.

In noting the many advantages of online relationship programs from a feasibility standpoint, the authors point out their strengths in terms of ease of access, affordability, and appropriateness during a time when in-person relationship education opportunities are limited. In their words, “As therapists, our ultimate goal is to support individuals, families, and relationships—and if therapy services are not feasible for a couple, it may be important for therapists to inform these couples of the possibility of utilizing an online relationship education program.”

Why Do These Programs Work? 

Now that you see that the online programs can be effective, your next question might be why they are able to produce these positive outcomes. Relationship education isn’t completely like couples therapy or counselling, because its focus is on providing couples with skills and training rather than on delving into the dynamics of a couple’s patterns of interactions.

Nevertheless, it can help couples enhance their relationships by learning better communication skills, improving problem-solving skills, and preventing distress or problems. Couples don’t even have to be distressed to enter into one of these programs if it’s enhancement alone that they seek.

Think now about your relationship and how living under the current stress of the pandemic is chipping away at your feelings of satisfaction and even joy with your partner. Rather than give up on the idea of seeking help until life gets back to normal in a post-pandemic world, you and your partner might find it worthwhile to explore any one of these programs.

The Spencer and Anderson article was careful to avoid endorsements of any specific program, and since all were effective, you can take your pick to see which one appeals to you the most based on the specific content it offers.

To sum up, finding happiness in your relationship during difficult times may seem like an impossibility. This new research suggests that you can overcome these hurdles and even improve you and your partner’s ability to continue to find fulfilment together by gaining new ideas and skills.

The original version of this article was first published in Psychology Today.

Resolving relationship issues can be a painful process as it requires self-reflection and honesty from all parties.

Our expert relationship team at LCC provide relationship counselling that can help and support you, either together or individually with these issues.

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