Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014
A new book co-written by psychology professors at Virginia Commonwealth University and Regent University provides more than 100 practical exercises to help couples improve their relationships.
“Couple Therapy: A New Hope-Focused Approach,” by Jennifer Ripley, Ph.D., a professor and director of the psychology program at Regent, and Everett Worthington, Ph.D., a professor in VCU’s Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is geared toward couples counselors but is also accessible to anyone who wants to work on their relationship.
“It’s a very practical book that provides exercises that couples can do to make their relationship better,” Worthington said. “And it’s structured within a nicely organized theory. So it all makes sense — it’s not just a hodgepodge of methods.”
The book is centered on the professors’ approach to couples counseling, known as “Hope-Focused Couples Therapy,” which focuses on assessment, feedback, creating commitment, communication, problem-solving, understanding each others’ pasts, apologies and forgiveness. It also seeks to accommodate religious ideas and principles of healthy living from faith traditions.
“The book is unique in drawing from the best of science and the best of religion,” Ripley said.
The book’s overarching goal is to provide hope to couples counselors — including mental health professionals and community leaders such as clergy — who can often get discouraged by seeing failing relationships, and also to give hope to the couples themselves.
“We’re in the hope business,” Worthington said. “We’re trying to provide hope all around.”
One exercise in the book calls for couples in rocky relationships to commit to having five-minute dates together each day.
“Plan it out. What would be a positive thing you could do together for five minutes?” Worthington said. “Could you sit down and talk about your day together without fussing? Have a positive five-minute date every day this week? OK, how about going to get ice cream together?”
On top of the five-minute dates, the couples are encouraged to plan one bigger date once a week.
“The idea is they go out and they make an agreement that this is for our fun,” Worthington said. “If we’ve got disagreements or issues, we’re not going to bring them into it. We’re setting this time aside for fun; we’ll deal with issues at another period.”
Another exercise described in the book is called “A Coke and a Smile,” in which couples are asked to identify and write down a list of interactions that might require some self-control, such as discussing a touchy topic.
“Since self-control is like a muscle, and it can wear out, couples are encouraged to find times to address difficult situations when self-control is high,” Ripley said. “They should avoid difficult situations when self-control is low such as when they are tired, depleted or stressed out. A little glucose actually helps increase self-control, hence the idea is ‘have a Coke’ to increase the virtue of self-control in your relationship and decrease conflict.”
An important aspect of the book’s exercises is that they seek to get couples to go beyond merely conceptualizing their problems. It also attempts to give them a concrete, tangible sense that they can make changes.
“Every method that we use gets them to do something concrete,” Worthington said. “It doesn’t rely on just talking. Because frankly if you talk to a couple, you’ve got two different perspectives. By the time they go out to the car to go home, they’re fighting about what you said.”
For example, Worthington said, one exercise starts with the counselor asking the couple to consider the office as a metaphor for intimacy, and to move their chairs as close or as far away in the room from their partner as they want, based on how intimate with their partner they currently feel.
“They might move around and decide that they’re at two,” Worthington said. “So I say ‘OK’ and get them to talk about why they feel like they’re at two. And then I say, ‘Where would you like to be?’ And they move there — usually closer together. A lot of conflicts can show up there. One of them might say, I want to be joined at the hip. The other might want some space.”
The counselor continues to ask the couple about their feelings and the couple continues to move their chairs based on the level of intimacy they feel.
“I say ‘OK, now talk about how you can become closer,’“ Worthington said. “‘What is it, what could you say to each other to make yourselves closer?’ Maybe they’ll talk about how close they felt when their child was born. When I sense they’re feeling closer, I say ‘Stop. It seems like you’re feeling a little closer than before, so now move your chairs to where you feel now.’“
By the end of the exercise, he said, the couple should understand that they have the power to make themselves feel distant or closer to one another based on how they choose to interact and respond emotionally.
The strategy behind the book’s exercises is called “faith working through love,” Worthington said, as it involves faith, work and love.
“Faith can be a lot of things,” Worthington said. “It can be faith in the other person to change. Faith in my ability to control my emotions. Faith that the counselor can help.”
Work, he said, is required to create change. One of the hardest parts of being a couples counselor is getting the couple to work on the relationship outside of the counseling sessions.
“They want to live their life as normal, and when they have conflicts, they go to counseling and think magic will happen in an hour a week,” he said. “But it won’t. Basically you’ve got 168 hours in a week, only one of them is in counseling. So if they aren’t working during those hours outside the counseling session, they really can’t expect much change.”
Love, Worthington said, is the third and most important element of the book’s strategy.
“Love is being willing to value the other person — to be willing to treat that person as a valuable treasure — and to be unwilling to devalue the other person by putting them down, to use nonverbal communication like rolling their eyes,” he said. “So love is being willing to value and unwilling to devalue the other person. So most of the things we’re going to try to do is help them value each other more.”
For more information, visit www.EvWorthington-forgiveness.com, www.forgiveself.com and www.hopecouples.com.
Subscribe for free to the weekly VCU News email newsletter at http://newsletter.news.vcu.edu/ and receive a selection of stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings in your inbox every Thursday. VCU students, faculty and staff automatically receive the newsletter. To learn more about research taking place at VCU, subscribe to its research blog, Across the Spectrum at http://www.spectrum.vcu.edu/