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Do distressed, help-seeking couples improve on their own? Not much, study says

Relationship problems? Seek help, says a study that indicates that you shouldn’t expect your relationship to rebound and get much better on its own.

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Does relationship quality continue to worsen, stabilize, or improve for distressed, help-seeking couples before they receive assistance? A team of researchers sought to answer that question in a study examining what happens to couples who seek online help for their relationship, but have to wait six months before beginning an intervention program.

The paper, “Trajectories of relationship and individual functioning among waitlisted couples for an online relationship intervention,” is published in Family Process. Authors include Allen Barton; Justin Lavner, University of Georgia; Matthew Hawrilenko, University of Washington School of Medicine; and Brian Doss, University of Miami. 

For this study, a sample of 221 couples were assigned to the waitlist control condition of a study evaluating the effects of participating in an online program to strengthen couple relationship. During the six-month waitlist period, couples agreed not to seek other forms of relationship assistance, but would receive the online program once the waitlist period had ended.

All participants were below 200% of the poverty level; that is, lower-income couples who historically have limited access to professional services for relationship assistance.

Barton and his co-authors followed these couples over the six-month waiting period, analyzing five waves of data to track changes over time.

For the sample of couples in the control group, the researchers found, on average, slight improvements over time in their reports of satisfaction and support, as well as decreased negative communication and concerns about the relationship ending. Individuals also reported mean improvements in some measures of individual functioning, such as less psychological distress.

However, these changes were typically small, and overall levels of distress for most couples in the sample remained elevated. There was also considerable variation between couples during the six-month period.

“A small percentage of couples actually exhibited pretty substantial levels of improvement in terms of relationship and individual functioning. But conversely, we also see a subset of couples who are reporting prominent declines. They are at a low point when they enroll, and things appear to continue to get worse over time,” Barton says.                    

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The researchers plan to investigate further how and why some couples improve on their own.

“For those couples who actually improved during this time, if we can find out what makes them resilient, we can use that knowledge to help other couples develop similar skills and capacities,” Barton notes.

For some couples, it’s possible the process of deciding to do something to improve their relationship can help put things on a positive trajectory. But ultimately, Barton recommends distressed couples seek assistance to improve their relationship.

“If you are in a relationship and realize things aren’t going well, our findings seem to indicate that you shouldn’t expect your relationship to rebound and get much better on its own. Things may improve slightly, but only for some couples and not very much. Most, if not all, distressed couples can benefit from empirically supported programming and services,” he ends.

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