On Love

The Professional: Couples therapist Andrew Christensen finds change isn't always good

Psychologist Andrew Christensen.
Psychologist Andrew Christensen. (Courtesy Of Ucla - Courtesy Of Ucla)
By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010

One of Andrew Christensen's favorite old jokes goes like this: What is the bride thinking as she walks into the church to meet her groom? Answer: Aisle. Alter. Him.

"It's that notion of change," says Christensen, a psychology professor at UCLA. "And men have the same notion -- that once we're married, things will improve."

Christensen, 63, has spent most of his nearly 35-year career in psychology studying couples -- the ways they fight and the methods of intervention that seem to help troubled pairs.

In the early 1990s, Christensen, frustrated that traditional methods of couples therapy weren't effective enough, started working with his colleague Neil S. Jacobson to develop a new strategy. Jacobson died in 1999, but the approach they created, called integrative behavioral couple therapy, has gone on to attract significant attention in psychology circles, especially with the publication last month of the results of a five-year clinical trial.

A primary difference between Christensen's method and traditional approaches revolves around that question of change. Typically, a couples therapist dealing with an unhappily married pair might suss out each partner's gripes about the other's behavior and nudge them to make positive changes to please the other.

The problem, Christensen says, is that "for certain couples it's very difficult for them to make certain kinds of changes, or if they make those changes they're only going to be temporary."

His approach, on the other hand, emphasizes acceptance of a partner -- even when he or she is not meeting our expectations. Christensen's brand of counseling would help a couple explore why a particular expectation is so meaningful and why a partner might not be able to fulfill it, no matter how reasonable it seems. If a wife's need for affection as a display of love isn't being satisfied, for instance, the counselor might help her see that her husband wasn't raised in an openly affectionate family, and that any attempts in that direction make him feel awkward and disingenuous. So perhaps they need to focus on the other ways he expresses his love -- by listening, say, or changing the oil in her car.

Because the problem, Christensen says, lies not just in a partner's behaviors but also in our (sometimes overwrought) reaction to those behaviors. Another of his favorite sayings: "Most crimes of the heart are misdemeanors." Those dirty dishes left in the sink might not be as huge a transgression as infidelity, but they can still seem like blatant disregard of the other spouse's feelings.

Christensen's method asks couples to get past their routine complaints about the dishes or lack of affection and talk about underlying issues they may be avoiding. "We try to get at other things that are going on that haven't been revealed," he says. "And when they talk more about their disappointments -- their hurts in the relationship -- sometimes you can bring couples closer together in the session, to where they feel something differently towards each other."

In the five-year study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Christensen tracked 134 "chronically and seriously distressed" couples after they were given eight months of either traditional couples therapy or his integrative approach. Couples who underwent Christensen's approach reported higher marital satisfaction than the other group for the first two years after therapy, although the results evened out in the subsequent three years. Five years after either type of counseling, 50 percent of couples were significantly improved, 25 percent were divorced and another 25 percent were still in troubled marriages.

Christensen, who's been married for 27 years and laid out his theories in the 2000 book "Reconcilable Differences," written with Jacobson, insists that one of the biggest keys to creating a happy home life is putting aside the assumption that we can tweak a partner into perfection.

"Of course, people do change, but what Neil and I identified is that often the struggle to create change is the biggest barrier to change. People get into these dynamics of, 'I'm pushing, my partner is resisting,' " he says. "That pattern prevents either of us from changing and, in fact, locks us more deeply into a rut."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company