Behaviour and Solution Focused Couple Therapy

The practice of couple therapy has been encouraged to incorporate a more scientific model of practice and the use of research to inform the style of therapy most appropriate to use (Whiting & Crane, 2003). As a result, the discipline of couple and family counselling is moving to an evidence based focus. A number of theoretical frameworks have attempted to conceptualise dyadic relationships. Some of these theories have become foundations for the interventions that have become common in couple’s therapy today. Some of the models and theories include the strategic model, emotion focused therapy, solution focused therapy, behaviour theory and attachment theory.

In this article we overview two of these approaches.

Behaviour Couple Therapy

Behaviour couple therapy is concerned about how people learn and unlearn dysfunctional behaviours. The model relies on cognitive behaviour theory whereby the general assumption is that changing the cognitions of an individual is critical to help clients overcome their problematic behaviours and bring about change.

The theory also believes that behaviour is maintained by its consequences. The consequences that accelerate the behaviour are termed reinforcers, whereas those that hinder the behaviour are termed punishers. Reinforcement occurs when a behavioural response is strengthened by an outcome.

There are two types of reinforcements, negative and positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement occurs when behaviour is strengthened by a positive reward. For example, a husband that puts his dirty socks in a laundry basket is rewarded by his wife with praise and recognition. This reinforces his efforts to pick up his socks.

Negative reinforcement occurs when behaviour is strengthened by the removal of a negative stimulus. For example, wife insuring that dinner is ready on time to reduce the likelihood of the husband getting angry and abusive to her. This reinforces the wife’s behaviour of getting dinner ready early so as to remove the negative stimuli of the husband’s anger.

According to this theory, people in relationships strive to maximise rewards and minimise costs. The cost/ benefit analysis helps clients determine how much effort they should put in to meet their partner’s expectations. It is believed that through this, individuals can have their expectations met. The cornerstone of this approach is that symptoms of relational dysfunction are learned responses, thus the intervention focuses on the symptoms themselves and therapists are on the lookout for responses that reinforce the problem behaviour (Nichols & Schwartz, 2004; Brown & Brown, 2002).

Assumptions of the Behaviour Couple Model

  • Behaviour is maintained by its consequences.
  • Symptoms are learned responses that are caused by involuntary dysfunctional reinforcement.
  • Behaviour change is best brought about by accelerating positive behaviour and decreasing aversive control, as well as by improving communication and problem solving skills.
  • Action and not personality is what’s deemed important.
  • The focus is on dyadic interactions.
  • Insistence on observation and empirical evaluation.
  • Treatment is tailored to the specific family.

Goals of Behaviour Couple Therapy

  • Modify certain patterns of behaviour to improve presenting problems.
  • Improve positive reinforcements in couples.
  • Teach new skills (communication, assertiveness and problem solving skills).
  • Alter dysfunctional thoughts.
  • Implement client specific treatment.
  • Maximize benefits and minimise costs
  • Treatment is usually time limited and symptom focused.

(Nichols & Schwartz, 2004; Brown & Brown, 2002; Long & Young, 2007)

Strengths of Behaviour Couple Therapy

  • Recognises the complexities of human behaviour.
  • Focus is on presenting problems.
  • Techniques can be applied to target behaviours
  • Recognises the need to avoid blame when identifying the cause of the problems that the couple is presenting with.

Weaknesses of Behaviour Couple Therapy

  • Focus is on the presenting behaviour and neglects the underlying causes of the behaviour.
  • Neglects the importance of the therapeutic alliance.

Solution Focused Therapy

Solution focused therapy is a cooperative and non-pathological approach to therapy. Similar to other brief therapy models, it focuses on the clients’ goals and uses homework to extend the impact of sessions in the client’s life. This form of therapy differs from traditional psychotherapy in the way it conceptualises and implements therapeutic processes.

It adopts a constructivist approach in which it is believed that people define and create their own sense of reality through interaction and conversation with others thus assuming that truth is socially constructed (Lawson & Prevett, 1999).

Unlike most therapies that focus on the past and the present, solution focused therapy focuses on the future. Presenting problems are viewed as symptoms of underlying deficits. The solution oriented approach views solution building as different from problem solving. This is based on the idea that the actual problem may be unrelated to how the problem developed, and as such it is unnecessary to know details of the problem.

The therapist that adopts this approach focuses on building the couple’s strengths and abilities rather than spending too much time in trying to understand aetiology of relational problems (Long & Young, 2007; Lawson & Prevett, 1999; Fernando, 2007).

Assumptions of Solution Focused Therapy

  • Focus on the past is unnecessary. Emphasis is on the future.
  • The focus is on the solution, not the problem.
  • The couple knows what needs to be done to reach a solution.
  • Emphasis is on strengths of individuals and the couple and not weaknesses.
  • Minimal resistance. Those that seek change are more open to change.
  • Small changes create the path for large changes.
  • Therapy is action focused and not feeling focused.
  • Awareness comes after behaviour change.
  • People have skills to solve their own problems.

(Brown & Brown, 2002)

Strengths of Solution Focused Couple Therapy

  • Brief and Simple.
  • Collaborated approach that will tend to increase client’s motivation and commitment to therapy.
  • Clearly formulated goals.

Weaknesses of Solution Focused Couple Therapy

  • May be problematic if clients lack insight and motivation.
  • Focusing on positives may result in lack of validation for negative aspects of the problem.
  • Limited interpretation of the problems.
  • May be dismissed by those clients that seek depth in their therapy..