Marital Counselling Research Project

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Three Studies:

  1. A Broad Profile of Distressed Couples.
  2. A Typology of Distressed Couples.
  3. A Profile of Couples' Psychological Positions.


Dr. Colm O'Connor, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist
Cork Marriage Counselling centre

A Project Commissioned by

The Department of Social Community & Family Affairs

March 2001

Not to be reproduced without permission


1. A Broad Profile of Distressed Couples - Introduction

2. A Typology of Distressed Couples - Abstract

3. A Profile of Couples' Psychological Positions - Abstract

1. A Broad Profile of Distressed Couples - Introduction

From 1990 to the present the Cork Marriage Counselling Centre undertook to maintain detailed records of it's counselling activities. The purpose of such documentation was to enable the agency to monitor its work in order to ensure that the services provided adequately addressed the needs of clients seeking help. We knew that it was absolutely critical that we develop a methodology to critically review service-delivery. This enabled the centre to adapt and develop in accordance with such reviews. We believe that research must play a central role in developing not only the agency, but also the marriage-counselling sector in Ireland. We have needed to know the demographics of our client base, what kinds of problems and concerns they present with, what kind of counselling is being offered, what kind of counselling is being delivered, as well as a host of other more specific queries. While it is difficult to blend the two perspectives when dealing with the realities of human distress and suffering, we believe it wise to espouse a scientist-practitioner model of sector development. That is, that the development of the marriage counselling sector must be equally informed by both the clinical experience of practitioners and the outcomes of reliable and relevant research. It is foolhardy to develop services without including a mechanism to critically evaluate the relevance, effectiveness, and efficiency of these services. It is from these beliefs that this present study emerges. It constitutes one of three studies completed in 1999-2000. The other studies in this trio examined the clinical issues and dynamics of couples presenting for counselling.

This study:

This study presents a sample of demographic and problem-definition statistics drawn from a large database of approximately 2,000 cases accumulated over an eight-year period. All of this material has been recorded on a computer database. Data recorded on the computer was first recorded by counsellors on terminating with a 'case' at the centre. This information was documented in a multiple-choice style questionnaire in which no identifying information for the clients in question were recorded.

The study presents a number of highly relevant statistics that can assist agencies in understanding how best to train and develop counsellors, the kinds of knowledge-base that is needed for agencies, the kinds of problems presented by couples, and the kinds of services that may need to be examined and developed. For the sample of 2,000 cases the following categories were recorded:

Broad demographic categories were: Marital status; age; phase of life; socio-economic level; years in the relationship; number of children; employment.

Problem-focused categories were: Presenting problem; duration of problem; alcohol abuse; domestic violence; barring order prevalence; psychiatric history; sexual abuse victims; suicidal ideation.

Counselling approach categories were: Goal of couple; type of counselling; counselling outcome.

This presentation will go through each category separately and highlight the possible meaning and implications of each finding. Following this, a broad summary will be drawn regarding the overall patterns that have emerged in the statistics. Implications, conclusions, and recommendations will be presented with a view to helping inform the marriage-counselling sector in Ireland.

2. A Typology of Distressed Couples - Abstract


This study constituted an exploration of the psychological 'architecture' of distressed marriages by examining the potential for developing a psychological-systemic classification of such marriages. It attempts to be part of an emerging movement within psychology to explore the potential for developing relational, rather then individually focused, classification systems. The overarching question addressed by this study was: Can distressed marriages be reliably classified into types in a manner consistent with interpersonal theories of personality. It looked at marriages as documented in the rich case-note material of 340 couples that presented for marital therapy. This study, when integrated with existing research, contributes to the sparse literature on marital typologies and provides data to further clarify concepts for interpersonal classification and diagnoses. In a cultural context, it represents the first and only comprehensive examination of distressed marriages in Ireland and thus contributes to the development of the fields of marital and family therapy.

Findings and Conclusions:

The research problem being investigated was broken down two separate but related research questions. 'What is the distribution of personality disorders and related personality styles among subjects?' and 'Are spouses with specific personality disorders/styles significantly more likely to be paired together?'

The research found that spouses with particular personality styles, as assessed using a structural analysis of social behaviour, are more likely to be paired together. The primary types that emerged in the study were as follows (with the male type identified first); the abusive/abused relationship; the alcoholic/co-dependent relationship; the passive-aggressive/compulsive relationship, the passive-aggressive/dependent relationship, the borderline/borderline relationship, the compulsive/histrionic relationship, and the narcissistic/dependent relationship. The data therefore showed that couples present in marital therapy with predictable interaction structures that can be clustered according to type consistent with interpersonal and systems theory.

The research also identified the primary personality styles by gender. For men these were: passive-aggressive, abusive, avoidant, borderline, and narcissistic personality styles. For women, the primary personality styles were dependent, compulsive, abused, borderline, and histrionic.

The research adds data to support the development of systems of classification that may compliment the current individually based nosologies of the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual commonly used in making psychological and psychiatric diagnoses. The findings contribute substantially to the growing need to develop categories that can assist professionals in describing and communicating about couples both within their professions and to couples themselves.

3. A Profile of Couples' Psychological Positions - Abstract


Scope of Study:

This study constituted an exploration of the core themes at issue in distressed marriages. Using a qualitative methodology it looked at marriages as documented in rich case-note material of 400 couples who presented for marital therapy. This study, when integrated with existing research, hopes to be significant in contributing to the sparse literature on marital. In an Irish context, it represents a unique examination of distressed marriages and thus can contribute to the development of the marriage-counselling sector and, in particular, the models used in the marriage-counselling field.

The research sought to identify the key themes, metaphors, and issues that are central to accurately defining individual couples. The methodology identified key concepts through which couples could be compared and contrasted and which were central to relationship definition and the process of therapy. It is clear from this study that certain dyadic units and concepts can be identified and described. The findings contribute substantially to the growing need to develop categories that can assist professionals in describing and communicating about couples both within their professions and to couples themselves.

Findings and Conclusions:

What emerged was that couples could be defined at two different levels (aside from problem-definition). Within these levels the experience and issues at stake for couples could be accurately described. The primary level was termed the Psychological Position. This term referred to the psychological and emotional position assumed by a partner toward their relationship and sought to define the unspoken disposition that determined the problem dynamic that was central to the couples struggles. The position therefore referred to the unspoken emotional attitude adopted by the partner. The Psychological Position included the following variables: a partners motivation to change, their attitude to the relationship, their 'felt responsibility' for the relationship, their commitment to the relationship, their self-responsibility within the relationship, their beliefs about change, and their interpersonal values.

The second level identified was termed Emotional Safety and Interpersonal Justice. This level referred to what appeared to be 'at stake' for couples in distress and included the following variables: independence & freedom, affiliation & belonging, power & control, respect & equality, safety & commitment/stability, safety & trust, emotional distance, and cycles of interaction.

The original finding of this study was that it an accurate assessment of couples relationships in therapy must include assessments of emotional safety, interpersonal justice, and psychological positioning. Without such considerations, couples difficulties remain defined at the basic level of problem-content and the underlying problem structures and dynamics go undetected.

Last modified:30/09/2008

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