Family under the microscope

This peice by Oliver James in The Guardian, Saturday 2 January 2010 gives an interesting perspective on relationship councilling, and is one that as a cognitive hypnotherapist, has long been the way that we might approach ‘couples work’.

Psychotherapy, not counselling, might be the answer if your relationship’s in trouble

When things get nasty between partners, we usually accuse the other of being either mad or bad. While the badness factor has not been much studied, the evidence shows that emotional distress in one or both partners is a major cause of divorce. There are vital implications.

In my book Britain on the Couch, I present eight studies that tested the mental health and personalities of couples before they married and then followed them up. In all of these, premarital “neuroticism” in either partner (including mild or severe depression) and “lack of impulse control” in the male partner predicted divorce, compared with couples without these traits.

For example, one study examined 300 couples in 1940 before they were married and followed them up in 1980. Divorce was significantly more likely in couples where one or both had had pre-marital emotional problems: divorce was more common in those of both sexes who, 40 years before, had been high in neuroticism and in men with a lack of impulse control.

The authors’ conclusion repays quotation: “In marital relationships, neuroticism acts to bring about distress, and the other traits of the husband help to determine whether the distress is brought to a head (in divorce) or suffered passively (in a stable but unsatisfactory marriage).”

That the problems predate the couple meeting is suggested by a study that examined a large sample of 16-year-old girls, before they had even met their husbands. High neuroticism at that age predicted subsequent increased risk of divorce.

Unfortunately, this evidence tends to be completely ignored by relationship counsellors. They have been trained to focus on the ways in which incompatibility is causing the problem. The trouble is that one partner may be depressed, or anxious, or abusing substances, or markedly unstable because of a personality disorder (such as “me, me, me” narcissism). These kinds of disturbance can be by far the most significant cause of the problems in the couple, yet counsellors will always seek to find ways in which both partners are contributing and then tinker with how they communicate.

A recent study showed how incorrect this “bit of both” thinking often is. The individuals in 3,230 American couples had their mental health measured and were tracked for three years, by which point, 10% had separated. If one partner had a mental-health problem at the start, the couple were twice as likely to have separated than couples in which neither did. If both had a problem, they were nearly five times more likely to separate.

Clearly, if one or both partners are having emotional problems, separation is more likely. But the study also showed that it was the independent effect of the individual’s problems that was most critical, rather than the impact of them on the relationship.

These are strong grounds for a rethink about what is going wrong in your relationship and what kind of help is required: if you are unhappy, be very wary indeed of blaming it on the relationship. Incompatibility does exist, but bear in mind that the sort of people who separate are also liable to have suffered childhood maltreatment and be distressed. Individual psychoanalytic psychotherapy is what that person needs, not counselling.

In Britain on the Couch, I used the term “gender rancour” to describe the current battle of the sexes, claiming that there may never have been a time when we got on worse. Mostly, the solution lies in individual treatment.

New study: Butterworth, P et al, 2008, Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 43, 758-63. More Oliver James at

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