For several decades, I have been intrigued by trying to understand how people develop the important close relationships in their lives, and how these potential sources of joy and support can unexpectedly become major stressors as the relationships deteriorate. I study relationships from a broad cognitive-behavioral perspective and have spent many years observing how partners in a relationship interact with each other and how they think about and interpret those interactions. This work incorporates such strategies as bringing couples into our laboratory to watch them interact and coding their behaviors, obtaining self-report measures from community couples through the Internet, and collecting daily diary reports through automated telephone dial-in systems. Thus, we use a variety of approaches to try to understand the complex phenomena in couples’ relationships over their life span, ranging from couples who are dating to newlyweds to aging couples.
The endowed chair and distinguished professorship presented to me by the University recognize my contributions to the field of couple research.
My major reason for trying to understand intimate relationships is to establish an empirical basis for developing and evaluating a variety of interventions for couples in different contexts. That is, I conduct psychotherapy outcome research with couples who are experiencing a range of issues. During my research career spanning more than 38 years, I have helped to develop the theoretical, empirical, and clinical base for cognitive-behavioral couple therapy for assisting distressed couples. In several treatment outcome investigations, I have demonstrated the effectiveness of these interventions; these findings along with those of other investigators have made cognitive-behavioral couple therapy the most extensively validated treatment for distressed couples. I also am strongly committed to translating the interventions that I have developed into practical guides for practicing therapists. Therefore, in addition to publishing empirical findings, I have co-authored two books for therapists detailing how to conduct cognitive-behavioral couple therapy.
I have a strong research interest in a particularly traumatic form of relationship distress—infidelity. Along with colleagues elsewhere, we have developed a treatment for couples experiencing infidelity and have piloted it to demonstrate its initial validity. We also have completed two books based on our empirical findings in this area: a self-help book for couples experiencing infidelity (Getting Past the Affair) and a book for therapists to explain how to work with those couples (Helping Couples Get Past the Affair).
COUPLES AND INDIVIDUAL FUNCTIONING: HEALTH CONCERNS AND PSYCHOPATHOLOGY
More recently, I have taken what I have learned about healthy and maladaptive relationships and applied those findings to a variety of specific contexts. For example, I am interested in the interaction between relationship functioning and each partner’s psychological and physical well-being or distress. As a result, I have undertaken a number of treatment studies exploring one partner’s health issues in a relationship context.This work incorporates a wide variety of couple-based intervention studies focusing on different health problems, including cancer, cardiovascular difficulties, arthritis, respiratory disease, and smoking during pregnancy. At present, I am engaged in a pediatric oncology study, working with couples who have a child with cancer.
Similar to my interest in health and relationship functioning, I also am interested in how individual psychopathology and relationship functioning influence each other. I have helped to develop several interventions for couples in which one partner is experiencing psychological diffiiculties. I am currently co-principal investigator, along with Cynthia Bulik at UNC, of an NIMH-funded, couple-based treatment study for couples in which one of the adult partners has anorexia nervosa—Uniting Couples (in the treatment of) Anorexia Nervosa (UCAN). Similarly, in collaboration with Jon Abramowitz at UNC, I recently completed a couple-based intervention study for couples in which one partner has obsessive-compulsive disorder. In collaboration with a colleague in Germany, I recently completed a therapist manual on assisting couples in which one partner is experiencing psychopathology.
All my treatment studies in this area are based on the notion that individuals with health issues or psychological concerns can make better progress if they have the assistance and support of loved ones, such as a partner or spouse. Moreover, psychopathology and medical problems can create significant stress for a couple’s relationship, and the couple must learn how to adapt to that stress.
Whereas the above interests focus on distress and difficulties in relationships and individual functioning, I also am interested in how couples develop optimal relationships and can prevent the development of relationship discord. Therefore, for many years I conducted a longitudinal study exploring the impact of an education program for engaged couples called Building Our Own Story Together (BOOST). We offered weekend workshops to help engaged couples get their relationships off to a good start and then followed the progress of their marriages for five years. The intervention is ongoing under the leadership of other professionals, and our longitudinal research on these marriages continues.
GRADUATE STUDENT INVOLVEMENT
Graduate students are involved in all of the above research endeavors in a variety of ways, in addition to bringing their own interests to our Couples Lab and instigating new investigations. Please see the graduate students’ profiles to learn more about the variety of interests and expertise that they bring to our work on intimate relationships.