For several decades, we 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 if the relationships deteriorate. We 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 and how that impacts them emotionally. This research incorporates such strategies as bringing couples into our laboratory to watch them interact and coding their behaviors, assessing how they respond to each other emotionally during these interactions, obtaining self-report measures from community couples through the Internet, and collecting daily reports regarding their relationships in everyday life. 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.
A major reason for our lab to attempt 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, our lab conducts psychotherapy outcome research with couples who are experiencing a range of issues. During my research career spanning more than four decades, we have helped to develop the theoretical, empirical, and clinical base for cognitive-behavioral couple therapy for assisting distressed couples. In several treatment outcome investigations, we have demonstrated the effectiveness of these interventions; these findings along with those of other investigators have made cognitive-behavioral couple therapy one of the most extensively validated treatment for distressed couples. We also are strongly committed to translating the interventions that we have developed into practical guides for practicing therapists. Therefore, in addition to publishing empirical findings, I have co-authored three books for therapists detailing how to conduct cognitive-behavioral couple therapy, both for relationship distress and addressing individual psychological difficulties in a relational context.
We also are committed to trying to understanding couples in a variety of contexts, particularly couples who have been marginalized, discriminated against, or are understudied. Most basic research and couple treatment research has been focused on middle class, white, mixed sex couples. We are attempting to broaden that focus in several ways. First, we have been developing a conceptual model to understand same sex couple functioning in a heteronormative society, with a particular focus on same sex female couples. Based on this model, we have developed and initially evaluated a couple therapy for distressed, same sex female couples with hopes to expand this work to additional sexual and gender minority couples. Within this context, we also are conducting basic research on bisexual+ individuals in committed relationships, a relatively large group that has received a lack of focus in the research and clinical literature. Furthermore, there is limited research on how couples who are poor or have limited financial resources struggle and thrive in a US society that has large economic disparities in our population; we are beginning to explore risk and protective factors for these couples. Finally, almost all of our research findings in our field are based on couples who live together or are in close geographic proximity and see each other frequently. Yet, an increasing number of couples are involved in long distance relationships, and we are exploring how these relationships adapt to these different circumstances, for example, how they communicate at a distance or challenges they have in re-engaging or parting after being together.
We also 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
We have taken what we have learned about healthy and maladaptive relationships and applied those findings to a variety of specific contexts. For example, we are interested in the interaction between relationship functioning and each partner’s psychological and physical well-being or distress. As a result, we have undertaken a number of treatment studies exploring one partner’s individual difficulties in a relationship context. This focus has led us to consider how individual psychopathology and relationship functioning influence each other. Our lab has helped to develop and evaluate several interventions for couples in which one partner is experiencing psychological difficulties. For more than a decade, we have been collaborating with the National Health Service in England to train hundreds of therapists in clinics around the country to treat couples in which one partner has depression, along with demonstrating the effectiveness of those interventions. Along with Cynthia Bulik at UNC, our team has developed and evaluated couple-based treatments for couples in which one of the adult partners has anorexia nervosa or binge eating disorder. Similarly, in collaboration with Jon Abramowitz at UNC, we have developed and evaluated a couple-based intervention for couples in which one partner has obsessive-compulsive disorder. Likewise, with collaborators in the US and Australia, we have developed and evaluated a couple-based treatment for insomnia; although most adults sleep with a partner, the field generally has not included the partner in treatment prior to these efforts.
Our work also incorporates a wide variety of couple-based intervention studies focusing on different health problems in one partner, including cancer, cardiovascular difficulties, arthritis, respiratory disease, and smoking during pregnancy. We have expanded this work to develop an intervention for couples who have a child with cancer.
Overall, we are committed to developing interventions that meet the real world needs of couples in a variety of contexts, recognizing that frequently there are a variety of individual, couple, and environmental factors that impact a couple.
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.