Divorce in the genes? Couples therapy more helpful for sensitive people

LONDON — Does couples therapy work for everyone, or is divorce simply in some people’s genes? It turns out it might be a little of both. Scientists from Queen Mary University London and Denver University find that individuals who are genetically more sensitive will likely get more out of couples therapy sessions than others.

Most couples therapy sessions follow the Prevention and Relationship Education Program (PREP), which researchers say has great success at helping improve communication between partners and foster improved overall relationship quality. It isn’t an exaggeration to say PREP saves countless marriages. At the same time, however, plenty of couples who tried PREP still ended up separating.

Now, it’s no secret that an individual’s personal level of sensitivity heavily influences how they see, interact with, and react to the world around them. More sensitive individuals may cry more easily during sad movies, or react more emotionally to unexpected situations in life, just to name a few examples. Regarding couples therapy specifically, study authors set out to determine just how much sensitivity dictates couples therapy success rates.

Previous research reveals that roughly half of the differences in sensitivity between people are a result of their genetic makeup. With that in mind, the research team analyzed DNA samples from over 150 couples participating in PREP sessions. More specifically, they were looking for any connections between certain genes known to foster sensitivity and PREP therapy relationship outcomes. Generally, more genetically sensitive people tended to benefit more from the couples therapy sessions.

Couples therapy helps more in the long run

Before beginning therapy, and then again immediately afterward, each couple completed a series of surveys. The polls assessed communication, bonding, marital satisfaction, and likelihood of divorce. The team conducted further follow-up surveys every six months over a two-year period.

Interestingly, genetic sensitivity appears to be even more influential over the long-term following couples therapy, as opposed to immediately after. Experts consider PREP a “skill-based approach,” so study authors theorize this finding is due to the time it takes for most people to perfect a new skillset.

“Our findings show that an individual’s genetic make-up can influence how they respond to couple’s therapy. As we know that not everyone who takes part in relationship programs like PREP benefits in the same way, in future it could be helpful to identify people with low sensitivity, that might benefit less from these standard treatments, and potentially offer them an alternative,” says Professor of Developmental Psychology Michael Pluess in a university release.

“Whilst in this study we’ve used genetic data to determine an individual’s sensitivity, this is not the only way to do this as an individual’s sensitivity is also influenced by environmental factors. It may be more practical to use sensitivity questionnaires that can be quickly and easily completed to capture these differences.”

Can less sensitive people still benefit from therapy?

The team measured genetic sensitivity among participants using two methods. The first approach entailed searching for a small number of known genes associated with sensitivity, while the second utilized an extensive genome-wide dataset including thousands of genetic variations. Both strategies produced consistent results. However, the broad, genome-wide approach appears to be the most efficient means of assessing genetic sensitivity. Scientists replicated their findings using an entirely different and independent sample.

It’s worth noting that even people deemed to be low in sensitivity from a genetic perspective still often saw their relationships improve over time if they did not take part in any couples counseling. The research team hypothesizes this is because while such individuals aren’t suited for couples therapy, they’re also less vulnerable to various common relationship stressors.

The study is published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

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