The Pitt News

Christensen concentrates on couples conflict

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(Photo by Li Yi | Staff Photographer)

(Photo by Li Yi | Staff Photographer)

(Photo by Li Yi | Staff Photographer)

By Sarah Frumkin | For The Pitt News

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Couples looking to get to the root of their problems may have found just the man to help them.

Andrew Christensen — a professor from the University of California Los Angeles and a licensed clinical psychologist — shared his latest research on a method of couples therapy he developed at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic to students and faculty Thursday.

His lecture, which about 30 people attended, focused on the ways his therapy, called integrative behavioral couple therapy has improved on traditional behavioral couples therapy. Christensen also discussed the effectiveness of his online therapy program, Our Relationship.

Christensen said traditional behavioral therapy focuses on advising couples on how to correct the counterproductive thoughts and behaviors that arise from conflict. But Christensen said this induces “rule-governed” change — where couples demand certain changes from each other. Christensen said this type of change lacks the emotional component that is crucial to sincere change in a distressed relationship.

“Often the kind of changes that couples want is not rule-governed. In other words, it’s hard to agree to deliberately be enthusiastic about listening to your partner tell you about his or her day,” Christensen said.

While the traditional behavioral therapy uses the action, behavior and consequence assessment, Christensen said his method aims to see the larger context or theme of why couples interact the way they do. Instead of correcting their actions, it is designed to help them discover the root of the issue themselves.

“We don’t dictate the changes, we simply explore what’s going on to evoke a new kind of change,” Christensen said. “By exploring what’s going on with [the partners], but not telling them they shouldn’t say that, or their thinking is wrong, but simply going through that process brings about new contingencies in the environment. It exposes them to new things about their partner.”

Matthew Clista, a graduate student in the Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling program at Pitt, attended the lecture as part of his curriculum. Clista said he is interested in couples therapy in his future practice.

“As far as I know, and as far as we’ve studied so far … it seems like what he’s doing is somewhat of a trend in psychotherapy right now, which is to integrate more mindful practices as therapy,” Clista said.

Psychotherapy is also moving toward integrating more technology, Christensen said. He predicts an increase in online psychotherapy programs and apps, adding to the over 165,000 health-related apps already available — a third of which were mental-health related. While Christensen said a majority of these apps have not been tested or helpful, he said there is a clear interest and energy in developing the apps.

“I noticed just in the last few weeks that the FDA gave its first approval to an app for substance abuse — ‘Reset,’ it’s called,” Christensen said.

During the Q&A following Christensen’s lecture, one audience member asked Christensen about the difference between Christensen’s online psychotherapy program — which is conducted by video or phone call — and the in-person psychotherapy program.

The online program involves three conversations between the couples — a conversation to clarify problems the couple wants to work on, a conversation where partners share with each other what they believe are the causes of these problems and a final conversation to share how each partner proposes to solve the problems. Each partner communicates individually with the therapist beforehand to prepare for these conversations.

Christensen said a major strength in his online psychotherapy program is having a neutral party who translates and reflects whatever the client puts into it. It also focuses on individual input rather than combined input to reduce the risk of an argument erupting so the couple can achieve a useful discussion instead.

“When one partner says something and there’s a message in there, but it’s surrounded by barbed wire,” Christensen said. “With a neutral therapist, you can untangle and get to the core of the message that the one partner is saying without all the barbs or defensiveness.”

Chi Bui, a graduate student in the Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling program at Pitt who attended the lecture, described Christensen’s new model of couples therapy as more “holistic.”

“With his method he breaks down the entire pattern — the traditional model does work, but [Christensen] thinks there is a better way to do it,” she said.

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Christensen concentrates on couples conflict