Marriage counseling moves online

Click for marriage advice – but is it a valid option?

By , Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor

When troubles cloud a marriage, couples typically have several options for resolving their differences. Some work out problems themselves. Others turn to family and friends for advice. Still others head for a marriage counselor’s office.

Now, in a high-tech world, they have another choice: online marital counseling. A computerized program called eHarmony Marriage seeks to help couples communicate better, rekindle romance, and resolve conflicts more compassionately, says Les Parrott, who created the program (marriage.eharmony.com) with his wife, Leslie, a marriage and family therapist.

The site is an offshoot of the Internet matchmaking service, eHarmony.com.

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“It’s perfect for people not quite at the place to get counseling, who want to do something practical to improve their relationship,” says Dr. Parrott, a psychology professor at Seattle Pacific University.

That “something practical” begins with a 40-minute online questionnaire covering issues ranging from finances to housework, trust, family relationships, and spirituality. Each partner answers separately. Their responses generate a computer report outlining their strengths and weaknesses as a couple.

“It will reveal where you guys are really strong and where you will find the most benefit if you invest in this area,” Parrott says. For instance, “You do really well in communication until you get to this area – in-laws.”

From that summary, the computer produces a “marriage action plan” that includes interactive video exercises, articles, and resources.

Couples pay $150 for the program, which typically takes six to eight weeks to complete. Users are often in their 30s and 40s. “Women tend to be the first to move in this direction,” Parrott says. “Men tend to be a bit more oblivious to the problems.”

Although online matchmaking is widely accepted, does Internet marriage counseling, with its click-of-the-mouse approach, hold a legitimate place?

Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education in Washington, D.C., thinks it does. Explaining that good counseling gives people new information, she says, “You can do that in any medium – face to face, over the phone, by computer.”

It’s also a way to help couples who are far apart – a husband in Iraq, his wife in the United States.

“It’s very cost-ineffective to require that a couple sit with a therapist in a private office, an hour at a time, to get information,” says Ms. Sollee, herself a marriage therapist. “It’s more efficient to get that information on a DVD or a website. You can give couples an assignment: ‘Watch this DVD. Make a list of your 10 wishes, hopes, dreams for yourselves as a couple. List five issues that give you the most anxiety. Then if you need more help, more counseling, more coaching, the two of you can get on the phone with a counselor.’ ”

Parrott emphasizes that e-therapy is not a cure-all for every troubled marriage. “It’s not a substitute for counseling,” he says. “If a couple is on the brink of divorce or at a huge impasse, they need to see somebody in person.”

Mort Fertel, founder of Marriage Fitness, an alternative to counseling that uses a CD audio learning system, acknowledges that face-to-face contact offers certain advantages. “Trust is very important,” he says. “People can acquire that trust more quickly if they shake hands and look at each other.”

Noting that a lot of communication takes place nonverbally, he adds, “[A therapist] can see physically the couple’s dynamics – if their arms are crossed or their legs are crossed away from each other.”

Yet remote counseling offers advantages, too, Mr. Fertel says. People can choose an expert anywhere, regardless of geographical location. For those who find it hard to discuss difficult subjects, “It’s easier to get to the heart of the matter more quickly if you’re not sitting face to face.”

Parrott finds that the No. 1 problem couples struggle with is communication. Resolving conflict ranks second. “People ask, ‘What’s the one most important thing I can do to improve my marriage?’ We say, practice empathy.”

For Sollee, finding ways to deal with the nation’s “alarming and unacceptable” rate of divorce and family breakdown remains a challenge. “If we know we have something that can help couples,” she says, “it’s our responsibility to get that information to them in a user-friendly, understandable, affordable form. I really think the divorce rate can go down, and we can do better.”

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