Data from nearly 30,000 people who attended relationship counselling has given an unique insight into why people go to couples’ therapy.

The study carried out by BACP and Relate found the most common issues people presented with at therapy were: communication problems (79.7%), rows and arguments (68.9%), and managing conflict (67.8%).

Worries about whether their relationship would end prompted 65.1% people to seek therapy, while 63.8% of clients said they were going to counselling because of their partner’s behavior.

The study found that a quarter of clients (24.5%) attended relationship counselling because of ‘mental health problems.’

Women reported more presenting issues to their therapist than men and were more likely to say that their partners’ behaviour was a problem, according to the research.

The study – which used data from nearly 15,000 couples attending Relate relationship counselling – is the largest of its kind to ever be carried out and has been published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy.

It’s the first of two research papers to be published by BACP and Relate as part of a project to gain a greater understanding of relationship counselling – and its outcomes.

Unprecedented understanding

Our Senior Research Fellow Charlie Duncan said: “The results provide an unprecedented understanding of who seeks couples therapy and why.

“This is really important information to have because of the implications this knowledge can have for practitioners, services and funders in ensuring counselling is meeting the needs of the population and accessible to all those who need it.

The data found that there were some significant variations in presenting issues, depending on the age of the participant.

Younger clients (aged 54 and younger) were significantly more likely than older clients (aged 55 and over) to indicate that they were experiencing ‘money worries’.

Clients between the ages of 16 and 34 were the most likely to be experiencing money worries, or issues around having a baby or whether to have a baby.

Clients aged between 35 and 54, were the most likely to identify ‘disagreements about parenting’ and ‘problems with children’ as presenting issues.

Different stages

BACP member Armele Philpotts, who is a relationship counsellor for Relate, said: “Couple relationships go through different stages as time goes on.

“From choosing to make a commitment, to starting a family, dealing with teenagers and retirement, each life stage brings its own challenges. Communicating effectively is key to making it through each challenge feeling closer rather than further apart.”

The data was collected from 14,726 couples (29,452 individual clients) who received counselling through Relate in England and Wales between January 2015 and December 2017, using a questionnaire.

Some 51.5% of participants were female, the average age was 41 and services were more likely to be accessed by people of a higher socio-economic status.

Information was also collected about ethnicity, religion, disability and sexual orientation, but the proportion of participants completing these questions was smaller.

Researchers said that couples therapy services were severely under-accessed by older adults, and that providers could consider how they could make their service more visible and accessible to older people.

Charlie added: “This may help to overcome some of the common barriers that older people face when accessing psychological therapy services, including the perception that they may not find it relevant or helpful, and practical barriers such as mobility.”

if you have subscription access to the journal, you can read the full paper.  

The second paper is due to be published within the coming months.