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  • Research documents that online CRE programs can have a positive impact by increasing confidence, improving communication, and boosting relationship satisfaction. Tweet This
  • Participation in Dr. Hawkins' marriage strengthening workshop increased ten-fold when offered online rather than in person. Tweet This
  • Online couple therapy, like in-person therapy, can create lasting changes for couples. Tweet This

A couple of months after the pandemic started last year, my (Sarah) husband and I decided to see a marriage therapist for a troubling issue we were having. With everything shut down, however, we were not certain how to get help until we discovered teletherapy (therapy sessions online over video chat). Only married two years and new to therapy, we did not go into the process with many expectations, but we were surprised to find that we were able to strengthen our relationship in many ways. Besides resolving our specific issue, we were also able to save time and money. Being able to do therapy sessions in the comfort of our own home meant that we did not have to look for a sitter for our baby, and we were able to save money and time on travel. Although COVID-19 was isolating for most people, my husband and I were able to become closer and build a stronger relationship through online resources for couples.

Similarly, last March, I (Alan) had just started teaching a marriage strengthening workshop in my community, but I had to close it down after the first session. About six months later, I restarted the workshop online. Even though it was different and not as personally enjoyable, the experience made me curious about what other couples and professionals may have experienced over the past year with online relationship services. 

Research shows that there have been some positive outcomes for relationships from the pandemic, such as less divorce and higher rates of commitment and appreciation for one’s partner. But there have also been negative effects, including more relationship stress due to economic hardship or home-schooling pressures and decline in marriage rates. 

During this unusual time of limited face-to-face contact, many struggling couples were fortunate to have numerous online resources for help—and emerging research suggests that both online relationship education and therapy can work. 

Challenges of Online CRE

In 2020, most couple relationship education (CRE) practitioners offering face-to-face programs pivoted to offer their services online. We reached out to 11 leading relationship educators to hear firsthand how these online programs are working and the opportunities and challenges they present. There clearly were some challenges, but there were also many positive outcomes. Here is a summary of what we learned from communicating with 11 relationship educators about their experiences.

  • Problems with technology. Not surprisingly, technology issues were a challenge, particularly for lower-income couples without reliable high-speed internet, and there can also be other technical difficulties that arise. This can lead to technophobia for both the educators and the participants, not to mention disruption in the learning process. 
  • Some program activities work better in person. It is more difficult to do some of the program activities online, especially if they involve the participants as a group, and these activities sometimes are core to learning. (However, some activities, such as private couple conversations, work better online.)
  • Loss of control. Instructors/facilitators can lose control of the class, and there can be different interruptions that disrupt a class for participants (e.g., phone calls, children needing attention, etc.). 
  • Engagement. It is more difficult to engage with couples without having in-person time before and after class. 
  • Isolation. Participants were already experiencing a sense of isolation due to the pandemic and virtual groups struggled to reproduce the important dynamic of sharing and learning together that we see in face-to-face education.

The Benefits of Online CRE

While there were many challenges, we were surprised by the many positive responses we received about online CRE from the practitioners we interviewed. These included:

  • Easy access. Perhaps the biggest benefit of CRE programs is that online programs allow for recruitment and reaching large numbers of couples. All you need is an internet connection. Practitioners have discovered that the barriers to face-to-face classes are higher than they thought. When couples need to take the time (and cost) to find a babysitter and travel to the program venue, it is often too much. Online offerings minimize these barriers. Participation in Alan’s marriage strengthening workshop increased ten-fold when offered online rather than in person.
  • Ability to reach out beyond geographic borders. With only an internet connection needed, couples from all over can participate. Online education also provides an opportunity for the growing numbers of couples in long-distance relationships to do these programs together. Overall, then, online CRE increases the potential number of couples who can participate.
  • More cost and time effective, especially after the initial start-up costs. Without having to drive somewhere, couples save time and money. Some programs that serve disadvantaged couples invest substantial funds to help couples get to the program venues (e.g., paying for taxi rides for transportation-challenged couples, contracting for shuttle services, etc.) and provide childcare during sessions. 
  • Improved attendance. Online access means more people can participate. It is also a lot more flexible if program sessions are recorded. If participants have schedule conflicts, they can find a more convenient time to view the recorded session. 
  • Less pressure on participants. Another interesting asset of online programs is that it can be beneficial for introverts who can feel uncomfortable in public settings. Another benefit for introverts (and extroverts) who feel a sense of stigma about reaching out for help is that they get more privacy from online programs. CRE programs almost always involve couple conversation time that can feel a bit awkward in a public setting, but with online CRE programs, one click gives you complete privacy for couple conversations with your partner, potentially deepening this important activity. Alan observed that for his online workshops, most couples chose to keep their video off and some did not post their names.

Online CRE programs have become a helpful resource for couples during the pandemic. We strongly suspect that usage of CRE has gone up measurably over the past year due to the ease of access. In general, the research of online CRE programs document that they can have a positive impact on both the individual and the relationship by increasing confidence, improving communication, and boosting relationship satisfaction.

What About Online Couple Therapy?

Couple relationship education is designed more to prevent problems—or help with issues before they spiral into relationship-threatening problems—rather than address intense problems. If a couple needs a professionally-trained therapist, does online therapy (sometimes called teletherapy) work? 

Research shows many in-person techniques that therapists use to help couples in person work just as well online. For instance, helping couples improve communication, especially reducing negative communication patterns (e.g., criticism, contempt, defensiveness, shouting) is one of the top counseling techniques that therapists use, which still works well online. Couples can target problems and the severity of the problem, which increases better problem solving in their relationship. Also, online therapists can still help couples build deeper emotional intimacy in the relationship. Research is showing that online couple therapy, like in-person therapy, can create lasting changes for couples. 

Of course, the ease of access and reach seen in couple relationship education apply to couple therapy, too. One therapist we talked to mentioned that he is seeing more rural clients now than when his practice was exclusively in person. (Current laws, however, can limit helping couples who live in a different state than the therapist.)

Still, there are also real challenges for online therapy. Couple therapists we spoke to acknowledged that it is harder to work with two people online than it is to work with just one person, and the human, in-person element is diminished online, as therapists sometimes can’t “read” couples as well. Moreover, sometimes it is more difficult to manage conflict between couples. 

Overall, online CRE and couple therapy face challenges but still seem to work. When used strategically and effectively, the benefits of these programs may outweigh the challenges. Effective online resources are essential during times when face-to-face services are limited or difficult to access. Going forward, professionals should use what we have learned over the past year to make more innovative use of online options to help more couples. For instance, it is likely educators and therapists will try to use a strategic combination of online and in-person education and therapy in the future. We also anticipate that occasional online follow-up sessions to maintain and boost original progress with clients may become a “best practice.” No doubt practitioners will get better at using the technology to create positive change—and online options will expand the reach of services to those who would likely never consider in-person therapy. 

The pandemic has caused the tragic loss of hundreds of thousands of lives and has created daily stresses for all of us. However, the fact that more couples will now have greater access to effective online professional services that can help them strengthen their relationships and family life is a silver lining in a dark year that we can all appreciate.  

Sarah Lutui is a student in the BYU School of Family Life focusing on family studies with an interest in marriage and family therapy.  Alan J. Hawkins is a professor and director of the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.