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What is Hope-focused Couple Counseling? And Why Does it Work?

Updated: Nov 1, 2022

Hope Focused couple counseling

Where did Hope Focused Couple Counseling come from?

Hope-focused couple counseling was created in the 1990s by Everett L. Worthington, Jr., Ph.D., Psychology Professor Emeritus at Virginia Commonwealth University. Jennifer Ripley, Ph.D., joined him in developing the approach in the late 90s and they have conducted numerous research studies, and two books (the original book and a second book) on the approach have been published. The hope-focused approach is the #1 approach to couple counseling utilized in one survey of lay counselors, ministers and professional counselors.

Does it work?

Several peer-reviewed scientific publications in reputable journals, such as those published by the American Psychological Association, have demonstrated positive effects for couples engaging in Hope-focused couple counseling. Research in two different labs (VCU and Regent University) have demonstrated efficacy with clinically significant results. The most recent publication below describes both short term outcomes (at the end of treatment) and long term outcomes (ranging from 6 months to 10 years) as demonstrating efficacy.

Why does Hope Focused Couple Counseling Work?

While there is no MRI-scan for couple counseling to see what is happening beneath the surface, and full component studies are not yet done, the creators of the approach have several ideas as to why it works.

1. A Focus on Hope.

What is Hope? We define hope after the definition of a great social psychologist named C.R. Snyder who defined it as willpower (motivation) and waypower (pathways to change). Hope offers everyone the motivation towards their goal, and a sense of knowing how to reach that goal. Hope focused couple counseling is built on this principle. The goal is to reroute patterns that lead to negative cycles, create a space to bond as a couple, and practice changing together as a team.

2. A strategy targeting love, work and faith.

Love- Build bonds between partners, fuels courage to attempt changes, and the experience of love is a central human striving. In relationships and religion, love is a central understanding of what it means to be human.

Work- Relationships require work. We challenge couples in our clinic to spend 40 hours of work on their relationship. Most couples do not spend but a few hours trying to improve a relationship, but the work is important. Our goal is to help you create challenging but encouraging work that is effective in learning new patterns and ways of relating as a couple.

Faith in a Higher Power, each other, and your counselor. Many people believe that their relationship is sacred, or ordained by God. Looking to God or a higher power to improve your relationship can be helpful through prayer, or spiritual practices. Having faith that you and your partner will be faithful in your couple counseling and relationship improvement activities at home changes your relationship. And finally having faith that your counselor is skilled and caring towards you is an effective ingredient for change.

We use Thin-slicing strategy, not Thick Slices

Malcolm Gladwell proposed in his book Blink (2005) many examples of how Too Much Information (TMI) is devastating to learning, especially in rapid, emotionally-challenging circumstances. Much of the interaction in a couple relationship is emotionally-challenging and below the level of awareness, and suffers if there is TMI. He said what is needed in these circumstances is thin-slicing of information in small memorable chunks.

So our approach is simple, but not simplistic. We thin-slice the information you need to be memorable, not heavy. We use handouts, this website, acronyms, and other strategies that can be used every day, in regular relationships, without extensive training and study.

Our Primary Goal is to Work Towards Repair of Damaged Emotional Bonds

  1. We first help stabilize the damage that might still be occurring with a variety of techniques and practices the couple engages in together.

  2. Then conflict and communication skills are used to show that change can occur.

  3. But the real action and long-term change occur in learning and practice repair of emotional bonds. Forgiveness and repair also set up the realistic expectation that hurt and pain will happen again in the future, even if you are excellent in relationship skills. But knowing how to recover quickly and well is how couples create a positive long-term bond together.

There are general approaches to repair like understanding why an offense happened in the first place. Couples can increase their acceptance of each other and reduce trying to change their partner. Partners can practice forbearance, a trait highly valued in many Asian cultures in families as a means to a peaceful home. But most couples long for a good apology and forgiveness to mark the end of a season of hurt in their relationship.

We help couples Apologize and Forgive.

Often there have been small to large offenses in the relationship that have happened during the low-tide of relationship. Identifying those offenses, understanding where they came from for each partner, empathizing with each other, and REACHing forgiveness is a key towards recovery and return to a healthier happier relationship. In couple relationships, we help with emotional forgiveness where the negative emotions from an offense are replaced with more positive emotions of forgiveness. Emotional forgiveness can take time (as compared to decisional forgiveness where one decides not to seek revenge and attempt repair). We also help with self-forgiveness if a partner struggles with guilt over the things she or he did during the low-tide.

Reconciliation is a goal for most couples

Some couples feel they are at odds with each other and on different teams in life, so need a reconciliation. This can occur slowly over the course of couple counseling, or it could require some specific focus of counseling. Increasing both trustworthy and trusting behaviors is important to restore trust in a relationship.

Integration of "who WE are"

A final aspect of the Hope approach that we believe makes it effective is adding the individual personal flavors, experiences and style of the couple themselves. These self-definitions can be areas where couples can bond, or can be areas of focus if they create tension in the relationship

  • Some couples have racial or ethnic experiences that are important to build a sense of "we" as a couple together in a world with obstacles or challenges. Experiences of migration, racial profiling, or being an outsider in a community are important experiences to understand for couples.

  • Other couples have a particular religious or spiritual understanding of marriage or their relationship that creates their sense of "we." Religious and spiritual teachings and sacred ideas about their relationship, sex and parenting can be important ways that a couple can bond.

  • For some couples, their life stage as newlyweds, or parents of young children, or empty-nesters are a very important part of what makes them unique and special in the world, as well as bringing challenges at each life stage.

  • Other couples have varied gender or sexual identity experiences in understanding their relationship and self-definition.

There are cultural, family-level, and couple-level definitions of "who we are" as a couple. And the Hope Focused approach weaves that into the theory, techniques, discussion, and goals of the couples who work with us.


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