- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2008

You can try on bathing suits with a virtual-fit model, meet a mate and take college classes online. Now, increasingly, one can work on solving problems and strengthening a marriage with the click of a mouse.

Getting help without driving to the therapist’s office, looking for a parking spot and spilling thoughts face to face is a natural fit for couples therapy, says Diane Sollee, founder and director of the Washington-based Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. With online tools, workshop exercises and DVDs, it is much easier to show couples what to do rather than focus on how bad things are, she says.

“So much of bad therapy is in person,” Ms. Sollee says. “The modality tends to focus on how bad things are or how you can blame your mother. It can very quickly lead to divorce. We now live in the information age; anything in therapy can be done online or through printouts and DVDs under the banner of many different marriage experts.”

There are many choices in e-therapy marriage-counseling programs, so it helps to shop around, says John Grohol, chief executive of PsychCentral.com, a mental health Web site, and former president of the International Society for Mental Health Online. If a couple is seeking the kind of counseling with e-mail communication and coaching, it is important to check credentials — such as licensure and education — the same way one would with an in-person therapist, he says.

A reliable Web counseling service such as Helphorizons.com or Etherapists.com will have vetted the credentials of professionals, and it will give couples a variety of counselors from whom to choose, Mr. Grohol says.

Ms. Sollee says there are many choices and approaches to take when choosing a virtual program. One might have to shop around before finding a good fit.

“It is like weight loss,” she says. “We are always looking for the new thing. Some are going to like Weight Watchers; others are going to like Jenny Craig. We know [that] some couples who need to learn to communicate need to see how to do it; some just need to learn how to listen.”

One program new to the online counseling arena is from eHarmony, the online dating service that says it has led to 90 people per day tying the knot since it began a decade ago.

If one looks at the statistic that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, eHarmony has its next market ready and waiting. The company recently launched www.marriage .eharmony.com.

EHarmony’s marriage counseling program was devised by Les Parrott, a clinical psychologist and author, with his wife, Leslie, of more than a dozen books on relationships. Mr. Parrott says the program is not specifically aimed at couples who met on eHarmony, but is for any couples seeking to strengthen their relationship.

For about $150 (packages vary), couples separately fill out a marriage profile covering dozens of issues such as finances, family relationships, spirituality, division of household chores and, of course, communication. They get a customized summary of strengths and issues as well as a marriage action plan to work on through video exercises and other resources over a two-month period.

“We’re for couples who are looking to go from good to great,” Mr. Parrott says. “It is like an X-ray for your marriage.”

Mr. Parrott says eHarmony’s program — and other online counseling programs — probably are not for couples who have extreme strife in their relationships.

“Some couples need face-to-face counseling,” he says. “Particularly if they are in distress.”

Because online therapy — like many Internet areas — is a new and growing field, it is not a standardized one or one that has been studied formally. A 2006 article in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling says online clients generally were satisfied with their relationships and treatment online but not as satisfied as clients who underwent traditional, face-to-face counseling.

One of the main disadvantages to online counseling is the absence of nonverbal communication, the article notes. If the therapist can’t see the clients, he or she can’t see their closed-up body language and tears or hear angry voice inflections, for instance.

Still, for couples who clearly could use counseling, working at it online is better than not working on it at all.

“Therapy still has a certain stigma associated with it,” Mr. Grohol says. “Online therapy is a way of getting acclimated to what therapy is about.”

Ms. Sollee says online counseling is particularly attractive to men, who might shy away from discussing their feelings with a live counselor.

“Guys hear about guys who went to counseling and then got divorced,” she says. “Therapy is often not a good format for men, which is why most people don’t go to therapy. Men are trained not to talk about feelings. In many cases, their wives have already told them what is wrong, so they feel they have already talked about it.”

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