Podcasts and the Couch: An Effective Supplement to Couples Counseling By Dan Bates, LMHC on 1/3/20 - 12:30 PM

Bibliotherapy, as an adjunct to psychotherapy, can be helpful to clients struggling with mental health problems ranging from alcohol abuse, anxiety and depression to cancer patients hoping to increase their coping skills in the face of the disease. Although there has been little to no research conducted on the beneficial impact of bibliotherapy for couples in counseling, I’ve worked with many couples who attest to the benefits of reading counseling books as a supplement to therapy -- John Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Harville Hendrix’s Getting the Love You Want and Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages, to name a few. Yet, as people are busier now than ever, especially the couples I work with who are managing two work schedules, daycare, parenting, school functions and activities, travel and all the other activities and obligations that dominate their day-to-day lives, couples simply don't have the time to sit down and read a book, let alone read a book together.

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Problem, meet solution! Podcasts can fill the bibliotherapy gap created by busy schedules. Podcasts, if you have a smartphone (and everyone has a smartphone) are available at the touch of a finger. You merely need to download a podcast app, subscribe and listen away. A client can listen while riding a bike, mowing the lawn, on their commute, sitting with their partner, watching the kids play in the front yard, going to the bathroom (we all look at our phone while on the toilet) or while preparing school lunches.

The convenience and accessibility that smartphones provide are really mind-blowing, and to boot, there are a number of excellent podcasts available that address not only relationship issues but issues related to depression, addiction, anxiety and much more. Here are a few standouts your clients can subscribe to for free: Accessing supplemental therapy content outside of a session can be useful for a client. A client has only one hour with you per week (really only 50 minutes). Even if you have a great rapport with your clients and they absorb every thought you have to offer, 50 minutes isn’t much time. Therapy workbooks and self-help books can make up ground where traditional, weekly, one-hour therapy may not be enough. This is especially true in couples work where an hour session can fly by. So, why not arm couples with additional psychotherapy material that they can noodle on between sessions?

You may be wondering, podcasts sound great, but how do they actually function relative to actual live couples therapy? The therapy office, in a sense, is a laboratory where couples perform a number of relational experiments. They then try those same experiments out in the real world and come back to session to analyze the results. From this outcome data, we can observe what worked and what didn’t. A couple could easily cycle through 15 ideas and find that only four work for them. It is only by the process of experimentation that the four become evident. So why not increase the range of ideas a couple can experiment with? Let’s imagine if we increased the number to 30 ideas. If the trend holds true, then the couple will discover eight ideas that really work. Bibliotherapeutic works, in this case podcasts, are an inexpensive and efficient way of increasing the number of ideas a couple can interact and experiment with. Below is an example where a couple in counseling utilized podcasts to increase their therapeutic gains.

I worked with a couple who needed longer sessions, yet because of my schedule, I could only see them for the typical 50-minute hour. This left a number of important topics without the necessary elaboration. As a way to compensate, I recommended the couple listen to a podcast on an issue they struggled with as therapy homework. The couple followed the advice and took the assignment beyond the original intent. They were able to use the podcast content to spark meaningful conversations. And, as one partner shared with me, she was deeply touched by the fact that her partner spent time, unrequested, on researching podcasts and listening to them. For her, it demonstrated engagement and investment in their relationship. Additionally, the content of the podcast contained communication skills and tools they were able to apply to addressing their destructive relational pattern. This learning segued nicely into the work done in session. They discussed insights gained from a podcast, further reinforcing the value of the ideas. Moreover, they discussed ideas difficult to understand, which I was able to clarify and through which enhance their understanding. All in all, the couple and I found podcasts to be immensely beneficial to their counseling goals.

Some therapists may have ethical or clinical concerns related to the use of podcasts in therapy, and for good reason. Podcasts are not to be a replacement for therapy. Additionally, the therapist may sacrifice some influence or control to podcasts. And not every podcast will express sound, evidence-based, therapeutic advice. Or the advice given in a podcast may contrast with your counseling. Certainly there are some liabilities that come with podcasts, which you can wisely mitigate. I suggest only recommending podcasts you have vetted and that specifically target the client’s issue. The podcasts recommended in this article give disclaimers that they are not replacements for therapy and are static, in that they can’t respond to crises or provide personalized advice. That level of care can only be provided by a therapist. With these potential liabilities considered, the research supporting the use of bibliotherapy and my own clinical experience supports the adjunctive use of podcasts in couples counseling. 

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Couples Therapy