UT's love doctor can't cure relationship problems, but she can treat them.
After years of studying the "dark side" of marital stresses, Kristina Coop Gordon, Ph.D., professor and associate director of Clinical Training in the Department of Psychology at UT, developed Relationship Rx, a campus and community resource dedicated to fostering healthy relationships.
Her key to success? Prevention.
"I realized that people wait until it is really, really late to get help," Gordon said. "With Relationship Rx, we try to catch people way earlier in the process."
After receiving the Healthy Marriage Initiative grant in 2011, Gordon partnered with Cherokee Health Systems to establish the Relationship Rx Program at UT. Since then, Relationship Rx has enrolled approximately 438 couples.
The program consists of two brief sessions for each couple: one session for assessment and one session for feedback. What seems to be most helpful for couples is the platform Relationship Rx builds before ever beginning to assess issues, Gordon said.
"We start by talking with a lot of couples about their strengths," she said. "We ask about how they met, what they loved about each other, what they see as best parts about their relationship."
Relationship Rx is intentionally not marketed as therapy. But Gordon admits the program is "not terribly" different from therapy, merely less intensive. Gordon believes brief therapy, like a two session program, is just as effective as long-term therapy.
"Most people see therapy as something really brutal that makes you feel bad about your past and goes on forever," Gordon said. "We try to avoid that stigma about therapy.
"It doesn't dig too deep into the past. It's very focused on the present and what to do to fix things in the present."
If couples require further counseling, Relationship Rx provides a number of follow-up programs, the most popular being Pillow Talk, an all-expenses paid overnight retreat in Gatlinburg, Tenn. There, couples work on a number of factors including communication, relationship expectations and intimacy issues.
The only eligibility requirement to enroll in Relationship Rx is that couples be in a committed and cohabited relationship. It is open to all community members, UT students, faculty and staff. However, Relationship Rx does specifically target lower income couples.
"Poverty and marital status are really intertwined," Gordon said. "Poverty stresses marriage ... the initiative is to strengthen marriage as a way to fight poverty."
As a free service, Relationship Rx dissolves any obstacles facing couples seeking care. Facilitators make house visits and have been known to provide bus passes or alternate means of transportation in order for couples to attend sessions at UT's labs or Cherokee Health Clinics.
Simultaneously, the program conducts a longitudinal study with couples. While in treatment and again six months after treatment, couples are asked to fill out a total of three questionnaires assessing progress. For each questionnaire a couple completes, they are given a $50 Wal-Mart gift card.
"We track them over six months to assess short-term and long-term effects, and (the program) has been shown to be beneficial for all participants," Kelsey Adams, head research assistant and recruiter at Relationship Rx, said.
Adams described sitting in on home visit sessions with facilitators, calling those experiences an "extraordinarily amazing experience" for undergraduate students.
"You have the opportunity to see counseling and therapy work in action with these couples," Adams said. "You get an actual feel for what it's like to do couples counseling."
Relationship Rx also qualifies as a premarital counseling program, which grants a $60 discount for marriage licenses. Relationship Rx is currently available to residents of Knox, Loudon, Blount and Sevier Counties. However, plans to reapply for funding this summer could expand that range.
To learn more about Relationship Rx, visit http://relationshiprx.utk.edu/.