Albert Ellis developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), a brief, direct, and solution-oriented therapy which focuses on resolving specific problems that are troubling an individual or, in the case of relationship counseling, a distressed couple. Fundamental to REBT is the concept that our emotions result solely from our beliefs, not by the events that occur in our lives. Therefore, it is of utmost importance for our beliefs to be healthy and rational, because the consequences of these beliefs will be emotional growth and happiness. If our beliefs are irrational and self-defeating, our emotional life suffers from neuroses such as self-blame, depression, and anxiety. REBT is an educational process in which the therapist teaches the client how to identify irrational beliefs, dispute them, and replace them with rational ones. In the case of relationship counseling, once the couple client is equipped with healthy beliefs, emotional difficulties and problematic behavior are abated.
Ellis believed that human beings are born with the dual potentials for both healthy and unhealthy thought processes. He called the healthy process rational thinking and the unhealthy variety irrational thinking. Rational thinking, as would be expected, means objectively seeing things as they really are, whereas irrational thinking distorts reality by misinterpreting things that happen.
At the core of REBT is the A-B-C theory of personality. The A stands for an activating event, usually some type of challenging life situation. An example activating event might be a teenage boy being "dumped" by his girlfriend. The B represents a belief that takes over and causes the emotional consequence, represented by the C. If the belief is irrational (for example, the boy believes "I am a loser"), the consequence is likely to be depression or anger. Alternatively, if the belief is rational (e.g. "I am a valuable person") the consequence would be only a temporary sadness that the relationship is over. Key to Ellis's thought is that the belief, not the activating event, causes the emotional consequence. Therefore, if a person has a number of irrational beliefs, then he or she is likely to experience much emotional pain throughout life as various challenges are encountered. On the other hand, if a person's beliefs are rational, then he or she can handle the disappointing events of life with aplomb. In other words, how one feels is primarily determined by how one thinks.
Where do our self-sabotaging irrational beliefs originate? Ellis taught that we learn some of them from other people during our childhood and the rest we concoct on our own. This is the only way in which the past mattered to Ellis: our current beliefs are learned from past experiences. The past cannot be changed and REBT places very little emphasis on discussing it; instead, REBT works to replace the illogical beliefs with logical ones.
In Ellis's thought, irrational beliefs are the cause of human neuroses, including depression and anxiety. Irrational beliefs tend to ignore the positive, exaggerate the negative, distort reality, and/or overgeneralize. REBT teaches that people tend to overuse "shoulds," "musts," and "oughts." Many of these self-defeating beliefs are indoctrinated in early life and grow stronger as a person continually revisits them.
So what irrational beliefs are commonly addressed in relationship counseling? Probably the most-often seen one is along the lines of, "my partner must do what I think he/she should do." Another irrational belief often seen in relationship counseling is, "I must have my partner's approval."
As mentioned previously, according to the A-B-C theory of personality, the belief, not the activating event, causes the emotional consequence. When the belief is irrational, the emotion is not healthy. The consequences of irrational beliefs can be relatively mild (procrastination, for example) but can also be extremely disruptive, immobilizing, or even dangerous.
Ellis taught that unconditional self-acceptance and unconditional other-acceptance are of prime importance in achieving wellness. Healthy people know that they are not perfect and will continue to make mistakes, but see themselves as worthwhile nevertheless. They consider themselves valuable just as a result of being alive; in fact, they relish life and they have the capacity to continually enjoy themselves. In the case of relationship counseling, unconditional other-acceptance (of the partner) is as important as unconditional self-acceptance.
Recalling the A-B-C theory of personality, successful REBT relationship counseling adds steps D, E, and F. The D stands for disputing: the therapist helps the couple to challenge the irrational belief (B). Ellis suggested that the therapist ask the couple if there is any evidence for the belief, or what would be the worst possible outcome if the couple were to give up that belief. In therapy the relationship counselor may point out faulty beliefs, but he or she also teaches the clients how to dispute them in day-to-day life outside of therapy. The result of disputing the self-defeating belief and replacing it with a rational one yields an effective philosophy (E), and also a new set of feelings (F) which are not debilitating.
Although REBT teaches that the counselor should demonstrate unconditional full acceptance, the therapist is not encouraged to build a warm and caring relationship with the client. The relationship counselor's only task is to aid the couple in identifying and confronting irrational beliefs and replacing them with rational ones. The therapist usually is not even interested in the past events which are the source of the irrational belief; all that matters is getting rid of that belief in the present.
A successful relationship counseling collaboration between the REBT therapist and a couple results in changes to both individuals' cognitions. This then results in both parties feeling better about themselves and about each other. Self-defeating thinking is arrested and behavioral changes result. Both partners move toward unconditional self-acceptance and unconditional other-acceptance.