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Gordon Couples Research Lab

The Gordon Couples Research Lab is located at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and focuses on the study of romantic relationships, treatment of relationship dysfunction, and promotion or relationship health. The lab is comprised of doctoral students in clinical psychology who share an interest in research and clinical work with couples and families and functions under the mentorship of Kristina Coop Gordon, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Engagement in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences (CEHHS). Gordon specializes in the study and treatment of relationship dysfunction, as well as the promotion of methods to increase relationship health.

Current Lab Members

Shayla Wieser, BA (2021)

Katie Lenger, PhD (2021)
Clinical Psychology Fellow – Alpert Medical School at Brown University

D. J. Garcia, MS (2021) 
Pre-Doctoral Intern – University of Kansas Medical Center

Rebecca Shorter, MA (2019) 
Psychologist – San Antonio VA Medical Center

Alexander Khaddouma, PhD (2018)
Therapist – University of Hawai’i at Mānoa Counseling and Student Center

Jerika Norona, PhD (2018)
Post-Doctoral Fellow – San Francisco VA Medical Center

Jessica Hughes, PhD (2017)
Assistant Clinical Professor/Licensed Clinical Psychologist – University of California, San Diego

Katie Wischkaemper, PhD (2016)
Psychologist – Knoxville VA Clinic

Maria Rowley, PhD (2015)
Postdoctoral Fellow – Bedford VA

Sarah Gilbert, PhD (2014)
Clinical Psychologist – Columbia University Medical Center

Jennifer Willet, PhD (2012)
Clinical Psychologist – Hawaii Psychological Services, Inc.

Julianne Hellmuth, PhD
Research Assistant Professor – Medical University of South Carolina

Jennifer Christman, PhD
Private Practice – Columbus, OH

Katie Little-Kivisto, PhD
Assistant Professor – Indiana University, Indianapolis

Lee Dixon, PhD
Professor – University of Dayton

Rebecca Furr, PhD
Private Practice – Seattle, WA

Nikki Frousakis, PhD
Private Practice – Los Angeles, CA

Farrah Moore Hughes, PhD
Associate Professor of Family Medicine and Behavioral Science Director at McLeod Regional Medical Center

Nathan Tomcik, PhD
Director – Outpatient Couple and Family Clinic in Columbus, VA

Samantha Litzinger, PhD
Private Practice

Sharon Risch, PhD
Private Practice – Chicago, IL

Ongoing Research

Marital and family instability is a growing public health issue, but accessible relationship assistance is lacking in most communities. Most religious organizations recognize marriages as a central force for transmitting values to children (Root, 2010). Typically, couples go to clergy for help, yet the majority of clergy are not trained in delivering effective, science-based relationship interventions nor do they see the utility of science in advancing spiritual development. Developing a strong connection between research/academia and the clergy/church is a key interest for the Templeton Foundation.

Healthy Connections Knoxville (HCK) is an innovative collaboration between the University of Tennessee (UT), local churches, and community agencies to train clergy, volunteers, and practitioners to provide empirically-supported relationship education in their churches and in the wider community through agency partnerships. This collaboration is ideally suited to forge this partnership between science and religion. Furthermore, by using relationship science on interpersonally relevant character virtues to create loving families, we can also address the question of “what does it mean to live a life of love and virtue?”

HCK currently has a network of around 25 church and community partners, but it must be scaled up in order to have a larger community impact and transform the community culture around marriage and increase family stability at all income and education levels.

Thus, our goals are to (a) help HCK be strategically placed to grow to include 100 church partners, (b) develop sustainable collaborations between UT, churches, and agencies that will facilitate an exchange of information between science and religion, and (c) quantitatively and qualitatively assess the program’s impact on key community outcomes relevant to this partnership. Lessons learned from this project will also help other researchers better understand how to develop these kinds of university-church partnerships. We also expect that by creating a sustainable and scalable partnership that we can positively impact community couples and teach other communities how to develop similar programs.

Family instability significantly contributes to ongoing income and health disparities and is a source of many adverse childhood events. In Knoxville, a recent United Way needs assessment indicated that single-parent households are six times more likely to be in poverty than married households. Nationwide data indicates middle to low-income couples struggle to develop and maintain stable relationships, due to both financial stressors and the intergenerational transmission of poor relationship models. This relationship between poverty and unhealthy relationships is considered by experts to be bi-directional and thus needs to be addressed on multiple levels. In our proposed model to solve this problem, we will encourage couples to improve their relationship health using the following strategies:

  1. Messaging. We will develop a public health campaign to prioritize relationship health and increase awareness of what a healthy marriage is and how to have one.
  2. Equipping. We will create a centralized location to train professionals, clergy, and high-impact volunteers/interns in empirically-based couples and family programs and provide ongoing support as they deliver these programs in the community.
  3. Delivering. We will provide high-quality, effective, relationship services to all couples regardless of ability to pay; couples would access these programs on a regular basis to keep their relationships healthy.  The programs can be targeted to specific issues (co-parenting, blended families,  transition to an empty nest, etc.).  We would deliver these services using a stepped-care format, including:
    1. Relationship Checkups – these would be delivered via home visits (or at the clinic on request) to couples by trained staff and high-impact volunteers;
    2. Marriage and relationship education workshops – these would be delivered in churches, community agencies, community schools, and the center via trained staff and high-impact volunteers;
    3. Couple therapy – this service would be provided via an in-house clinic for couples who need a higher level of care than the Checkup or Workshops can provide. This service could be self-sustaining after a few years by operating on a sliding scale with local therapists; services also could be provided via partnerships with UT mental health training programs;
    4. Wrap-around supportive services in the clinic – We will partner with local agencies to provide wrap-around support for under-resourced couples to connect them with needed services; we would also provide child care and transportation to the center for couples as needed.
  4. Developing/Evaluating. We would engage in continuous rigorous evaluation of our services to improve our programs, develop new programs, and disseminate information learned to other professionals nationally. To improve our services and create significant community impacts, UT faculty and students would work with church and community partners to:

a. Target resources to develop culturally adapted programs in particularly vulnerable neighborhoods and track effects

b. Test these strategies again in other vulnerable neighborhoods to determine what generalizes and what is needs to be adapted to that community.

Over 80% of persons with Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia (ADRD) are cared for in their home environments by family members. In 2015, an estimated 15.9 million family and friends supported someone with ADRD by providing 18.1 billion hours of unpaid care at an estimated economic value of over $221 billion. Family caregivers report increased anxiety, depressive symptoms, and many forego their own physical and psychological health needs as the demands of being a family caregiver are sustained over many years. Throughout the caregiving experience, many families struggle to maintain healthy relationships with each other, as the demands of caregiving for a person with a progressive neurodegenerative disease such as ADRD escalate. As ADRD progresses and the need for additional personal and healthcare needs ensue in order to keep their loved one safe in their home environment, family members oftentimes seek to employ home-based services, if this scant resource is available and if they have the financial means to pay for it. However, for many families, seeking institutionalization of their loved one with ADRD is their only option as their out of pocket costs soar and they enroll their loved one in Medicaid in order to pay for the costs of care. By delaying institutionalization, a savings of $2029/month per person could be realized in direct healthcare costs. Recently, in-home monitoring systems have been developed to facilitate in-home dementia patient care. It alleviates the heavy dependence on experienced personnel for in-home care and enables real-time monitoring with low cost. This project develops a monitoring, modeling, and interactive recommendation solution for caregivers for in-home dementia patient care that focuses on caregiver-patient relationships. This includes monitoring for mood and stress and analyzing the significance of monitoring those attributes to dementia patient care and subsequent behavior dynamics between the patient and caregiver. In addition, novel and adaptive behavioral suggestions at the right moments aims at helping improve familial interactions related to caregiving, which over time should ameliorate the stressful effects of the patient’s illness and reduce strain on caregivers.

Marriage has become the focus of an intergenerational battle among the South Asian immigrant population in the United States. While first-generation immigrants of all origins struggle to adapt to Western culture over time (Negy, Schwartz, & Reig-Ferrer, 2009), their second-generation children are more adept at assimilating into the mainstream (Tummala-Narra, 2013). Researchers have highlighted areas in which immigrant parents struggle with their children’s developing bicultural identities, including dress codes, choice of schooling (i.e., religious versus secular), and dating practices (Daneshpour, 2009). As second-generation South Asian immigrants are now reaching early adulthood, issues surrounding dating practices have evolved into issues surrounding marriage. Many first-generation South Asian immigrants are accustomed to an “arranged marriage” system in which individuals’ spouses are selected by their elder family members, whereas their children have become accustomed to the dominant “love marriage” system in the US in which individuals independently select their spouses after engaging in a courtship process.

The South Asian Immigrant Marriage Attitudes Study seeks to better understand first-generation South Asian immigrants’(SAI) attitudes towards love marriage versus arranged marriage for their children who have grown up in the US. This study is being led by Zahra Amer. Zahra is conducting semi-structured qualitative interviews with first-generation SAIs in order to better understand some of the struggles SAI families are facing as they grapple with their evolving (or not-so-evolving) definitions of marriage.

For more information about this project, feel free to contact Zahra Amer at

Completed Projects

Un Tiempo para Las Parejas (“A Time for Couples”) is a randomized trial that examined the effectiveness of a brief couple-based intervention in reducing smoking behavior for male partners, increasing healthy eating and exercise for female partners, and directly increasing positive communication for the couples among Latino male smokers and their non-smoking pregnant female partners. This study was a collaborative project between the Gordon Couples Research Lab and the Duke University Medical Center. Data collection is now completed and ongoing research using this data is currently underway.

Eligible couples participated in a two-arm randomized controlled trial that compared the efficacy of a two-session, culturally appropriate, couple-based, cognitive behavioral face-to-face treatment versus a control arm in which couples received a culturally appropriate self-help smoking cessation guide. The style of smoking cessation counseling was based on Motivational Interviewing (Miller & Rollnick, 2002) and couples communication sessions were based upon models of behavioral marital therapy that promoted mindfulness of family-related motivations for quitting smoking while also teaching communication skills training (Epstein & Baucom, 2002). Four face-to-face surveys of the couples were conducted throughout the duration of the study: at baseline (Time 1), end of pregnancy (28-35 week gestation; Time 2), 3 months postpartum (Time 3), and 12 months from baseline (Time 4). Survey follow-ups coincided with intervention procedures such that the two-session treatment protocol was completed by Time 2 and additional booster sessions and follow-up telephone calls were completed between Time 2 and Time 4.  Each couple member was compensated for each survey completion with a $10 gift certificate.

Couples with the greatest need for relationship health maintenance and intervention are often least able to afford and access it; therefore, accessible, affordable, effective, and brief interventions are needed to improve relationship health for those who need it most. Consequently, this project examined whether a brief relationship intervention could be effectively implemented with a low-income, underserved population. All enrolled participants (N = 1,312) received the Relationship Checkup, which consists of an assessment and a feedback session delivered in their homes or at a local clinic at their request. Measures assessed relationship satisfaction, communication, psychological and physical aggression, and intimacy at baseline and 1-month follow-up, and program and relationship satisfaction at 6-month follow-up. All participants reported significant improvements on all outcomes with small effect sizes. However, moderation analyses suggested that distressed couples reported significantly larger effects across the board. Overall, participants reported that they were highly satisfied with the intervention both immediately after its delivery and 6 months later. Findings provide preliminary support for the effectiveness of this brief checkup and point to the utility of offering these kinds of low-cost brief interventions in flexible formats for those who might have the most difficulty accessing them.

The Mindfulness and Relationship Health Study is a small-scale longitudinal study of couples undergoing a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. This study is a collaborative project between the Gordon Couples Research Lab and a certified mindfulness instructor and researcher in the University of Tennessee Department of Social Work. Currently, quantitative data has been collected from participants in three rounds of the MBSR course and qualitative interviews have been conducted with a subsample of these participants. Research using this data is currently underway.

Wischkaemper, K. C., Fleming, C. J., Lenger, K. A., Roberson, P. N. E., Gray, T., Cordova, J. V., & Gordon, K. C. (In Press). Attitudes toward relationship Treatment among underserved couples. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice.

Roberson, P. N. E., Lenger, K. A., Gray, T., Cordova, J. V., & Gordon, K. C. (In Press) Are marital relationships a barrier to healthcare utilization in Appalachia?: A dyadic examination of the link between marital quality and individual healthcare usage. Family, Systems, and Health. 

Roberson, P. N. E., Lenger, K. A., Gray, T., Cordova, J. V., G & Gordon, K. C. (In Press). Dyadic latent profile analyses and multilevel modeling to examine differential response to couple relationship education.  Journal of Family Psychology.

Lenger, K. A., Roberson, P. N. E., Amer, Z., Gray, T., Cordova, J. V., & Gordon, K. C. (2020). Your place or mine?: Examining the accessibility and efficacy of home-based interventions. Journal of Family Psychology. 

Miranda, L. G., Lenger, K. A., Rauer, A., Roberson, P. N. E., Gray, T., Cordova, J. V., & Gordon, K. C. (In Press). From changing positions to changing perspectives: Associations between consensus and relationship satisfaction before and after a brief couple intervention. Journal of Family Psychology.

Gordon, K. C., Amer, Z., Lenger, K. A., Brem, M., Baucom, D. H., & Snyder, D. (In Press). Forgiveness and the dark underbelly of marriage: Infidelity, intimate partner violence, and divorce. In Handbook of Forgiveness, Second Edition; Eds.: Worthington, E. L., & Wade, N. G.; New York, NY: Routledge.

Gordon, K. C., Cordova, J. V., Roberson, P.N.E., Miller, M., Lenger, K., Martin, K., Gray, T., & Hawrilenko, M. (2019). An implementation study of relationship checkups as home visitations for low-income at-risk couples. Family Process.

Khaddouma, A. & Gordon, K.C. (2018). Mindfulness and Young Adult Dating Relationship Stability: A Longitudinal Path Analysis. Mindfulness.

Gordon, K.C., Roberson, P.N.E., Hughes, J.A., Khaddouma, A., Swamy, G.K., Noonan, D., Gonzalez, A. M, Fish, L., & Pollak, K.I.  (in press) The effects of a couples-based health behaviors intervention during pregnancy on Latino couples’ dyadic satisfaction postpartum. Family Process.

Khaddouma, A., Gordon, K.C., & Strand, E. (In press). Mindful Mates: Relational Benefits of Mindfulness Training for MBSR Participants and Their Partners. Family Process.

Lenger, K. A., *Amer, Z., & Gordon, K. C. (2017). Infidelity in Couples. In J. Lebow, A.Chambers, & D. C. Breunlin (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy (pp. 1–9). Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Pentel, K. Z., Baucom, D. H., Gordon, K. C., & Snyder, D. K. (in press). Integrative Treatment for Infidelity. In J. L. Lebow, A. L. Chambers, & D. C. Breunlin (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy: Springer.

Baucom, D. H., Pentel, K. Z., Gordon, K. C., & Snyder, D. K. (2017). An integrative approach to treating infidelity in couples. In J. Fitzgerald (Ed.), Foundations for couples’ therapy: Research for the real world (206-215). New York, NY: Routledge.

*Gilbert, S. E., & Gordon, K. C. (2017). Predicting forgiveness in women experiencing intimate partner violence. Violence Against Women, 452-468.

Noonan, D., Lyna. P., Fish, L., Bilheimer, A.K., Gordon, K.C., Roberson, P., Gonzalez, A. & Pollak, K.I. (2016). Unintended Effects of a Smoking Cessation Intervention on Latino Fathers’ Binge Drinking In Early Postpartum.  Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 622-627.

Wischkaemper, K.C., & Gordon, K.C. (2016). Integration of cognitive behavioral and interpersonal therapy in treating depression with concurrent relational distress and chronic pain. Clinical Case Studies.

Gordon, K. C., Willett, J. M., & Gilbert, S. E. (2016). Infidelity and Couple Dysfunction. In E. Lawrence & K. Sullivan (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Relationship Science and Couple Interventions. Oxford University Press.

Johns, K., Allen, E. S., & Gordon, K.C. (2015).  Mindfulness and forgiveness of infidelity. Mindfulness, 6,1462-1471.

Khaddouma, A., Gordon, K.C., & Bolden, J. (2015). Mindful M&M’s: Mindfulness and Parent Training for a Preschool Child with Disruptive Behavior Disorder. Clinical Case Studies.

Khaddouma, A., Gordon, K.C., & Bolden, J.  (2015). Zen and the Art of Dating: Mindfulness, Differentiation of Self, and Relationship Satisfaction in Dating Relationships. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice.

Hughes, J., Khaddouma, A., & Gordon, K.C. (2015). “Couples/Marital Therapies.” In Encyclopedia of Clinical Psychology, edited by Robin L. Cautin and Scott O. Lilienfeld. Malden, Oxford: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Gordon, K.C., Khaddouma, A. M., Baucom, D. H., & Snyder, D.K. (2015). Couple Therapy and Treatment of Affairs.  In D.K. Snyder & A. Gurman, Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy. New York: Guilford Press.

Khaddouma, A., Gordon, K.C., & Bolden, J. (2014).   Zen and the Art of Sex: Mindfulness, Sexual Satisfaction, and Relationship Satisfaction in Dating Relationships. Sex and Relationship Therapy.

Pollak, KI, Lyna, P, Bilheimer, AK, Gordon, KC, Peterson, BL, Gao, X, Swamy, GK, Denman, S, Gonzalez, A, Rocha, P, Fish, LJ. (2014). Efficacy of a couple-based randomized controlled trial to help Latino fathers quit smoking during pregnancy and postpartum: The Parejas Trial. Cancer Epidemiology, Prevention, and Biomarkers.

Wischkaemper, K.C., & Gordon, K.C. (2014). Integration of cognitive behavioral and interpersonal therapy in treating depression with concurrent relational distress and chronic pain. Clinical Case Studies.

Gordon, K.C., Dixon, L.J., & Wischkaemper, K. (2014). Couple Therapy. In A.M. Nezu and C.M. Nezu (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies. New York: Oxford University Press.