Does Marriage Counseling Really Work?

Dawn Ferera
Updated on November 29, 2021

Does marriage counseling really work? This is a common question that marriage therapists get all the time. You might think that the answer is a straightforward “yes” or “no,” but the truth is, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

marriage counseling session with couple

Several factors contribute to the success of marriage counseling. Some are related to specific aspects of the couple’s relationship. Others include the skill and approach of the counselor and the therapeutic dynamics between the counselor and the partners. Each couple’s counseling experience is as unique as they are. We’ll explore this topic to help shed some on how and when marriage counseling tends to work.

Why Couples Seek Counseling

In general, by the time a couple is asking if they need counseling, the answer is probably yes. It doesn’t mean that they are on the verge of divorce; rather it could simply mean that what they’re doing on their own isn’t working as well as they would like. In fact, many couples seek counseling not to “fix” something in their marriage but to enrich their marriage in some way.

Couples seek counseling for many reasons. Some of the most common include:

Broken Trust

Something has breached the trust between them in a significant way. It may be due to infidelity, an emotional affair, or other deceptive behaviors. Couples may seek help rebuilding the foundation of trust between them.

Communication Breakdown

Couples may find themselves not communicating well or arguing more frequently. They may feel that issues are never resolved. Counseling can help couples learn how to “fight fairly” and resolve conflicts without repeating the same arguments over and over.

Dealing With Major Changes or Events

Sometimes couples experience events that can disrupt even the strongest of marital bonds. Things like the loss of a child, the loss of a job, or health challenges can create distress that causes a rift between the couple. Counseling can help couples navigate through these times, find new ways to support each other, and build a satisfying relationship moving forward.

Enrichment

Some couples find that counseling is an enriching experience for their marriage. It is a neutral place to discuss matters before they become problems, reconnect, and recommit to the vision they have for their relationship. Counseling provides a safe and supportive space to share the most intimate thoughts.

Intimacy Issues

Couples can sometimes grow apart physically and emotionally. Counseling can help couples understand what’s happening and work towards reconnecting intimately.

A Sense of Something Not Quite Right

Many couples come to counseling not able to pinpoint a specific issue. They just know that something feels “off.” Counseling can help couples explore the deeper levels of their relationship to identify what may be creating the disconnect.

Choosing the Right Marriage Therapist

So, with so many counselors out there, how do you choose?

To start, you want to find a licensed clinician who is specifically trained in marriage therapy. They may have a credential like “Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist” (LMFT) or something similar, depending on their state’s specific licensure. LMFTs generally have a master’s degree and have specialized training and experience in the field of marriage and family therapy.

There are others who offer couple’s therapy. For example, pastoral counselors often work with couples who prefer a more faith-based approach. Pastoral counselors generally have some training in marriage counseling techniques, but not every state requires licensure of pastoral counselors.

Once you figured out which credentials you are looking for, you should then think of the approach you’d like. There are many different techniques including:

Imago Relationship Therapy

Imago, Latin for image, is an approach that focuses on the connection between childhood experiences and adult relationships. Imago therapists believe that our relationships with our parents influence the relationships we have as adults. As couples explore these relationships, underlying issues emerge. Imago sessions involve a lot of dialogue between partners and learning how to listen.[1]

The Gottman Method

Developed by John Gottman, this method is a data-driven approach to couple’s therapy. Dr. Gottman studied thousands of couples over decades to develop his interventions, which are designed to improve intimacy, communication, and respect between partners. In this approach, couples complete an extensive assessment that assists the therapist in choosing the best interventions for the couple’s needs. This method is particularly effective for long-term, committed couples who are seeking to strengthen their marital bond.[2]

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a systematic and effective approach that focuses on how thinking patterns influence feelings and behavior. Partners learn to understand their own thinking patterns as well as their partner’s. Using this understanding, couples work with the therapist to develop specific interventions to change problematic behaviors. The goal is to build skills that allow the couple to communicate and resolve issues while maintaining the relationship. This approach works well for people who like to set and achieve goals systematically and straightforwardly.

Discernment Therapy

This is a form of brief therapy that is often used with couples who are contemplating divorce or are unsure of what they want. It is particularly helpful for couples who want to consider all options before deciding whether to work on the marriage or proceed with a divorce.

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)

EFT is an effective, short-term, structured therapeutic approach that focuses on the way couples engage emotionally. EFT focuses on negative communication patterns formed in early childhood, which are often carried into adulthood. Couples learn what drives their emotional responses and develop trust to safely express their feelings.

Factors That Influence Success

Marriage counseling is not a magic cure for relationship ailments. It is an opportunity for couples to address their issues openly and honestly in a safe and neutral environment with expert guidance. It takes work and commitment and there are no guarantees. In addition, many other factors influence success, including:

Timing 

Gottman found that the average couple starts marriage counseling after six years of difficulties. The longer negative patterns between couples persist, the more challenging they are to change.[3]

Commitment

Both partners must be willing to commit to the process and to making lasting changes. Sometimes, couples expect the therapist to “fix” the problem for them. This is unrealistic. Couples must do the work while the therapist serves as a guide.

Honesty

If partners want authentic change, they must be honest with each other and with the therapist. The therapist cannot guide them through unknown issues.

Therapeutic Alliance

The relationship that is built between the therapist and client (in this case the couple) is critical to success. Each partner must feel comfortable and confident in the therapist. If not, the chances of dropping out of therapy are high.

Final Thoughts

So, does marriage counseling really work? The simple answer is that, generally speaking, yes it does, but it depends. Research suggests that seven out of ten couples who complete marriage counseling report improved marital satisfaction. These tend to be the couples who come to the process ready to authentically address their issues. Couples who are unwilling or unable to fully commit to the process don’t fare as well.[4]

There is no way to guarantee success in marriage counseling. Each couple and situation is unique. In the end, couples get out of it what they are willing to invest.


References

  1. Hendrix, H., & LaKelly, H. (2019, December 9). What is Imago? Harville and Helen. https://harvilleandhelen.com/initiatives/what-is-imago/
  2. The Gottman Institute. (2021, August 31). The Gottman Method – About. https://www.gottman.com/about/the-gottman-method/
  3. Ammirati, T. (2021, October 27). When Is It A Good Time To Seek Counseling? The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/when-is-it-a-good-time-to-seek-counseling/
  4. Lebow, J. L., Chambers, A. L., Christensen, A., & Johnson, S. M. (2012). Research on the treatment of couple distress. Journal of marital and family therapy38(1), 145–168. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1752-0606.2011.00249.x
Dawn Ferera

Dawn Ferrara is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a doctor of Psychology with additional certification in the telemental health field. She is passionate about helping people find solutions that work and believes that every person has the power to be successful. Her practice is in South Louisiana.

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