Does marriage counseling really work? It is a common question that marriage therapists get all the time. And it’s a question that couples wonder about when they’re struggling and looking for solutions.
You might think that the answer is a straightforward “yes” or “no”. The fact is, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
When couples are considering marriage counseling, they have so many questions:
Do we need counseling?
Who should we see?
Will it help us?
There are several factors that determine the outcome of marriage counseling. Some are related to the dynamics of the marriage. Other factors include the individual issues each partner brings to the counseling table, the skill and approach of the counselor and the therapeutic dynamics between the counselor and the couple. Each couple’s counseling experience is as unique as they are.
Why Couples Seek Counseling
In general, by the time a couple is asking the question, the answer is probably yes. It doesn’t mean that they are on the verge of divorce. It simply means that what they’re doing on their own isn’t working.
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, many reasons. Some of the most common reasons couples seek counseling are:
- 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 to rebuild the foundation of trust that has been broken.
- Breakdowns in communication – Couples may find themselves not communicating well or arguing more frequently. Issues seem to never get resolved. Counseling can help couples learn how to “fight fairly” and learn how to resolve conflicts so that they don’t have to keep repeating the same argument 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 sometimes create such distress that couples cannot find their way through together. Counseling can help couples navigate through these times and find new ways of supporting 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, supportive space to share the most intimate of details.
- Intimacy issues – Whether physical intimacy or emotional intimacy, couples can sometimes grow apart for lots of reasons. Counseling can help couples understand what’s happening and work towards intimate reconnection.
- A sense of something not quite right – Lots of 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.
Why Choosing the Right Therapist Matters
When choosing a marriage counselor, it is important to choose someone who not only has experience working with couples, but someone who is also a good fit for both partners. Each person needs to be confident in and comfortable with the therapist who will be privy to the couple’s most intimate details.
Without that level of comfort and trust, it will be difficult to develop that all-important therapeutic alliance between therapist and client (in this case the couple). This can lead to poor progress or even premature termination of counseling.
So, with all of the counselors out there, how do you choose?
Marriage counseling is a broad term used to describe the process of helping couples work through problems to strengthen their marriage. This process is frequently referred to as “relationship counseling”, “marriage therapy” or “couples counseling”.
It’s important to know that these terms, while used interchangeably, are not all the same. How marriage counseling is conducted depends in part on the type of clinician chosen.
In general, marriage counseling is a type of therapy provided by a licensed clinician, generally with at least a master’s degree. These clinicians are most often licensed counselors, licensed social workers or licensed psychologists. It is important to note that not all licensed mental health providers are trained specifically in marriage counseling.
Within the mental health community, there are also licensed clinicians who are specifically trained in the area of marriage therapy. These clinicians are most often identifiable by the Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) credential or similar, depending on their state’s specific licensure. LMFT’s are considered clinical specialists in marital work. They have specialized training and experience in the field of marriage and family therapy.
Within the marriage counseling realm, you may also encounter other disciplines who offer couples work. Pastoral counselors, for example, often work with couples who prefer working from a more faith-based approach. Pastoral counselors generally have some training in marriage counseling techniques. Not every state requires licensure of pastoral counselors so individual credentials will vary.
The approach that a marriage counselor uses also matters. Even those with the same credentials may use vastly different techniques. Some of the more popular approaches you might hear about include:
- Imago Relationship Therapy – Imago, Latin for image, is an approach that focuses on the connection between childhood experiences and adult relationships. Imago therapists work from the belief that the relationships with our parents influences the relationships we have as adults. As couples explore these experiences, the underlying issues emerge. Imago sessions involve a lot of dialogue between partners and learning how to listen.
- The Gottman Method – Developed by John Gottman, this method is a data driven approach to couples therapy. Its interventions were derived from the study of thousands of couples over decades of Dr. Gottman’s work. The interventions are designed to improve intimacy, communication and respect between partners. Couples complete an extensive assessment that assists the therapist in choosing the specific interventions that may best fit the couple’s needs. While appropriate for many couples, this method is particularly effective for long-term, committed couples who are seeking to strengthen their marital bond.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – CBT is a systematic therapeutic approach that has shown efficacy across many settings and populations. CBT focuses on the patterns of thinking and how they influence feelings and behavior. Partners learn to understand their own patterns as well as their partners. Once problematic behaviors are identified, couples work with the therapist to develop specific interventions to target the changes they wish to make. The goal is to build skills that allow the couple to be able to communicate and resolve issues while maintaining the relationship. This approach works well for people who like to set and achieve goals in a systematic straightforward manner.
- Discernment Therapy – This method 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 to work on the marriage or proceed with divorce.
- Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) – EFT is an effective, short-term, structured therapeutic approach that focuses on the way couples engage emotionally. Grounded in childhood attachments, EFT focuses on those negative communication patterns formed in early childhood and carried into adulthood. Couples learn what drives their emotional responses and develop the trust to express their feelings safely.
Factors That Influence Success
Marriage counseling is not a magic cure for what ails a relationship. It is an opportunity for couples to openly and honestly address their issues in a safe and neutral environment with an expert to guide them. Marriage counseling takes work and commitment to the process. There are no guarantees.
There are several factors that can influence whether a couple is successful in marriage counseling.
- Timing – Gottman found that the average couple who enters marriage counseling has had difficulties for six years or more. Negative patterns between couples that persist over time and become ingrained may be more challenging to change.
- Commitment – Putting in the hard work is key to making lasting changes. When one or both partners are unwilling to commit to the process, the odds of success are small. Sometimes, couples view the therapist as the one to “fix” the problem for them. That is not the role of the therapist. A therapist serves as a guide through the process. The couples must do their work.
- Avoidance – Honesty is an integral part of the therapeutic process. If authentic change is to occur, the partners must be honest with each other and with the therapist. Otherwise, the therapist is trying to help the couple solve issues that are not fully known.
- Therapeutic Alliance – The relationship that is built between therapist and client (in this case the couple) is critical to success. Each partner must feel comfortable with the therapist. If there is no rapport or comfort, the chances of dropping out of therapy is high. If the rapport is good, couples are more likely to engage and work in partnership with the therapist.
There is no one factor that guarantees success. It is truly a combination of things unique to each couple and situation.
So, does marriage counseling really work? The answer seems to be, it depends. Studies suggest 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.
When it comes to marriage counseling, couples get out of it what they are willing to invest.