If you are experiencing difficulties in your relationship, or specifically in your marriage, you may consider marriage counseling to get things back on track. Marriage counseling is a focused form of therapy that is intended to help you improve your relationship and allow you to address and resolve issues that are causing friction between you and your partner.
One of the most common questions from couples who have never attended counseling before is, “does marriage counseling work?” Marriage counseling is effective for most couples, especially if you work with a qualified therapist and implement what you learn during therapy. Discover what makes marriage counseling effective, including when it is most helpful and how to make the most of your therapy sessions.
What is Marriage Counseling?
Marriage counseling is focused therapy that helps couples work through conflicts to develop better relationships. Marriage counseling is also called couple’s therapy. It is ideal for any couple, married or in a serious relationship, who need help resolving issues and learning how to communicate effectively with one another. Many couples who participate in marriage counseling report experiencing less psychological stress and can significantly improve the level of satisfaction in their relationship.
Although any licensed therapist can provide you with marriage counseling, you’ll want to look for a counselor who specializes in marriage and family therapy. They are trained in many aspects of mental health and family systems and work to help couples and families recognize troublesome dynamics and learn communication skills to improve relationships. Look for a therapist with the title of Marriage and Family Therapist, which is typically abbreviated as LMFT.
When is Marriage Counseling Helpful?
The effectiveness of marriage counseling varies based on several factors, such as the type of therapy your counselor uses and your reasons for attending therapy sessions.
Around 75% of couples who engage in couple’s counseling see improvement in their relationship. Research shows that newer therapy approaches such as Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT) boast improvement in about 90% of couples.
Marriage counseling is most helpful when it uses a combination of therapy approaches such as EFT and behavior couple’s therapy (BCT). These methods help you recognize and accept your needs and emotions, as well as the needs and emotions of your partner. They also help you implement new, healthy behaviors in the relationship, such as directly expressing your needs and respecting and meeting the needs of your spouse or partner.
Marriage counseling is helpful for common relationship issues such as:
- Lack of connection
- Big life transitions
- Financial disagreements
- Lack of intimacy
- Inability to resolve conflicts
Marriage counseling can help you improve many aspects of your relationship; however, if you are in a relationship with an abusive partner, couple’s counseling is not recommended.
Marriage counseling works best when both partners put in equal effort. It is not likely that an abusive spouse will put in honest, equal effort in therapy. Rather than seek couple's counseling in this type of situation, your best course of action is to seek individual therapy where you can work on yourself. Gaining confidence and working through your own issues can help you make an informed decision about whether marriage counseling would be of benefit.
What Takes Place During a Marriage Counseling Session?
If you and your partner are considering marriage counseling, it can be helpful to know what to expect going into the session. Of course, every therapist has their own way of conducting a session, but you can expect the following when you and your partner begin to attend couple's counseling.
Your initial meeting with the therapist will include a sort of “get-to-know-you” session. You and your partner will fill out paperwork prior to the appointment. Each of you will fill out the paper from your point of view. You’ll be able to explain why you are seeking therapy, what you hope to achieve, and what you believe the major sources of conflict are in your relationship.
During the initial session, your therapist will go over your answers to the questionnaires. This will help them get to know each of you and get a sense of what is going on in the relationship.
The therapist should also share what their treatment process looks like. The counselor should make sure that both you and your partner are comfortable with the therapy styles they will be using and clarify any questions you have.
Ongoing Couple’s Sessions
During the ongoing marriage counseling sessions, you and your partner will meet with your therapist on a regular basis. Plan on meeting with your counselor once per week for the first few weeks or months of therapy. Appointments are usually 50 to 60 minutes long to allow for in-depth conversations and problem resolution.
Expect to come to therapy ready to talk openly about any issues you are having in the relationship. Many counselors will ask if there are any pressing issues either of you would like to talk about. Alternatively, you may focus on one issue, such as infidelity, or even past issues that are holding your relationship back.
Your therapist should guide the discussion and provide a safe space for both you and your partner to feel heard and validated. Their job is not to take sides, but to guide each of you through learning to talk openly about conflicts and help you learn new ways to approach problem-solving within the relationship.
It is not unusual for therapists to meet with each person in the relationship separately. This can be especially helpful in situations in which a therapist suspects controlling or abusive behavior in one of the parties. It also helps in situations where you and your partner are in such conflict that it is too difficult to meet in the same space.
Meeting individually allows each partner to share openly and honestly with the therapist. Although it shouldn’t comprise the bulk of your treatment, don’t be surprised if your therapist suggests that you should meet with them on your own in addition to continuing a couple's sessions.
After several weeks or months of counseling, your therapist may suggest you and your spouse schedule sessions farther apart. This is ideal if you are making progress in therapy and are busy implementing the skills you learn with each other.
As often happens in therapy, you and your partner may be doing great with your new skills when something comes along and rocks the boat again. Therefore “check-in” sessions are a good idea for months or even a year or two after intensive couple’s counseling.
These allow you and your partner to continue benefiting from therapy and working through issues as they pop up. Staying on your therapist’s calendar is also beneficial because it keeps you connected to someone who knows your story as a couple and prevents you from having to start all over with a new therapist down the road.
How to Get the Most Out of Your Marriage Counseling Sessions
For marriage counseling to work, you must approach the sessions with the mindset that you are going to make the most out of each one. To get the most out of your marriage counseling sessions, keep the following tips in mind:
- Go in with realistic expectations – it is going to take time to see changes from therapy, don’t expect them to happen overnight.
- Remember that no one is right or wrong – therapy is not the place to “win” or “settle the score”, it is a safe place for everyone to be heard.
- Implement what you learn – put the skills and knowledge you learn into practice at home, the more you use them the more progress you’ll see in your relationship.
- Stay in the present – avoid dwelling on your partner’s past actions (unless they are ongoing); instead, embrace the present and possible future.
- Be open, honest, and direct – these elements are crucial to an intimate, trusting relationship, so it is vital that you avoid passive-aggressive behaviors in lieu of embracing honesty, openness, and directness during therapy.
- Ask open-ended questions – choose to ask open-ended questions to your partner during your sessions to deepen your connection and show you respect them and care about what they have to say.
- Refrain from defensiveness – try not to become defensive during therapy sessions, and instead set your own feelings aside and listen to the need or fear that your partner is expressing.
- Follow through – if your therapist asks you to try a technique or activity at home, following through is the best way to make changes in the relationship.
- Celebrate victories – take time to share victorious moments with your therapist so they can help you and your partner celebrate and acknowledge positive shifts.
- Get additional help – getting individual therapy to work on issues within yourself can help you gain much more from marriage counseling together.
Seek Counseling to Deepen Your Relationship
All couples can benefit from couples' counseling. If you and your partner find yourselves feeling constantly hurt, misunderstood, confused, or invalidated, marriage counseling is an effective tool you can use to improve the relationship.
Through counseling, you can learn to express your own needs more clearly, accept your partner for who they are, and communicate with each other in a way that makes you both feel respected. If both you and your partner are willing to put in the work to make changes in the relationship, there is a significant chance that marriage counseling will work for your relationship.