Marriage counseling consists of a series of therapy sessions in which you and your partner work with a therapist to improve your relationship and achieve a heightened sense of connection and understanding. In each session, you will both share details on some of the challenging aspects of your relationship, and the therapist will help you navigate your differences.
What Makes Marriage Counseling Worthwhile?
Marriage counseling may be worthwhile for any couple who wants to improve their partnership. It can help improve a variety of issues at different stages of a relationship. For people who put in the work it can strengthen their bond, increase their intimacy and trust, and improve communication.
Marriage counseling can help in the following situations:
- Increase in frequency or intensity of relational conflicts
- Resentments within a relationship
- Feeling disconnected emotionally
- Decline in your physical intimacy
- An affair or betrayal in the relationship
- Feeling like you are having the same conversation over and over
- Wondering whether this is still the right relationship for you
However, there don’t need to be “issues” to attend counseling. Some couples in counseling are happy and want to make sure they stay that way. They occasionally come in for a “check-up” to make sure concerns aren’t building or going unnoticed/unaddressed.
Who Could Benefit From Couples Counseling?
Marriage counseling is helpful for any couple seeking to strengthen their relationship and/or ensure that it stays on the right track. A trained therapist can help you both see and understand the different dynamics that may be holding your relationship back, as well as what you could be doing differently to improve the relationship.
Engagement is another time to seek counseling. Premarital counseling can help you learn about one another and the challenges you may face in the relationship. It can also give you tools to keep your relationship strong for a lifetime.
Does Marriage Therapy Really Work?
General goals of couples counseling include changing the patterns of interaction between two individuals, building a stronger emotional connection, and improving communication skills. According to relationship expert John Gottman, every couple will have problems that aren’t solvable, but marriage counseling can be successful when couples are able to stay connected and talk through problems.
Here are some statistics about the effectiveness of couples counseling:
- 70% of couples experienced positive changes and reduced distress, according to a review of the outcome studies of couples therapy from 1991 to 2011
- 93% of couples reported having “more effective tools for dealing with their problems,” according to research done by the Association of Marriage and Family Therapists
- 90% of couples reported significant improvement in their relationships after participating in emotionally-focused therapy for couples
- 70-73% of couples reported relief from their marital distress within 12 sessions of emotionally-focused therapy for couples
What to Expect From Marriage Counseling
Marriage counseling consists of the following phases: assessment, treatment, phasing out, and relapse prevention. Following up at variable check-in points ensures that you continue to stay on track in the long term.
You can liken this phase to a doctor performing tests before recommending treatment. The therapist may require combined or individual sessions to get a history and explore each of your concerns. They will also explore both of your backgrounds and how your unique histories may be impacting your relationship. In addition to sessions, the therapist may also ask you to complete a questionnaire online or in a paper format.
In this phase, you begin the work of addressing any issues in your relationship. Your therapist will work on giving you the skills needed to achieve your relationship goals.
The treatment phase may consist of the following steps:
- Develop new communication skills
- Learn tools to navigate differences better
- Improve your friendship
- Improve emotional and/or physical intimacy
- Discuss and plan for the future, including shared goals
- Navigate roles and responsibilities (husband/wife, mother/father, who does what around the household)
- Rebuild trust within the relationship
- Process past relationship hurts
- Identify and resolve issues related to commitment
In this phase, your sessions may decrease in frequency to give you and your partner more time to implement learned skills. This could mean going from weekly sessions to monthly sessions. Frequency will be determined by you, your partner, and your therapist, depending on your progress.
It’s natural for people to fall back into old habits, especially if stressed or facing a lot of new challenges. Follow up sessions can help you and your partner stay on the right track. These sessions will be spaced at various intervals (most commonly the three month mark, six month mark, and one year mark). Even when you feel the relationship is going well, follow up sessions can be beneficial.
Types of Marriage Counseling
Types of marriage counseling or marriage therapy include emotionally focused couples therapy, the Gottman Method, Imago Relationship Therapy, narrative therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), relational life therapy, behavioral marital couples therapy, insight oriented marital therapy, and acceptance-based couples therapy.
Types of marriage counseling include:
- Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT): IRT focuses on how conflict is the result of circumstances and situations, not the reason for disharmony.
- Narrative Therapy: Narrative therapy helps couples share their stories and truth and find ways to validate each other’s truth, thus bringing them closer together.
- Relational Life Therapy: Relational therapy helps to build some of the groundwork in a relationship, like communication, trust, and acceptance.
- Insight Oriented Marital Therapy: This modality considers each partner’s past and the role of subconscious issues that are contributing to marital issues tied to each partner’s own self.
- Acceptance-based Couples Therapy: This therapy helps couples reach a place where they can accept themselves and each other, and find ways to stay committed to the cause.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT focuses on thoughts and behaviors of partners and helps to uncover and understand why behaviors happen the way they do; then develop coping skills to help change the behaviors.
- The Gottman Method: Gottman Method focuses on building friendship, resolving conflict, meaning-making, and minimizing the frequency of criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt.
- Emotionally-focused Therapy (EFT): EFT is based on attachment theory and building healthy adult attachment by dismantling intense negative emotions.
- Positive Psychology Therapy: Positive Psychology therapy aims to help couples recognize their own strengths and skills and find ways to access these skills.
- Solution Focused Therapy (SFT): SFT helps couples figure out their own goals and solutions for their problems with the therapist as a facilitator.
- Integrative Behavioral Couples Therapy (IBCT): IBCT focuses on emotional acceptance by way of a therapist helping to give new perspective on a couple’s problems and helps them learn ways to accept the present reality and focus on long term concrete change.
What to Expect From Your First Session of Marriage Therapy
First, a trained therapist will identify and share the strengths of your relationship and help you navigate the challenges with new tools. By understanding what you are doing well, you can ensure that you continue to do those things.
In the first session, you’ll also get to know your therapist. Building good rapport is essential to couples counseling being effective. In fact, studies show this is just as important (if not more) than the type of therapy.1 It’s normal to feel anxious, but your therapist should help ease some of this by normalizing how you feel and connecting with you both.
The session will start with your therapist reviewing logistics and what to expect in treatment. This can include reviewing initial paperwork, talking about what therapy will look like, and the therapist providing information about themselves.
After this has been discussed, you will share what is bringing you to therapy. This is your opportunity to voice concerns and goals.
Next, your therapist will explore the history of your relationship, because relationship problems don’t develop overnight. After getting a history, the therapist will discuss next steps, including filling out any additional forms and scheduling the next session.
How to Prepare For Your First Session
Prepare for your first couples counseling session by completing any paperwork your therapist has sent. You will need to sign consent forms, a HIPAA form, and possibly some demographic information. It can also be helpful to give some thought as to what your goals are so you are prepared to share with your therapist. Other than that, you just need to show up.
Goals of Marriage Counseling
Once the therapist identifies areas that need work, they can help you achieve desired goals in those areas. Those goals could be to learn to communicate, develop skills to manage conflict, improve your friendship, connect more emotionally and/or physically, or heal from past wounds.
How to Get the Most Out of Marriage Counseling
To get the most out of marriage counseling, you need to be open to understanding your role in relationship challenges. The goal is not to “fix” your partner. If this is your mentality, it will prevent you from hearing and understanding the things you need to work on. This mentality also erodes trust.3
Barriers to Success In Marriage Counseling
Refusing to be vulnerable can be a big barrier to success in marriage counseling. It can be scary to open yourself up to potential hurt and rejection but without this, the relationship will suffer. Although emotions can feel overwhelming at times, sharing them with our partner is how we connect.
Another barrier is dishonesty. If you are not honest with your partner and the therapist, it will be extremely challenging to make any progress. Many people lie or keep secrets in a relationship because they don’t want to hurt their partner. While thinking of your partner’s feelings is a good thing, the benefit of that will never outweigh the cost of damaging trust.
How Much Does Marriage Counseling Cost?
The cost of marriage counseling varies widely based on location and expertise, but you should expect costs to range between $150-$250 per session. Couples sessions are generally longer than standard sessions for individuals.
Unfortunately, medical insurance typically doesn’t cover couples counseling. The exception is if one partner has a diagnosable mental health condition, like anxiety or depression, that the marriage counseling specifically addresses.
The cost of marriage counseling can deter couples from wanting to participate, but remember, a healthy relationship is priceless. Also, getting a divorce costs a lot more than marriage counseling. Research shows numerous benefits to staying married, including health and financial wealth. According to the CDC, “Married persons are healthier for nearly every measure of health.”4
If the typical cost of marriage counseling is prohibitively high, see if you can find a provider that offers a sliding scale fee.
How to Find the Right Couples Counselor For You
When searching for a couples therapist, I encourage you to find someone with specific training and/or experience in marriage therapy. Start by researching different modalities, then search an online therapist directory to find someone who specializes in one or more.
Another good place to start would be to get a referral from a family member, friend, or your individual therapist (if you have one). You can also ask your primary care doctor, health insurer, employee assistance program, clergy, or state/local mental health agencies.5
After locating some potential options, call and get to know them better before scheduling. It is recommended to give the therapist 3-5 sessions before deciding whether they are the right fit for you.
Final Thoughts on Marriage Therapy
If you’re considering what to expect from couples therapy or marriage counseling, know that it requires hard work and commitment to the process. That said, if both partners take counseling seriously, it can help strengthen their bond, improve the relationship, and clarify what the future holds for them as a couple.