Marriage and couples counseling can help with a variety of concerns throughout the entirety of a relationship. Therapists can help couples deal with specific relationship issues (like infidelity or becoming empty nesters), strengthen their bond in general, and communicate and express their respective opinions and emotions.
What Is Marriage Counseling?
Marriage or couples counseling is typically a brief, solution-focused type of therapy. Most couples complete treatment within 20 sessions, although the average is closer to 12 sessions. Marriage counseling can take place every week or every other week, depending on the initial assessment of the therapist and the goals of the couple. Marriage counseling is successful when both partners are equally invested in finding solutions to marriage issues together and willing to put in the work both individually and as a couple.
What Can Marriage & Couples Counseling Help With?
Therapists can help couples lay out their respective opinions about issues, such as managing finances, division of household labor, work, sex, and raising and disciplining children. Marriage counseling can help after infidelity, or help couples work through other issues like lack of communication or rebuilding trust.
Marriage and couples counseling can help couples do the following:
- Stay connected after having a baby
- Deal with an “empty nest”
- Process regrets over never having kids
- Deal with general disconnectedness
- Handle changes in sexual relationship or lack of intimacy
- Make major life decisions together
- Navigate betrayal, including infidelity
- Rebuild trust, friendship, and respect
Who Should Seek Marriage Counseling?
Marriage or relationship counseling can be utilized by anyone in a committed relationship who needs support in navigating their relational issues. It can be for those who are dating with the intent to become engaged, those who are recently engaged, newly weds, or those who have been married for years. Couples counseling can improve any kind of relationship.
Here are some signs that it may be time to consider couples counseling:
- Feelings of isolation or loneliness within the marriage
- Frequent fights with little resolution
- Feeling more negatively about the relationship than positively
- Changes in routine habits as a couple, inconsistency, or unreliability
- Changes in lifestyle due to caring for aging parents or having a baby
- Changes in careers that have changed the couple’s lifestyle
- Desire to be alone or to avoid your partner
- Cheating on your partner or thinking about cheating
- Lying and hiding behaviors
- General feeling of mistrust and communication issues
What Are the Goals of Couples Counseling?
The counselor will help you and your partner explore, identify, and refine what you want to get out of counseling. Goals should be realistic, specific, and attainable. They should also be mutually agreed upon by both members of the relationship as well as the counselor.
Goals are unique to the couple—there is no “cookie cutter” treatment that is right for all couples in all situations. There are, however, overarching structures that guide goal-setting in couples counseling.
Generally speaking, effective goals for couples therapy may include:
- Improving healthy communication
- Increasing skills for conflict resolution and problem-solving
- Building trust and respect
- Reducing feelings of resentment
- Processing past transgressions
- Raising relationship satisfaction.
- Healing after an affair
Sometimes, as with discernment counseling, the goal is simply to gain clarity and confidence in the path forward: to recommit to the relationship or decide to end things. At the end of the day, the goals of therapy act as a map of the work you will do with the counselor.
Is Marriage & Couples Counseling Effective?
Does marriage counseling work? While it can be challenging and emotional, marriage counseling can be highly effective. Many factors can impact the extent to which couples counseling is helpful for your relationship, including the attitude and perceptions of each individual in the couple.
Factors that may influence the effectiveness of marriage counseling are:
- Timing: some couples wait several years after the onset of problems to initiate counseling. By the time they make it to therapy, issues could become a more serious threat to the relationship.
- Level of commitment to the process: the couple must both be committed to the relationship and the counseling process or they may become too fatigued to continue. A reluctant or pessimistic partner can also impact progress.
- Perception and perspective: couples who view each other as the enemy or who refuse to consider how they contribute to problems are at a deficit compared to couples who are willing to work together and reflect.
It’s important to note that serious red flags regarding the effectiveness of counseling include domestic violence or substance abuse. What it means to have “successful” couple counseling may vary as well. Sometimes, the couple decides that ending the relationship is the right path forward.
How Much Does Marriage & Couples Counseling Cost?
The cost of couples counseling varies based on the counselor’s experience, session length, or whether you’re attending a private practice vs. a community-based agency, which may accommodate sliding scale fees. Unfortunately, many insurance companies do not cover this type of therapy, but contact your insurance company to find out the details.
What to Expect at Your First Session
Before your first couples therapy session, you can expect to fill out paperwork. In the first session, there will be an intake assessment, ranging between 1-2 hours or spread over more than one session. Unless otherwise specified by the therapist, both parties in the relationship will attend. Some counselors complete the initial session with the couple and then have each individual come in separately.
How to Prepare for Couples Counseling
To prepare for couples counseling, be ready to answer lots of questions. The more detail the counselor has to work with, the better they can assess how they can help. It is important that the counselor discusses the different intersections of each person’s identity to better understand their experience and how they should adapt any marital and couples counseling interventions.
Expect your counselor to explore these types of intersections of identity:
- Sexual orientation
- Gender identity
- Preference for monogamy/non-monogamy
- Socio-economic status
It’s also likely that your counselor will ask about you and your partner’s sex life, which is one facet of your relationship. Ultimately, they should let you make decisions about what, when, and why sexual issues are addressed in counseling, but be prepared to discuss it during intake.
Individual Sessions Within Couples & Marriage Counseling
There are circumstances when marital and couple counseling will combine individual or family counseling sessions beyond the initial intake. This may be initiated by you or the counselor. When and why may vary depending on the couple, the problem being addressed, and the therapeutic orientation of the counselor.
Participating in separate counseling sessions can help the counselor see other perspectives or gain momentum if progress is “stuck.” Individual sessions as part of couple counseling are usually a short-term arrangement and should not overshadow the goals of the couple counseling sessions.
Before individual sessions are arranged, the counselor will have a conversation with the couple to ensure they’re comfortable. The counselor will also discuss their limits of confidentiality. They will not give the other partner a report of what was said by their partner; however, they generally reserve the right to talk openly about anything relevant in future couple sessions.
What If Your Partner Isn’t Open to Marriage Counseling?
It can be hard to manage the emotions when you may want to go to marriage counseling and your spouse does not. It doesn’t mean that they don’t want to discuss and resolve issues, so it’s important to try to understand why they don’t want to see a therapist together. Asking “why” can help you learn their reasons, perceived barriers, or fears around marriage counseling.
They may believe the myths they heard that marriage counseling leads to divorce and they do not want to divorce. They may be concerned about the financial impact and cost of this service as well as the cost of time, especially with demanding jobs, children’s schedules and outside obligations. They may feel uncomfortable talking about their feelings in general and especially with a stranger such as a therapist. Some people perceive marriage counseling as punishment for poor behavior, so it can be hard to shake that feeling.
While their reasons may be real and valid for them, it is important to remember that your needs are valid as well. Trying to come to a place where you can agree to try things out, or even air out some of these concerns with a potential marriage therapist to determine if they are a right fit can make a big difference. Regardless, if you are in need of support, beginning individual therapy and asking your partner to potentially join at a later date can show your partner that it can be safe to go to marriage counseling.
Do Marriage Counselors Recommend Divorce?
Marriage counselors will typically not recommend divorce or offer other personal opinions about your relationship. Instead, they will help you to explore your needs and work to find out if your needs can be fulfilled in this relationship, how that might look, and what it may take to get there. Marriage counselors may recommend practices around boundary-setting to ensure both partners are feeling they have the space they need to individually process things and encourage healthy ways of managing marriage stress and issues.
Types of Marriage & Couples Counseling
There are many different models or types of couples counseling, including emotion focused therapy (EFT), the Gottman Method, internal family systems (IFS), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), positive psychology therapy, and solution-focused therapy (SFT).
Emotionally Focused Therapy
EFT is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on building attachment in adult relationships. Many couples seek out therapy because they’re feeling intense emotions such as anger, fear, or betrayal. EFT works to decrease distress in the relationship while also improving the bond between the two partners.
The Gottman Method
The Gottman Method is based on scientific research, making this another evidence-based approach. Main points include building friendship with your partner, resolving conflict, making meaning together, and minimizing the frequency of the four predictors of divorce, also known as the Four Horsemen: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt.
Internal Family Systems
IFS is an evidenced-based, integrative model that teaches individuals how to focus inwardly on the Self, and the eight Cs of self-leadership: calmness, clarity, curiosity, compassion, confidence, courage, creativity, and connectedness. In doing this, we can begin to see how the parts of ourselves (our personalities and sub-personalities) can enhance or inhibit our lives.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
CBT for marriage counseling can be very effective as the goal of many issues in couples and marriage counseling can be addressed by this modality. A focus on thoughts and behaviors are at the core of how CBT works, and within the structure of a couple, it can help both parties understand where they come from and why and how to change these thought patterns and behaviors.
Positive Psychology Therapy
Positive psychology for marriage counseling can also be very helpful and empowering for both individuals in the relationship. Positive psychology therapy aims to help both people in the relationship recognize their own strengths and skills and encourage them to find ways to access these skills. They also help to reframe negative situations in a way where there can be a positive take-away and appreciate the challenge it takes to make changes in the relationship. This modality allows for both people in a relationship to grow based on the strengths they bring to the partnership.
SFT for marriage counseling is very couple-centered and allows the couple to uncover their own goals and hopes for the relationship. It asks the couple what tools they have to get there, where they get stuck, how they deal with those situations, and plans for the future. This modality works on helping to improve communication and listening skills.
Who Is Qualified to Provide Couples Counseling & Marriage Counseling?
Many mental health professionals are qualified to do marital and couple therapy, but not all therapists have detailed clinical training in this area. Sex therapists may also have training in this area. Note that licenses and professional titles vary from state to state. This means that you don’t necessarily have to focus on their title for initial impressions. Focus on their training background and work experience.
How to Find a Marriage Counselor
To find a marriage counselor, consider starting your search in an online therapist directory. Most clinicians who have public profiles on agency or practice websites or online directories will have detailed narratives of their training background and clinical experience in the client populations they serve. Most will also include their areas of specialty.
Marital and couples counseling can be a helpful and worthwhile investment for couples who want to improve their relationship. Remember that what works for one couple may or may not work for you, and making progress in counseling depends greatly not just on the therapy process but also on your level of commitment to make changes and improvements long term.
For Further Reading
- Lasting App – A self-guided couples counseling tool to use alongside marriage & couples counseling
- Best Books on Marriage
- Marriage Counseling Statistics
- Mental Health America
- National Alliance on Mental Health