Relationships of all kinds can be sources of encouragement and support. One particular relationship that has a profound role in our lives is the one that we have with our partner. But what do we do when our relationship turns into more stress and heartache than happiness? That’s where a marriage and couples counselor comes in.
Marital and couple 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.
What Can Marriage & Couples Counseling Help With?
Marriage and couples counseling can help with a variety of concerns throughout the entire cycle of the relationship. Pre-marital counseling can assist couples in laying out their respective opinions about issues such as managing finances, division of household labor, work, sex, and raising and disciplining children.
This list is not exhaustive, and of course non-engaged or even already married couples could benefit from seeing where they overlap or differ on these important topics, despite the traditional label of this type of counseling as “pre-marital.”
Other couples come to therapy after being challenged through the natural transitions of life. While it is commonly thought of as a loving and happy time, many couples struggle to stay connected after having a baby or while they have young children in the home. Others find that the silence of a fresh empty nest can signal that distance has taken over the couple relationship.
It is not uncommon for couples to feel that they have grown apart and then experience difficulty in figuring out how to come back together. Even changes in the sexual relationship or functioning can wear on the quality of emotional as well as physical intimacy. Furthermore, major life decisions regarding work, relocation, parents or in-laws, and children may arise, sometimes unexpectedly, leaving the couple at an impasse.
Couples sometimes seek counseling because major betrayals have taken place. Infidelity is one example. Such situations may feel dire to the couple and they turn to a marriage and couples counselor to help them navigate what may be an extremely emotional time. Regardless of the season of life a couple is in, from newly partnered to the golden years, marital and couples counseling can help rebuild friendship, trust, and respect.
What Are the Goals of Couples Counseling?
The reason that a couple comes to counseling will shape the goals of therapy. 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 and the counselor.
Goals are also 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 may include improving healthy communication, increasing skills for conflict resolution and problem solving, building trust and respect, and processing past transgressions, with the overall vision of raising relationship satisfaction.
At the end of the day, the goals of therapy act as a map of the work you will do with the counselor. That map can guide you and your partner to a different place than you are today—if you are willing to do the work it will take to get there.
Is Marriage & Couples Counseling Effective?
Marital and couples counseling can feel challenging and emotional. You may be wondering if it is effective enough to say in the end that all the hard work, time, and money that you extended was worth it. The truth of the matter is that a plethora of factors can impact the extent to which couples counseling is helpful for your relationship. The good news (and possibly the bad news) is that the attitude and perceptions of the couple are a huge factor.
Many couples wait several years after the onset of problems before they initiate counseling. By the time they make it into a therapist’s office, the problems could be a very serious threat to the continuation of the relationship. The couple must be committed to both the relationship and the counseling process or they may fatigue before counseling is fruitful.
Couples who view each other as the enemy or who refuse to consider how they contribute to the problem are most certainly working uphill compared to couples who are willing to work together and reflect on their own negative contributions. A reluctant or pessimistic partner can present a real impasse to progress. There are some red flags that impede the effectiveness of counseling as well, such as in partnerships where domestic violence or substance abuse is present.
Individual counseling may be recommended before starting joint sessions in these situations. What is important to remember is that if you believe counseling is a positive introduction into the future of your relationship, you are likely to work hard and recognize small steps toward progress which ultimately lead to big changes. If you are going through the motions or believe counseling cannot help your relationship, you all but guarantee limited progress.
Ultimately, what works for one couple may or may not work for another. What it means to have “successful” couple counseling may vary as well, as sometimes the couple decides that ending the relationship is the right path. Improvement in the relationship depends greatly not just on the therapy process, but also on the couples level of commitment to make changes long term.
You may also want to consider characteristics of the clinician. Their training and educational background (e.g. marriage and family therapy, counseling, social work, psychology), clinical skill level and experience, knowledge of relationship dynamics and treatment modalities, and comfort level for working with couples all play a role in how they operate therapy sessions. When there is a good fit between the counselor’s style and the needs of the couple, counseling is likely to have some positive impact for the relationship.
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. Marriage and family therapists and marital and couple counselors are titles for professionals who have been specifically trained in marriage, couple, and family therapy programs.
Sex therapists may also have training in this area. In today’s world of online profiles and networking, it is very likely you will be able to research qualified clinicians local to your area. One important note is that the licenses and professional titles may vary from state to state. This means that you don’t have to focus on their title for initial impressions about whether they are the right fit. Do focus on their training background and work experience with couples thus far.
Most clinicians who have public profiles on agency or practice websites or other online directories will have detailed narratives of their training background and clinical experience in the client populations they serve. Most will include their areas of specialty. You should be able to spot the clinicians who work with marital and couple relationships, and may even be able to find someone with specific experience in your main area of concern.
Cost of Couples Counseling
The monetary cost of marital and couple counseling can vary. Some clinicians in private practice charge the same as an individual session or it may be more because of reasons such as longer session lengths. A private practice may have higher rates than a community-based agency, who may accommodate sliding scale fees.
Unfortunately, many insurance companies do not cover this type of therapy, but you could contact your insurance company to find out the details. Marital and couple 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.
Marital and couple counseling is generally solution-focused because much of therapy attends to building skillsets in the couple to communicate and problem solve more effectively. The counselor will rarely get involved as a referee in arguments and most likely will not spend a lot of time hashing out the “problem of the week.”
The counselor is there to provide psychoeducation on learning more effective tools and act as a facilitator of sensitive conversations. In marital and couple counseling, the >relationship is the client, and the clinician will not get caught up in taking sides and assigning blame.
Couples who initiate counseling should be prepared for learning new ways of effectively interacting with their partner; if one or both partners approaches counseling as an avenue for proving their own agendas they will likely be unsatisfied with counseling from the get-go.
The investment level of the couple and consistency in attendance are important elements of ensuring that treatment can be completed in an efficient manner. Of course there are cases where it is appropriate for counseling to surpass 20 sessions.
For example, healing after an affair may require additional time to unpack the emotional damage and history that led to the breakdown in the relationship, but even in these cases the focus remains on healing and moving forward—not assigning blame and staying caught up in arguments.
What to Expect at Your First Session
So what will marital and couple counseling sessions look like? The first step is setting up your appointment. You’ve done your research and found a clinician or agency that you would like to work with. There will be paperwork to complete before you meet with the counselor, which may be completed on location before your appointment or mailed to you in a packet that you will fill out and bring with you.
In the first session, the intake assessment is started. Unless otherwise specified by the therapist, it is expected that both parties in the relationship will attend. The clinician will ask a series of thorough questions about why you are coming in, how you hope counseling can help, the history of your relationship, and relevant information about each of you as individuals.
Be prepared for many questions, as the more detail the counselor has to work with, the better they can assess how they can help with your presenting concerns. It is important that the counselor discuss the different intersections of each person’s identity to better understand your experience and how they should adapt marital and couples counseling interventions to your needs.
This includes exploring the intersections of race, sexual orientation, relationship orientation such as preference for monogamy or non-monogamy, gender identity, socio-economic status, or religion, among others. A multiculturally competent counselor will be attentive to how those intersections impact your worldview and the systems of oppression that may be complicating the problems in your relationship.
It is also likely that your counselor will ask about you and your partner’s sex life during the intake assessment and possibly throughout different stages of the counseling process as it is relevant. Your sex life is one facet of your relationship, just like how the two of you solve problems together, talk about conflict, or spend quality time together, and it can be another source of information that can help to create as clear of a picture as possible of your experience so that the clinician can help you as best as they can.
The counselor should be respectful of your wishes and ultimately let you make the decisions about what, when, and why sexual issues are addressed in counseling, but be prepared for this to be brought up in the assessment. Ultimately, your counselor should be empathetic and build a sense of security and trust in the therapy room.
The assessment may range from one to two hours in length or may spread over more than one session. Some counselors will complete the initial session with the couple and then have each individual come in separately for a session, all as part of the intake process. The details of the intake assessment depend on the counselor and the setting.
For example, the orientation of the counselor may influence whether or not you participate in individual sessions as part of the intake or if you complete the entire intake together. As for the setting, a counselor who works in private practice will have more flexibility to make decisions about doing a two-hour intake rather than one-hour compared to a counselor working at a community mental health agency, where there may be less flexibility for the counselor to make such decisions about session time and length.
Individual Sessions Within Couples & Marriage Counseling
There are other 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, but when and why may vary depending on the couple, the problem being addressed, and the therapeutic orientation of the counselor.
Individual sessions can be very helpful because they provide the counselor with another glimpse into the relationship. The tone of the counseling session is always different when there is one person in the room compared to when there are two people in the room. Different doesn’t mean better or worse—it just means different.
Participating in separate counseling sessions can be a useful way for the counselor to see other perspectives of the problem or gain momentum again if it seems like progress is “stuck.” Individual sessions as part of couple counseling is 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 are comfortable with separate sessions and to orient them to how they might look and why the counselor believes it is important. A similar conversation will take place if you are the initiator to ensure that everyone is on the same page.
The counselor will also discuss their limits of confidentiality about separate sessions. They will not give the other partner a report or play-by-play of what was said by their partner in the individual session; however, they generally will reserve the right to openly talk about anything that was said in future couple sessions, if it is relevant and important to the objectives of counseling.
Most importantly, the counselor is not a secret-keeper. You should not disclose anything in an individual setting with the expectation that the counselor will keep it from your partner. There may be times when bringing in another family member is appropriate, again, if it is relevant and important to accomplishing the goals of therapy.
Who, when, and why must be carefully considered and a conversation about the possible positive and negative outcomes should be had with the counselor beforehand. Ultimately, any time there are changes in the dynamic of the couple counseling session it is the counselor’s responsibility to ensure that it is purposeful and ethical and should always be done with client consent.
Marriage & Couples Counseling Methods
There are many different models of couples counseling and to detail all of them would be beyond the scope of this article, but three of the most common are:
Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT)
EFT is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on building attachment in adult relationships. Many couples seek out therapy because they are 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.
There are three stages of EFT: 1) de-escalation of the situation, 2) reshaping interactions to help the couple emphasize their needs and increase receptivity to each other, and 3) helping you see how the problems in your relationship formed and what was done in therapy to change those patterns. EFT is an evidenced-based approach, meaning that the interventions are supported by scientific research, with the American Psychological Association reporting that EFT is effective with about 75% of couples.
The Gottman Method
The Gottman Method was created by Drs. John and Julie Gottman and is based on scientific research, making this another evidence-based approach. Main points from the Gottman Method include building friendship with your partner, resolving conflict, and making meaning together.
There are seven principles of the Gottman Method: 1) build love maps, 2) express fondness and admiration, 3) turn toward one another, 4) accept influence, 5) solve problems that are solvable, 6) manage conflict and overcome gridlock, and 7) create shared meaning. A few other concepts from the Gottman Method are learning how to repair after an argument, making deposits into an “emotional bank account,” 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)
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. By looking at The Self we can begin to see how the parts of ourselves (our personalities and sub-personalities) can enhance or inhibit our lives.
In couple therapy, IFS helps you understand your unhelpful behavior by tuning into your inner Self and finding what is in the way of the eight Cs. An IFS clinician believes that you already have the answers as a couple and they would take a collaborative approach to assist you and your partner in looking within to find your own solutions to problems.
When you’re ready to talk to a marriage or couples counselor, ask them ahead of time what method(s) they typically utilize, and have them explain how and why it will be helpful for your specific needs. Despite which model the counselor you visit uses, they should be ethical, competent, and professional.
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.
Ultimately, you and your partner should feel that marital and couples counseling was an insightful experience, during which you were treated with respect and given the autonomy to make the best decisions for your future.