Does Marriage Counseling Work?

Marriage counseling can be a highly effective way to help solve relationship issues. One study found that 48% of couples had improved relationships or recovered completely 5-years after therapy. Other studies suggest certain therapies are up to 75% effective in improving relationships. 

Maybe you've experienced increased amounts of conflict with your partner, disagreement about core values, decreased marital satisfactionpoor communicationsubstance abuse. The issues that lead to marriage therapy are widely varied. 

You've complained to your friends about your partner. You've asked your parents for guidance. You've talked to your spiritual leader about your relationship issues. You've even watched some YouTube videos to try and help your relationship and improve your communication. 

Nothing seems to be helping.

Now what?

Counseling.

For some couples or marriage counseling is a dreaded word counseling.

In this article, I'll talk about the difference between them and how to find the help you need.

You remember that time that your parents went to “get help” and six months later they ended up divorced, or you went to that other therapist who didn't seem to help much.

Given those experiences, you're asking yourself "will counseling help my relationship?” Well, I would love to give you a 100% money-back guarantee or tell you there's some magic formula, but you probably already know that I can't do that.

There are many factors that will determine the success of your couples counseling.

Let's address at least three of the first things you need to think about if you're contemplating improving your relationship health.

First, the different types of counseling available. Because let's be honest there are a number of different types promoted.

Second, let's talk about some of the different professionals in the field.

Last and most important three common fears about marriage counseling.

My hope is that this information will help you take the next steps in resolving your relationship distress and moving towards a healthier and more loving relationship.

Before I get any further let me share that I use marriage counseling and couples counseling interchangeably. This is intentional to speak to a wide range of people focused on their intimate relationships.

1. Types of Marriage Counseling

When it comes to getting help with your relationship let's start with the obvious. You may or may not be married, but you value the relationship you are in. You're ready to seek relationship counseling that will respect and respond to your stage of relationship development so that you can develop a successful relationship. 

The reality is that at every stage of relationship development there are universal needs that are unchanging, and then there are unique needs to each stage of relationship progression. Every stage of relationship growth has its built-in joys and challenges.

Couple therapists see clients in a variety of settings. Many provide tools for couples, offer premarital counseling, or marriage counseling classes. 

Online Marriage Counseling

The way that counseling is being provided is changing rapidly and has only sped up during COVID. The movement to online counseling has some significant benefits with a few limitations.

The benefits include:

  • Accessibility
  • Saving of time by not having to travel to see a therapist (can you say rush hour and getting to a couples therapy session)
  • Having a broader set of counselors to select from.
  • Allows the counselor to see you in more of your natural environment.
  • Affordable counseling opportunities like using a couples counseling app

While I don't personally love sitting behind a computer all day, I have found that seeing my clients in their home environments has shown me things about them that I would have never known had they been in my office.

Let's be honest you live life your life in your home not in a therapist's office.

Limitations of online counseling can include:

  • Kids interrupting
  • Needing space to reflect and think
  • Privacy
  • Connectivity issues

On the therapist's side, limitations to online counseling can include state, federal, and insurance regulations all limit therapist's ability to provide services across state lines.

This is why some have become relationship coaches to work around these limitations while providing services across state lines. Licensed Counselors, Psychologists, Licensed Marriage Counselors, and Licenses Social Workers are all governed by very high standards of ethics and exist within the broader healthcare system.

We are seen as health care providers.

Christian marriage counseling

Christian marriage counseling is a broad and big topic. It is one that I specifically went to study at Seminary.

As you can imagine with a topic like Christianity and Counseling there are differing views on what Christian Counseling is. It's important that the therapist has a sense of who you are and what you should do in your marital life.

If you are working with someone that is a licensed mental health professional and they are promoting Christian counseling then most likely what this means is that they will be able to explore with you your own beliefs and understanding of Christianity and the way Very effective Christian counselors will respect and explore the often complex relationship that people have with their religious belief system and the ways that it impacts their mental and relational health.

What you want to check with any Christian counselor on is their own view of how they understand the role of Christian Counseling in helping their clients.

It is okay to ask your therapist what they mean by Christian Counseling. They should be able to explain to you their understanding of Theology and Psychology and the relationship between these two areas of study.

Theology is the study of God and Psychology being the study of the mind. If they are not able to describe this to you in a way that makes sense to you please explore other counselors.

Premarital Counseling

I love premarital counseling. It is a chance to start your relationship off on the right foot and I now like to think about it as a well-baby check-up for your relationship.

There are many complications that can be present in forming an intimate relationship. Many engaged or newlywed couples are not thinking about or considering these potential complications.

It is well known in the couples counseling field that the engaged stage of the relationship is foundational to the way that the rest of the relationship will unfold.  There are many changes that happen in our minds and brains when we are in the engaged stage of the relationship, so it can be very difficult to see ourselves and our partners clearly.

Premarital counseling is your chance to start to explore your intimate relationship with intention, reflection, and integration as a part of the process for your marriage.

Think about premarital counseling like creating a workout routine for your marriage so that it can be strong and healthy. Despite what many people believe and hope to be true just having the feel of being in love will not be enough to sustain a long-term and flourishing relationship.

How Long Couples Wait To Pursue Counseling

There is some research that says intimate couples will wait seven years on average before seeking help with their intimate relationship.  

Can you imagine what would happen if you waited seven years to address an infection in your skin? It would not be good.

Many people will seek out individual counseling before seeking out couples counseling because it can be difficult to get both partners to agree to pursue therapy.

The practice and process of providing distressed couples with sound relationship counseling is still relatively new in the grand scheme of things. Yet this is where many different areas of science have helped to converge to distill down what can go wrong in relationships and what can be done to help move couples towards healthier functioning.

Just like heart surgery is not like it was 20 years ago. The work keeps getting better.

Traditional In-person Marriage Counseling

The main form of therapy sought by couples is still in-person marriage counseling.

In most cases, this looks like weekly sessions with a counselor and will span from a handful of sessions to several years of working together.

I have worked with couples both on-line and in-person and each way has its strengths and limits. Sitting with couples as they work through their relationship distress is not always fun or easy for couples, but many of them over time start to build a renewed trust in themselves and their partner.

It is not on a straight line or without setbacks, but forward relationship growth happens over time.

2. What's The Difference between a Marriage Counselor, a Couples Counselor, and a Relationship Coach

So who is this person that is going to help you and how can you trust that they know what they are doing?

When you are looking for help here are three types of relationship experts you are likely to come across:

  • marriage counselor/therapist
  • couples counselor/therapist
  • relationship coach

From their names, it would seem clear that they are all likely focused on helping couples to improve their intimate relationship. They create a safe environment where a couple can explore their current relationship and hopefully achieve a happy relationship. 

There is no difference in how marriage counselors and couples counselors are trained. These titles are restricted to people who have either earned a master's degree in counseling or a doctorate.

But what does this mean to you?

Each has a high level of education where they have studied 2 - 6 years after undergraduate studies. They have specific training about how the mind, brain, and in the relationship counseling process so they can help distressed couples create positive interactions and effect positive change.

They have also had to take a complex professional exam to earn their license to provide counseling services. 

While that is a minimum requirement to become a couples counselor the reality is that there is a diversity of skill, experience, and comfort working with couples.

There are many counselors who are afraid, intimidated, or overwhelmed by working with couples and would prefer to work with individuals. That is completely okay and understandable, but that is not the person you want to work with.

Working with couples is its own specialty within the broader umbrella of mental health services. Just like you wouldn't want your cancer doctor trying to help you set your broken arm in a cast.

The last group of professionals is where things get a bit more tricky.

Relationship coaches and experts are terms that are not highly regulated.

These titles can be used by anyone including:

  • A well-intentioned person that just wants to help couples
  • Someone that has advanced education in another area of expertise but no formal training in this area of life
  • Licensed couples counselors who want to practice outside the limits of their state licensure

Now I know this is a lot to consider, but I want you to have the best odds of saving your relationship and moving it to a place of flourishing.

If you are choosing to work with a relationship coach there is more due diligence that needs to be done to understand the person's background and how that prepares them to work with couples.

I can tell you from personal experience and my journey into working with couples that is way more complicated than I could have ever imagined when I first set out to become a couples counselor. I feel a great sense of honor and pride for all that I have learned along the way and yet I still look at a couple's intimate relationship with awe and wonder for all its complexity and moving pieces.

Your relationship is worth working with someone who has dedicated their life to working with intimate relationships.

If you want more in-depth guidance on choosing between a coach and a therapist, read my blog How to Choose a Relationship Coach vs A Couples Therapist

3. Fears About Marriage Counseling

Meeting with a marriage counselor on-line or in person is going to bring up a host of fears, anxieties, and yes even some anger.

That is understandable.

You are walking into a vulnerable situation and if you have never worked with a counselor before then all you have to go on is what you have heard from other people and what you have seen on TV and in movies. 

Rest assured, even healthy couples seek out marriage counseling so that they can improve communication between partners, create more positive interactions, and deepen emotional bonds. 

There are three questions that come up all the time when it comes to couples counseling:

  • Will they suggest divorce?
  • How do I know if my marriage is over?
  • Will I be seen as the bad guy or girl?

Do couples therapists ever suggest divorce?

Divorce rates are at an all-time high. However, it is possible to achieve marriage counseling success rather than fearing the counseling experience.

Getting divorced is a huge decision and one that is not to be taken lightly. 

I have not once suggested divorce to any of my clients. I cannot say that is true for all couples therapists. But my general impression is that we are not in the business of making the divorce decision or suggestion to our clients.

Rather, we work from a perspective that it is our job to help clients become clear about which direction they want to go with their life and relationships.

In a paradoxical way, we are not the experts on what's best for our clients, but we are the experts in helping our clients figure what is best for themselves.

If this doesn't make any sense to you not to worry, it wouldn't have made sense to me either years ago before I started on the journey of being a couples therapist.

I know many of the couples are at the brink of divorce by the time they come to see me and while I would love to tell you that every couple walks away happily ever after that is not the reality.

That being said I have had the pleasure of watching many couples grow closer together and either discover for the first time or find their ways back to a place of intimacy and connection with their partner through the process of counseling.

Moreover, not waiting until you are close to divorce, but rather getting help when it feels more like the common cold in your marriage, will make the healing and recovery so much easier.

I personally stand in the position of holding hope for the marriage when the couple has lost sight of hope for their relationship.

At the same time, I realize there are circumstances beyond my control and sometimes awareness that warrant real reasons to end or leave a relationship and if that is the decision either person makes, then I provide them support in that direction.

This is a great question to ask the person you are going to work with. Do you ever recommend divorce and if so in what circumstances.

How can you tell when your marriage is over?

Knowing when a marriage is over is a tricky business as there is often a lot of ambivalence about whether the relationship will work out or fail.

John Gottman , a highly regarded marriage researcher, and counselor points to four attributes that indicate very high predictability of relationships dissolving, especially if they do not get resolved.

These four attributes are:

  • Criticism
  • Defensiveness
  • Stonewalling
  • Contempt.

If you are experiencing these in your relationship it is a clear signal that the relationship is in distress and that professional help will increase your chances of success.

Will I be seen as the bad guy or bad girl?

While good guys and bad guys make for great movies and heroic story-lines, it is not the reality of our marriage and intimate relationships.

I have continually been surprised and learned that even in the most challenging of relationships that neither person is fully good or fully bad. Framing people through a good and bad lens leads to the loss of the complexity of the being human.

As a couples therapist, I am always looking to understand the full complexity of each person and the needs they are trying to get met even sometimes in the most destructive of ways. This is not an open approval of destructive, reckless, and dangerous behavior but rather a recognition that beneath these expressions are attempts to get unmet needs met.

Ultimately, I've found that marriage and couples counseling is extremely helpful to couples. However, the success of our work together is always dependent on the commitment of the couple to the process.

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