Does Marriage Counseling Work?

does marriage counseling work

Consumer’s Guide to Marriage Therapy with Five Tips

By: John D. Moore, Ph.D.

 

Let’s face it – the decision to enter marriage counseling isn’t made lightly. There are likely a number of reasons you are contemplating couples counseling. Maybe there are communication problems in your marriage. Perhaps there is a lack of intimacy, be it physical, emotional or both. Cheating may have taken place, which is also referred to as infidelity.

Regardless of the reasons behind your desire to seek out therapy, you want to know the answer to this essential question: Does marriage counseling work?

This brief article will explore the topic of marriage counseling and assess the potential benefits. Along the way, I will offer five real world tips for your and your spouse to think about as you consider therapy for your relationship. A short video has been included. At the end of this article, you will also discover the answer to the question, does marriage counseling work.

Marriage Counseling Information

What follows is real, honest and raw. It’s also devoid of the clinical jargon. Some may not agree with what appears here, particularly other therapists. That’s just fine. My goal however is to help you make the best choices for your marriage counseling needs and to help you maximize your chances for success during couples counseling. Included are several cautionary notes to consider when looking around for a marriage therapist, which I hope you find useful.

As you read this article, keep in mind that the terms “marriage counseling” and “couples counseling” are used interchangeably. The information that appears here is applicable to opposite sex or same sex couples.

OK … moving on …

Before answering the question, “Does marriage counseling work?” it is important to understand what marriage counseling is and what it is not.

Let’s jump right in!

What is marriage counseling?

At its core, marriage counseling is a type of therapy where a married couple works with a therapist (aka psychotherapist) to identify, discuss, explore and hopefully resolve different issues happening within a relationship.

Marriage counseling is designed to “treat” the marriage, meaning that the relationship itself is in psychotherapy. Part of the therapeutic process involves identifying what is working right in the relationship and building upon the good.

Effective marriage counseling is goal focused and solution oriented.

What marriage counseling is not

Many people think marriage counseling offers an opportunity to point out a spouses flaws or “gang up on” a husband or wife regarding a given set of issues. People who think this are simply wrong. Effective marriage counseling is about finding common ground and exploring relational strengths, which in turn can be used to focus on challenge areas.

If you are looking enter into marriage counseling as a platform to go off on your husband/wife, I will be blunt with you – therapy isn’t going to work.

While it is understandable that you may be angry at your spouse regarding their behaviors (i.e. infidelity, emotional neglect. selfishness), it is important to keep in mind that meaningful marriage counseling is about building and healing – not punishing.

Catharsis is a normal and healthy part of the marriage counseling process and is often encouraged by the therapist. The word catharsis is a twenty-five cent word used to describe emotional cleansing.

couples counseling work

Marriage Counseling Tips

Before picking up the phone to call a marriage therapist, consider the following tips. The suggestions offered here are based on my personal experience as a counselor, combined with the feedback of other professionals who have successfully helped clients work through various marital issues.

Tip #1: Both people need to agree to counseling

This tip may seem obvious but it is worth mentioning here. Marriage counseling only works if both people involved in the marriage are emotionally present. This means that both parties in the relationship have discussed the topic of couples therapy and have jointly agreed to work with a therapist to address relational challenges.

All too often, a person will make an appointment for marriage counseling without first discussing it with their spouse. This is a big mistake. Why is this mistake? Simply because you run the risk of causing your spouse to feel blind-sided, potentially creating a situation where they feel like they are being “dragged” into therapy. Whatever you do, make sure that you have a real conversation about couples counseling with your spouse before making an appointment.

A good way to get the ball rolling on the topic of marriage counseling is for both you and your spouse to complete the relationship report card. Think of this as a tool that can be used as a conduit for greater dialogue.

Note of caution: Let me say here that your spouse may initially dismiss the idea of couples therapy out of hand and even become defensive. This is very normal. This kind of reaction also demonstrates the importance of talking in advance about therapy so that the both of you are “on board” so to speak. It may take time for your husband/wife to warm up to the idea of couples counseling so be prepared to re-visit the topic at a later date.

Important: If your spouse is adamant about not attending marriage counseling, do not try to force the issue. At this point, you may want to consider counseling for yourself as a way of having a safe space to explore your relationship issues with a neutral, confidential and supportive third party (aka a therapist). As mentioned earlier, “dragging” your spouse to therapy is not a good idea.

If your spouse seems responsive to the idea of marriage counseling, it’s time to move on to tip #2.

Tip #2: Identify goals for marriage therapy

Identifying basic goals of couples counseling with your spouse before entering into therapy is critical to the successful outcome of counseling process. A goal can be as simple as, “improving communications” or as complex as, “increasing sexual intimacy”.

The idea here is to have some concrete things that both of you want to work on with a therapist. If both of you have the same goals – great! If you have different goals, that is fine too. In fact, different goals can be a positive sign because they demonstrate differing views about the state of the marriage.

What’s important is that both of you know what you want to get out of the counseling experience. If possible, talk about these goals in advance. It will save you both time and money down the road.

Tip #3: Choose an interactive and direct therapist

There is just no way that I can get into specific details about all of the different modalities therapists use in marriage counseling in one article. What I can share is that choosing a therapist that is interactive and direct will likely most likely yield optimal results. There are a few key phrases I want to draw your attention to in your search for the right marriage therapist.

  • Cognitive Behaviordoes couples counseling work?
  • Positive Psychology
  • Solution Focused
  • Goal Oriented
  • Strength Based

The reason I have mentioned cognitive behavior, which is a counseling approach focused on what is commonly referred to as “here and now” therapy is simply this – cognitive behavior therapists focus on irrational, unhealthy and unproductive thoughts, beliefs and patterns. They also use a goal oriented, strength based approach to create change.

Positive psychology is somewhat similar to cognitive therapy, sharing the characteristics of being strength based and goal focused. Positive psychology is also concerned with what is happening in the “here and now”. This particular approach also uses mindfulness based cognitive behavior therapy.

Several marriage techniques borrow from these kinds of approaches, including emotionally focused couples therapy and Imago therapy.

While it is not necessary for your couples therapist to identify as a strict “Cognitive Behavior Therapist” or a “Positive Psychology Therapist”, it is important that the therapist be integrative in their approach, meaning they borrow from different schools of psychology (i.e. cognitive and positive schools” in the work they do with clients. Research has shown that integrative counseling yields the best results for clients.

Note of caution: Be leery of any therapist who subscribes to one therapeutic modality or “frame”. I will make it simple to understand here using an analogy. If your car has an engine problem, it will require more than one tool to “fix” the issue. If your marriage needs repair, it will likely need more than one approach/technique to heal the damage.

Bottom line – the therapeutic modality a couples counselor takes with clients matters and it matters big-time.

Tip #4: Ask Questions

This particular tip relates some of what has been previously mentioned but offers a bit of an expansion. It is important to ask questions of the marriage therapist you are thinking of working with in order to make sure it is a good “fit”. Obvious questions you want to ask about include the counselor’s experience and credentials. There are however things you will want to be aware of that are important. I have included these under notes of caution.

Notes of caution:

Don’t believe the hype

I would run from any marriage therapist or couples counselor that claims to have a success rate tied to a percentage (i.e. 90% success rate with couples). Not only is it unethical to make a claim like this it is most likely bogus. Common sense informs us that if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Think about it – are you always 90% successful at your job?

Sadly, there are more than a few therapists that bill themselves as “marriage counselors” who couples marriage counseling chicagoknow people are at a very vulnerable point in their relationship, using emotionally charged words, combined with wild promises, in order to appeal to a potential client’s sense of desperation.

If you really are curious about working with a relationship specialist that claims a high rate of success, I encourage you to ask them, what does success mean?

Be leery of high therapist client loads

Let me start by saying it is perfectly OK to ask the person you are considering for couples counseling how many clients they are seeing weekly. If the therapist refuses to tell you the answer to this question, hides behind words like “boundaries” or asks, why do you need to know that – be prepared to move on!

Why am I saying this?

Well, think about it – if a marriage counselor is seeing 25+ couples a week, how on earth can that person possibly be psychologically and emotionally available to assist your marriage? The last thing you want is to be on a conveyer belt. Realistically speaking, look for a couples therapist who see less than 20 couples a week. This is not a hard and fast number but a center point for contemplation.

Be leery of discounts

This is a point that many therapists may take issue with but I am offering here I am going to say it anyway – be careful of marriage therapists that offer deep discounts.

Many couples counselors will offer a discounted rate for initial appointments in order to attract new clients. While this is an understandable business practice, it also sets up a dynamic where you as the consumer are expecting something at a lesser cost from the onset.

Think about these two questions carefully: Why is the therapist offering deep discounts? AND How will you feel after the discount ends and you are paying the full fee for the remaining sessions?

If you are paying out of pocket and not using insurance, be prepared to pay $125 – $250.00 per visit on average, depending upon your geographic location.

Bonus tip: If your financial situation is such that you are unable to pay the full amount for marriage therapy, consider working with a community counseling agency or a therapist who offers a sliding fee. FYI: Most therapists who see clients on a sliding scale do so during daytime hours. Evening and weekend appointments are considered “prime-time” slots for counselors and are usually filled with full-fee clients.

I recognize this is a very delicate subject but you are reading this article because you want the real deal. Keep these items in mind in your search for a marriage counselor.

Tip 5: Don’t Expect Miracles

Many people engage in wishful thinking when it comes to marriage counseling, believing that thegay couples counseling therapist can wave a magic wand and somehow “fix” all that is wrong within a marriage. It doesn’t help when there are counselors who suggest “instant results” or “quick fixes”.

Here is the real deal – therapists are not miracle workers. In fact, they are no different than you with the exception that many are gifted and highly skilled in helping couples resolve conflict.

Sure, therapists have lots of training and know all about different couples techniques but the bottom line is they do not possess supernatural powers. The number of sessions required to work through your marital issues in large part depends upon what is happening in your relationship.

Speaking with averages only, some couples require only a few sessions, such as 5-6. Other couples require more intensive, frequent visits (10 or more). Again, how long you will be in therapy depends upon the issues.

Note of caution:

Be leery of any marriage counselor or couples counseling group that advertises their services using the words “top couples counselor” or “expert”. Very few people on planet earth are experts at anything when you think about it. More important, making these kinds of claims sets up the expectation that your unique marital issues can be somehow magically “healed” by the therapist, which leads me to this final point …and one that may be difficult to hear. …marriage counseling does not always work. Yep, I said that and a good couples counselor will advise you of this from the very beginning.

Tip 5: Don’t Expect Miracles

Many people engage in wishful thinking when it comes to marriage counseling, believing that the therapist can wave a magic wand and somehow “fix” all that is wrong within a marriage. It doesn’t help when there are counselors who suggest “instant results” or “quick fixes”.

Here is the real deal – therapists are not miracle workers. In fact, they are no different than you does marriage therapy workwith the exception that many are gifted and highly skilled in helping couples resolve conflict.

Sure, therapists have lots of training and know all about different couples techniques but the bottom line is they do not possess supernatural powers. The number of sessions required to work through your marital issues in large part depends upon what is happening in your relationship.

Speaking with averages only, some couples require only a few sessions, such as 5-6. Other couples require more intensive, frequent visits (10 or more). Again, how long you will be in therapy depends upon the issues.

Note of caution:

Be leery of any marriage counselor or couples counseling group that advertises there services using the words “top couples counselor” or “expert”. Very few people on planet earth are experts at anything when you think about it. More important, making these kinds of claims sets up the expectation that your unique marital issues can be somehow magically “healed” by the therapist, which leads me to this final point …and one that may be difficult to hear. …marriage counseling does not always work. Yep, I said that and a good couples counselor will advise you of this from the very beginning.

Summary

You have read this article because you want to know does marriage counseling work? The simple does couples counseling helpanswer is YES it can … but (there’s always a but) it requires both individuals to be emotionally involved, open to feedback and motivated towards change. The outcome also depends upon the skills of the therapist, coupled with that counselor’s ability to adapt to the relational dynamics and interact.

I have seen many couples over the years benefit greatly from marriage counseling. Some relationships that were once considered totally hopeless were transformed into new beginnings. Others were able to infuse intimacy and passion back into an otherwise emotionally dead marriage. In these situations, success was measured by the couples willingness to embrace change.

And sadly … I’ve also seen some marriages fail.

In many of these cases, failure happened because the hurts were too deep or two people got married too quickly without truly getting to know one another (which is why premarital counseling is a good idea!). Other reasons for failure can be attributed to one or both parties being resistant to owning personal behaviors or an inability to change.

We cannot give what we do not possess – if a couple does not have the ability to change, no amount of therapy is going to make that relationship transform.

At any rate, I want you to know that marriage counseling does work, but not for everyone. It is possible to heal the wounds in your marriage with the help of a couples counselor however, both parties need to be emotionally invested and want to resolve issues.

Hopefully this article was useful to you. Thank you for taking the time to read!

John D. Moore, PhD is founder of 2nd Story Counseling, a Chicago based therapy and wellness education on Chicago’s Northside. As a subsidiary of 2nd Story, Dr. Moore developed the Couples Counseling Center. He is a licensed therapist, a board certified drug and alcohol counselor and approved clinical supervisor.