Is Marriage Counseling a Good Option for me?


Is marriage counseling a good option for me?  Many people consider getting counseling when they go through difficult times, such as a severe health problem, experience anxiety or depression, or even when adjusting to normal life transitions like the birth or death of a family member. Some research suggests that most people go to counseling to discuss their concerns with their relationships. Marriage counseling can be helpful when couples are experiencing difficult marital problems.

Marriage problems come in all shapes and sizes; they range from feeling a little stuck or stale in the relationship and wanting to tune things up to more intensive problems that may be threatening the marriage. The most common reasons that couples consider marriage counseling are: infidelity, alcohol and drug abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, mental health problems, constant arguing, sexual difficulties, not agreeing over family finances, working too much, division of household chores, blended family issues, chronic health problems, poor communication skills, and loss of romantic feelings.

However, there are times when marriage counseling is probably not a good option, such as when a protective order from a court has been issued, or when your physical and emotional safety are being threatened.  This can be the case with domestic violence. Although marriage counseling can be helpful in some cases where domestic abuse is present, if violence or abuse escalates to the point that you fear for your safety and/or your children’s safety, you should first contact the police, a local shelter, or a crisis center for emergency support. Only then, when it is safe should you consider counseling. You can get more information about this situation from our website here.

How long does marital counseling take and how much does it cost?

The length of counseling will depend on the couple’s needs and problems. Some couples going through a difficult transition may find that just a few sessions is all they need to get back on track, but others may need more time and help overcoming serious problems. The average number of marriage counseling sessions is about 12. Sessions are usually about 1 hour. Often counselors will want to meet once a week.

Because each couple is unique in their needs and problems, the length of treatment and the kind of therapy used will differ. If you are concerned about the length of treatment needed to deal with problems, talk about those concerns with your marriage counselor. Most marriage therapists will be able to share with you a basic treatment plan to give you an idea of how long therapy will last. It is also important to remember that most of the change that couples experience in therapy will happen outside the therapy sessions as assignments or “homework” may be assigned.

Also, if you are concerned about the cost of treatment, bring that up with your counselor too. Marriage counseling sessions can range anywhere between $75.00 to $150.00 dollars (in some metropolitan areas it can be higher than that). However, many marriage counselors offer some of their clients a sliding-fee rate based on income levels. Don’t be afraid to ask if you’re interested in seeing if the rate can be reduced. Some insurance plans may also cover some of the costs associated with marriage counseling. If your employer has an Employee Assistance Program, there is a good chance that you can get some free counseling through that organization.  Contact your human resource office for more information about your company’s EAP.

If you would like more detailed information about marriage counseling, you can find out more at the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) website.

How successful is marriage counseling?

Marriage counseling has positive results for 70% of couples receiving treatment when treatment is offered by a trained marriage therapist. About half of couples who receive marriage counseling say that it helped them resolve all or nearly all of their serious problems. Working with a trained marriage therapist is very important to achieve the best results possible. Many counselors are trained to work with individuals but working with couples is quite different, as the counselor has to balance two different versions of the married couple’s experiences to help them find common ground.

Moreover, remember that in some cases repairing a relationship may not be possible and divorce may be the best option. Counselors can help you make a careful and informed decision about this. However, counselors should never make this decision for you. They are ethically bound to respect the autonomy of their clients regarding client decisions. If a decision to divorce has been made, success can be described as ending a marriage safely and with mutual commitment to cooperative, effective co-parenting. Co-parenting in a cooperative manner is possible when both parents are committed to helping their children adapt to the transitions that accompany divorce.

Several factors impact the success of marriage counseling, such as how early the couple begins therapy, if the kind of therapy chosen is the ideal for their problem, and the willingness of both spouses to work hard to repair their marriage. Working hard to save a marriage requires commitment and communication. In addition, it requires that each person look at her or his own contributions to the marital problems. Once you find the right therapist for your family, stay committed to the treatment plan even when difficulties arise and keep working through the problems.

Positive results also are more likely when you, your spouse, and your counselor communicate honestly and openly with each other. Couples that communicate well with their counselor are more likely to achieve positive results than couples that do not honestly and accurately represent all angles of a couple’s struggles. Open communication and feedback will help you and your counselor know what does and does not work for your marriage and to address concerns you may encounter throughout treatment.

What kinds of counseling options are there and how do I know which one is best for my family?

Research finds that different problems are better treated by different kinds of therapy. It is important that you look for a counselor that is experienced in the treatment that best suits your needs. A well trained marriage counselor will help you choose the best technique for your needs. Communicate with your counselor about your marital problems and find out if he or she has experience working with families in similar situations. Most therapists report taking an “eclectic” approach to couple therapy. This means that the therapist borrows from different treatment approaches to tailor the treatment to the couple’s unique needs. Despite this being a most popular approach to couple therapy, this methodology is not always backed by research. Below we discuss the most common research-based approaches to couples counseling.

Emotion-focused Therapy

Emotion-focused Therapy (EFT) is based on principles from attachment theory. It focuses on couples’ emotions, creating secure safe attachment bonds, resilience, and healthy relationships for couples and families. This kind of counseling has been shown to be effective for couples impacted by:

  • Traumatic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Survivors of severe childhood sexual abuse
  • Past emotional injuries, such as abandonment and betrayal
  • Serious health problems, such as breast cancer

Behavioral Couple Therapy

Behavioral couple therapy (BCT) focuses on helping clients change their behaviors by understanding its influence on the behavior of those around them. The two most used and studied kinds of BCT are integrative behavioral couple therapy (IBCT) and traditional behavioral couple therapy (TBCT).

IBCT – Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy focuses on emotional acceptance and behavioral changes, helping couples recognize ineffective behavior patterns, or the way they interact, that harm their relationship. It also helps couples create new behavior patterns, or ways to interact that are more positive for their relationship.

TBCT – Traditional Behavioral Couple Therapy focuses on developing stronger communication and problem-solving skills.

Both approaches show a significant improvement in couples’ relationships even for distressed couples with serious and chronic problems. The research also shows that many couples are able to sustain relationship improvement many years after treatment.

The Gottman Approach

The Gottman approach emphasizes helping couples form stronger relationships. Couples learn to develop a healthy relationship based on a model called the Sound Relationship House. The Sound Relationship House model is backed by more than forty years of research by the Gottman institute. It focuses on teaching couples to attune to each other’s needs while building their friendship. This approach helps couples grow in trust and commitment while becoming emotionally intelligent couples. Emotionally intelligent couples build a sound relationship house by learning seven principles during therapy, the main one being “Love Maps” – knowing well about each other’s dreams, worries, and past. You can find more about this approach on this website. You can also find a good self-help resource book with interactive exercises that you and your spouse can work on together in Dr. Gotmann’s book “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

Individual Counseling

Generally, marriage counseling is most effective when both spouses participate and are willing to work on the relationships. When a spouse cannot or is not willing to attend counseling, however, individual therapy can still be helpful. In these cases, it is even more important that your counselor has experience in marital counseling. The counselor is still trying to help you repair a relationship but is only getting one perspective. A trained marriage counselor knows how to work with one spouse but keep the other spouse in mind during treatment.

However, when spouses are experiencing domestic violence, research shows group therapy to be more effective than individual therapy in decreasing violence and increasing marital satisfaction.

Discernment Counseling

      Discernment counseling is a new approach that addresses the needs of couples where one member is considering divorce. Often, this involves one spouse who wants a divorce (“leaning out”) while the other spouse wants to work on saving the marriage (“leaning in”). The goal of discernment counseling is not to resolve marital problems right then. Instead, the immediate goal is to clarify what each spouse is thinking, whether there is a desire to work on the relationship, and understand what problems will need to be addressed if spouses decide to work together to repair the marriage. So it is brief counseling for couples to decide if more intensive counseling is what they want. Discernment counseling lasts for a shorter time—usually just a few sessions. If couples decide to try to repair their relationship, they will develop a more extensive treatment plan for counseling to address their problems. Here is a website to learn more about this new approach.

Pastoral (Religious) Counseling

Pastoral counseling from a religious leader is another option that couples may choose to help them achieve their marital goals and address marital problems. Although the research on pastoral counseling is limited, many couples feel that meeting with their religious leader is a useful first step in seeking help because they believe there is a strong spiritual meaning to their marriage. Some clergy members may offer counseling while others may provide their community members with resources and information about marriage counselors and support groups.

What should I look for when choosing a marriage counselor?

There are several factors you may want to consider when you are looking for a counselor. A counselor should have experience and training when offering marital counseling. One study found that 70% of counselors report that they treat couples for marital distress, but only a small proportion of them are trained specifically in working with couples in counseling sessions. Below is a list of tips you can use when you decide to find or are working with a marriage counselor:

  • Find a counselor with specific education, experience, and a license to practice marriage and family counseling.
  • Choose a counselor who is willing to work hard with you to help save your marriage. Some counselors are too quick to give up on your marriage and focus more on helping you divorce cooperatively. Of course, sometimes repairing the marriage is not possible, so then a counselor can work with you to create a better post-marital situation for you and your children.
  • Also, be aware that a marriage counselor should not take sides.
  • Make sure your counselor has a clear plan of action or treatment plan that is followed through.
  • Understand that different types of counseling produce different results.
  • Do not assume that more expensive counseling is necessarily better.

Where can I find a list of reliable professional marriage counselors?

Here are some recommended sites for locating a qualified marriage counselor.

American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy 

Marriage Friendly Therapists

Research used can be found here.



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