Can Marriage Counseling Help? How Can I Choose a Good Counselor?

People who are thinking about divorce should consider seeing a licensed marriage and family therapist. Studies show that 80% of couples see some improvement in their relationship after visiting a marriage counselor.  Forty to fifty percent say almost all of their major problems were resolved. Unfortunately, other surveys suggest that only about half who divorce get marital counseling.

Dr. William J. Doherty, a marriage scholar and therapist, argues that just as it is wrong for someone not to seek treatment for a life-threatening physical illness when there is a reasonable chance for a cure, it is wrong not to seek help to overcome relationship problems that threaten the marriage.

How can I choose a good counselor?

If you decide to try marriage counseling, it is important to find the right counselor to work with you. Not all therapists are created equal when it comes to dealing with problems that threaten a marriage. Here are some tips on choosing a counselor or therapist and getting the most out of marriage therapy:

    • Find a therapist with specific education, experience, and a license to practice marriage and family therapy. Ask potential therapists if they received formal education and supervised training in couple or marriage therapy. Also, ask what percentage of the therapist’s work is with couples.
    • Choose a counselor or therapist who is committed to helping you save your marriage. Ask potential therapists about their views of marriage and divorce. Ask what they would choose between saving a troubled marriage and suggesting a couple separate. An excellent resource for finding a good marriage therapist is the National Registry of Marriage Friendly Therapists (
    • Make sure your counselor or therapist has a clear plan of action that is followed through. Effective marital therapy requires structure and direction. If counseling sessions do not seem to be going anywhere, consider a new therapist.
    • Understand that different types of counseling or therapy produce different results. To achieve long-term results, therapy should focus on changing emotions and thoughts, rather than just teaching communication and other skills. If a therapist seems to focus only on changing what you should do (e.g., go on more date nights, bring her flowers), without also emphasizing the need to hear how your partner feels so that you can change how you feel and think in the relationship, the positive benefits may not last.
    • Do not assume that more expensive counseling or therapy is better. Just because a therapist requires a higher fee does not mean you are getting better therapy.
    • Consider working with religious leaders or counselors. Many people prefer to work with religious leaders or counselors because they are more confident that they will share similar values. However, not all religious leaders have the training and experience to effectively counsel married couples, so the considerations listed above should also be applied to religious counselors.
    • Stick with it. The couples that show the most improvement in therapy are those that stick with it. Often couples see improvement early on in the therapy process, and so they quit because they do not think they need any more help. But often it takes longer-term therapy to truly get to the heart of couples’ problems.
  • One-partner therapy can be effective. While having both husband and wife together in therapy is usually ideal, if one partner cannot or will not attend, therapy can still be beneficial to the couple. If only one partner will be attending therapy, it is even more important that the therapist is committed to your marriage and is experienced in couple therapy.

There are many websites that can help you locate a marriage and family counselor:

  • American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy lists marriage and family therapy training programs at universities around at the country. At these locations, you may be able to meet with a therapist-in-training for a discounted rate.
  • Discernment Counseling is a new kind of short-term counseling for couples on the brink of divorce. It focuses on helping couples arrive at a place of clarity and confidence in determining the future of their relationship. This website can help you locate a discernment counselor near you.
  • National Registry of Marriage Friendly Therapists lists therapists who have the highest training standard in the country, and who are committed to working very hard to repair marriages before exploring the possibility of divorce.
  • Retrouvaille is a program sponsored by the Roman Catholic church (but open to all) which seeks to save marriages from a faith-based perspective. It is taught by couples who once had serious problems but successfully avoided divorce.
  • Therapist Locator lists licensed marriage and family therapists around the county.

Here is an exercise to think more about marriage counseling.