Both falling in love and getting married are stressful in their own ways. But you might say that they represent the easy part. It’s maintaining a marriage that can be difficult. Raising children, struggling with finances, working long hours, facing personal struggles — simply learning how to navigate the ups and down of life together can take a toll on any relationship.
It’s no wonder that more than 40% of marriages end in divorce. While it’s true that many marriages just weren’t meant to be — some couples grow apart or realize that they are incompatible, for example — many marriages end because couples don’t have the tools to manage their problems.
Enter: marriage counseling.
What Is Marriage Counseling?
Marriage counseling, or couples therapy, is a kind of counseling that focuses specifically on marriages and relationships. Marriage counselors — usually Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFT) — are specifically trained to help couples diagnose their problems and work on solutions. Marriage counseling is a safe place for couples to hash things out — to talk about what is really on their minds.
Communication is key when it comes to solving marriage problems and marriage counseling is one of the best ways to improve communication skills, come to mutual understandings, and figure out how to move forward as a couple — or amicably end a marriage, if that is the right choice for the couple.
Who Should Seek Marriage Counseling?
There is often a stigma attached to marriage counseling. Many people think that only couples who are about to divorce or split up seek marriage counseling. But the truth is, all marriages have their struggles. Most couples could benefit from marriage counseling at one time or another.
Although it’s called “marriage counseling,” you don’t have to be married to seek marriage counseling. Any couple can seek counseling, regardless of the status of their relationship. Marriage counseling is for straight couples, gay couples, couples of all races, and couples who have less traditional relationship set-ups (long distance; open marriages; married, but not living together). You can go to marriage counseling whether you are just starting out or have been married for 40 years. Many couples even seek marriage counseling before tying the knot.
Again, there are really no restrictions on why you might consider marriage counseling. Any struggle that you don’t feel like you can solve on your own — or could benefit from a trained, objective, unbiased perspective — can be helped by a few sessions of marriage counseling.
Still, there are some specific issues that typically prompt couples to seek counseling, including:
- Couples who feel like they have the same fight over and over and it’s hard to see eye to eye or come up with a solution.
- Couples who disagree about parenting, financial, or lifestyle choices.
- Couples who feel that household responsibilities are unequal and can’t figure out how to effectively communicate about this or come up with solutions.
- Couples who feel that they have lost sexual or romantic chemistry.
- Couples who feel like their marriage is on auto-pilot.
- Couples who feel unheard or who feel like their partner is emotionally unavailable.
- Couples who have experienced a recent tragedy or loss and are having trouble processing it together.
- Couples who are dealing with substance abuse, infidelity, or mental health issues.
What Happens During Marriage Counseling?
Most marriage counselors encourage both partners to be present at counseling sessions. This is the most effective way for marriage counseling to work because the counselor wants to see how you communicate and offer you both tools for improved communication. However, if your partner feels reluctant to come, or is unable to for some reason, you can attend marriage counseling alone. There can still be benefits for you: you can learn about yourself, and how you feel about your relationship.
Like most therapy sessions, marriage counseling isn’t always going to be emotionally comfortable. Marriage counseling is a safe place for you to share some of the feelings that aren’t always out in the open, and that can be difficult for you and your partner. It’s common for marriage counseling to include intense emotions, some crying, and probably a few raised voices. That’s common and okay.
Your therapist wants to create a space where both your and your partner have their feelings validated, where you can “let it out,” but also where you can come away with instructions for how to work on your communication and tips for solving problems moving forward.
Most marriage counseling is short-term, as couples are usually going in with a specific problem they are looking to solve. Marriage counseling also tends to be very practical. You might even leave the session with “homework,” or specific tactics to try next time your issue comes up.
How To Start Marriage Counseling
For the most part, you and your partner both have to be willing to start marriage counseling for it to be effective. If your partner seems reluctant, many marriage counselors will agree to see each partner individually first. This way, each person feels they can tell their side of the story without criticism from their partner. You might also be able to entice your partner into going by saying that you are just going to try one session together, without a bigger commitment.
The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy is a great place to start when looking for a marriage counselor. The AAMFT website keeps a list of licensed marriage and family therapists, and you can find one in your area.
Online couples therapy is a fantastic solution for couples who don’t have the lifestyle to commit to in-person therapy, who find the costs associated with therapy prohibitive, or who are reluctant to try more traditional therapy. Couples who travel frequently, work long hours, or who have small children and few childcare options, will find online marriage counseling beneficial.
Not only is online therapy just as effective as in-person therapy — all marriage counselors at Talkspace, for example, are licensed and experienced therapists — but online therapy can be wonderful for someone who is nervous about in-person therapy or who has never been to therapy before. Online therapy is conducted via text messaging, audio, and video messaging and many people find it more comfortable to communicate in writing than in person. They may find it therapeutic to be allowed a little extra time to respond to their partner or therapist’s messages.
Whatever form of marriage counseling you are looking for, you want to make sure the marriage counselor is someone you trust, who is positive, open-minded, solution-oriented, and who treats you both with compassion. You should feel free to “shop around” until you find a marriage counselor who meets your expectations.
Does Marriage Counseling Work?
Statistics about marriage counseling are promising. According to research from the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), 98% of couples who try marriage counseling report that their therapists are either “excellent” or “good.” Of couples who try marriage counseling, 90% feel that their emotional health improves, and two-thirds report improvements in their physical health.
And perhaps the most important statistic of all: up to three-fourths of couples see improvements in their relationships after marriage counseling.
Marriage, like anything else, requires work and maintenance. For many couples, marriage counseling is just the thing that helps them move through their struggles and endure as a couple. Marriage counseling may not always be easy, especially at first, but your marriage is worth the work.