Everything You Need to Know About Marriage Counseling

Published on: 11 Mar 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW

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.

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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.

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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. Online LGBTQ therapy can also be beneficial to couples facing issues in their relationship that are unique to the LGBTQIA+ community.

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.

Do marriage counselors recommend divorce?

Marriage counselors typically will not recommend a divorce; they will keep their personal opinions to themselves. Marriage counselors tend to believe that only the partners involved can morally make that decision. In an abusive relationship, although most therapists still won’t recommend a divorce, they will, of course, help the victim separate themselves and find help.

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.

How do I convince my husband to go to couples counseling?

Suggesting couples counseling to your spouse can be intimidating, especially when you don’t know how they’ll react. The most important thing is to be honest and communicative with your partner by clearly explaining your motives. Don’t place any blame on them, rather, state that you love them and simply wish to work on strengthening the relationship. Many people think that you only go to a marriage counselor to fix a broken marriage, but you can explain that marriage counseling can be used as a preventative measure as well. Marriage counseling offers valuable tools to help maintain your marriage long-term.

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.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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Commonly Asked Questions

Many people believe that only couples who are about to divorce or split up seek marriage counseling. But in reality, all marriages can benefit from counseling. Being in a successful relationship is hard and requires regular maintenance; sometimes having an unbiased person involved is incredibly beneficial. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be married to seek marriage counseling. Any couple, regardless of their relationship status, can choose to attend counseling. There are no restrictions on why you might try out marriage counseling. Any issue that you feel like you and your partner can’t solve — or could be helped with a trained, objective, unbiased perspective — can benefit from a few sessions of marriage counseling.

Marriage counseling is a safe place for you and your partner to work through your problems and share feelings that you might not have previously communicated. It is common for marriage counseling to include intense emotions, a bit of crying, and likely some raised voices. Your therapist will create a space where you can both voice your feelings and concerns, while providing you with practical solutions to improve your communication and problem solving techniques in the future.

Marriage counseling is all about being open and honest. Don’t worry about filtering yourself too much, your therapist will work to create a safe space for you to voice your feelings. There are no hard rules about marriage counseling, just be respectful and honest, and be able to listen to your therapist or partner when they are the ones speaking.

Couples choose to separate for a variety of reasons whether it be a step in the divorce process, in order to gain perspective, or to enhance their marriage. A separation to enhance the marriage can be helpful if you and your spouse feel like the marriage would benefit from some time apart. If while you are separated, you feel you want to work on the marriage, here are some things that might help:

  • Don’t talk to too many people about the situation, everyone will have an opinion and it’s best to figure out this personal matter alone or with a therapist.
  • Speak openly and honestly about how you’re feeling with your spouse.
  • Set some ground rules. For example, how often will you communicate with each other?
  • Make sure you and your spouse are aligned with your goals for this experience.

Being separated from your spouse might be exactly what you both need in order to clarify your perspectives on the relationship and hopefully the time apart will give you more tools to build a strong relationship. Definitely consider speaking to a marriage counselor about this decision for more advice specifically tailored to your relationship.

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