A Guide to Marriage Counseling

Have you ever been in the midst of a conflict with your significant other and thought, “Wow, this is going very, very badly”? You wish that you could rewind, start over, reset. You wish that you had taken a deep breath, counted to 10, chosen your words better. You don’t know why you reacted the way you did. You don’t know why your partner felt so triggered. And now you don’t know how to heal the emotional wounds that were inflicted in the heat of the moment. 

Every couple fights blindly like this sometimes, carried away by vestigial feelings and learned patterns of behavior. You and your spouse may have the same conflicts over and over again without finding resolution. You may butt heads over seemingly insignificant things. You may hurt each unintentionally–or intentionally. Because for better or worse, great love and great pain often coexist in the most tender, sensitive regions of our souls. And sometimes an expert is required to help our love and our pain renegotiate their living arrangements. That’s the role of an exceptional marriage counselor.

What Is Marriage Counseling?

Marriage counseling, a form of relationship counseling or couples therapy, helps married couples work through their problems and improve their relationships. This type of therapy can also help couples breathe new life into their relationships and reinforce the reasons that brought them together in the first place.

Counselors who specialize in relationships, such as licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs), lead this type of therapy. They are often referred to as marriage counselors or couples therapists and they have the expert knowledge and training to help married couples achieve their goals.

Many different couples seek marriage counseling. Counselors can help intimate partners who have been married for a year or two, as well as those who have been married for 50 years. They can also facilitate pre-wedding discussions during premarital counseling sessions. In all cases, these relationship experts will listen to and try to understand individual and relationship concerns. Then, they will design a course of evidence-based treatment for your therapy sessions.

What Is the Success Rate of Marriage Counseling? Is Marriage Counseling Really Effective?

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) reports that after the completion of therapy, almost 90% of clients notice improvements in their emotional health, and over 75% of partners feel enhancements in their relationship. Numerous research studies on marriage counseling have also shown dramatic, positive outcomes. The American Psychological Association reports that emotionally-focused therapy (EFT)–a modern, empirically proven approach that many licensed marriage and family therapists employ in counseling sessions–is about 75% effective. And this is true for high-stress couples and across different cultures

The overall efficacy of marriage counseling can also be influenced by timing (early intervention is best), motivation to change, and openness to the process. Most couples only need about 12 sessions to get the results they were looking for. 

How do you measure the success of marriage counseling? Researchers can compare a couple’s pre-counseling complaints and post-counseling complaints using a questionnaire called the Dyadic Adjustment Scale (DAS). According to this scale, relationship improvements are significant even several years after the completion of emotionally-focused couples therapy. 

What Does a Marriage Counselor Do?

A professional marriage counselor can play many roles: facilitator, listener, teacher, arbiter, challenger, and much more. A marriage counselor has extensive training in communication skills, emotional attachment, and relationship dynamics in couples. They can help root out unspoken issues and strengthen existing bonds through asking the right questions and offering compassionate insights. Here’s a further rundown of what a marriage counselor does and doesn’t do:

  • It’s not a counselor’s job to take sides, but it is their job to ensure that conversations are fair and that partners don’t bully, drown out, or dominate each other during therapy sessions.
  • It’s not a counselor’s job to judge people and their actions, but it is their job to help clients understand why they might behave the way they do and who their behavior might be hurting. 
  • It’s not a counselor’s job to tell a couple they should get divorced, but it is their job to help partners achieve emotional clarity. 
  • It’s not a counselor’s job to tell clients what they should do, but it is their job to offer them more adaptive, healthy pathways to wellbeing. 
  • It’s not a counselor’s job to change people, but it is their job to suggest potential compromises and alternative behaviors.
  • It’s not a counselor’s job to treat mental health disorders or give medical advice, but it is their job to refer clients to the proper resources if there’s a psychiatric issue contributing to the couple’s problems. 
  • It’s not a counselor’s job to prevent all conflicts, but it is their job to remind couples that ultimately they are a team. 

What Type of Issues Can Relationship Counseling Help Solve?

Couples seek the skilled and compassionate guidance of marriage counselors for a wide variety of issues in the realms of life and love. It’s not necessary to have an acute problem to benefit from counseling, however. Many married couples come to therapy sessions in order to strengthen or maintain what’s already working for them. That being said, direct problem-solving can be a major part of a typical LMFT’s job description. Couples may seek professional counseling to help with the following issues:

  • Jealousy
  • Opposing values
  • Repeated conflicts
  • Different visions for the future
  • Life transitions (empty nest syndrome, new parenthood, etc.)
  • Substance abuse
  • Allocation of household responsibilities 
  • Mental health issues
  • Emotional distance/detachment
  • Trauma, grief, or loss
  • Disagreements in parenting
  • Lack of trust
  • Financial distress
  • Sex or intimacy issues
  • Lifestyle differences
  • Infidelity

Common Marital Problems Discussed in Therapy

Every day, couples discover that marriage counseling improves their relationships. This is often a short-term, yet valuable process. If you and your spouse pursue marriage counseling, you can expect to work with your counselor on your specific issues. Chances are, though, that you and your spouse are experiencing common marital problems. These include:

1) Infidelity or trust issues

If you or your spouse has been unfaithful, your relationship is likely suffering. This is a difficult challenge to work through but can be best addressed with the help of a marriage counselor. Your therapist will help you open up about the infidelity as well as the resulting trust issues and determine what you need from each other moving forward.

2) Sex issues or lack of intimacy

Another common problem in a marriage or any relationship is lack of intimacy. Physical intimacy is important in long-term relationships and can lead to other problems if it isn’t addressed. Your marriage counselor will be happy to talk to you about your sex issues. They can also help you become more intimate on an emotional level. This might involve having honest, empathetic conversations that help you reconnect with your spouse.

3) Opposing values or beliefs

It is also common for couples to have opposing values or beliefs, some of which can feel too important to compromise. In these instances, the couple might decide that they are better off apart. However, if you are married, you likely knew about your opposing values and beliefs before you said, “I do.” In this case, a counselor can help you find common ground or develop a plan for having productive conversations about your differing views.

4) Stress at home and work

Stress is present in every individual’s life. However, when it becomes overwhelming, it can damage relationships. If you and/or your spouse are experiencing an overwhelming amount of stress at home or at work, you might benefit from couples counseling.

Professional counseling can help you identify your stressors and develop healthy ways to cope with them side by side. Your counselor might determine a need for one-on-one sessions with one partner if the stress is especially prevalent in their life. Additionally, if the whole family is involved, you might benefit from both marriage and family therapy.

5) Communication problems

Most couples experience communication problems at one point or another. Fortunately, a marriage counselor can help you work on conflict resolution and developing effective communication skills. They can also help you and your partner identify what subject matters might trigger communication issues. For example, if you feel uncomfortable or reactive talking about certain subjects, you can learn to develop a specific plan for better navigating those conversations. 

How Does Marriage Counseling Work?

Many people are intimidated when they first start counseling. We want to assure you that choosing to work with a qualified marriage counselor is a smart decision that can not only enhance relationships but individual emotional health as well. Counseling can help many different couples, including the following:

  • Couples who are suffering from severe financial stress
  • Couples who are struggling to have productive conversations
  • Couples who are lacking that physical intimacy and connection
  • Couples who feel overwhelmed by responsibilities at home or at work
  • Couples who feel like their marriage has lost that spark
  • Couples who are dealing with fertility issues
  • Couples who can’t seem to agree on anything
  • Couples who disagree about parenting styles

If you and your spouse are thinking about pursuing marriage counseling, you might be wondering how it works. Professional therapists will begin by asking you about your treatment goals. You should disclose any challenges or concerns you have about your marriage. This will allow them to best help you. Based on your ongoing feedback, your counselor can design your individual therapy experience around your specific needs. They might utilize various therapeutic techniques, including emotionally-focused couples therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and the Gottman Method.

In each session, you and your partner will work with your therapist to overcome the obstacles in your relationship. You will also work to improve crucial aspects of any relationship, including your conflict resolution, coping, and communication skills. Remember, therapy is a safe space for you, your partner, and your relationship.