Can Free Couples Counseling Replace Professional Help?

Updated November 29, 2023by Regain Editorial Team

When you run into challenges with your long-term partner, getting help from someone outside the relationship can often be a good idea. A neutral party may be able to give you objective advice and act as a neutral mediator. Many people choose couples therapy for this purpose, but others prefer to look for free, informal options like help from family members or support groups. Are these free couples counseling options enough, or do you need a licensed therapist?

Free resources can often be a valuable source of support for those on a limited budget, and a couple who are determined to improve their relationship may be able to make a lot of progress with this type of help. However, couples counseling from a trained mental health professional offers several advantages that other options lack. We’ll discuss the pros and cons of the most common free couples counseling options.

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Why Seek Couples Counseling? 

Before you decide what kind of relationship assistance is right for you, it may be helpful to think about what you’re trying to achieve. There are several potential benefits that can come from getting outside help with your partnership or marriage:

  • New ways of communicating. Many problems between partners may spring from misunderstandings and unhelpful communication styles. Someone who’s not involved in the relationship may be able to suggest new, more productive ways to approach important discussions.
  • Identifying counterproductive dynamics. It can be hard for couples to see the habitual behaviors that are straining the connection between them. These problems may be easier to see from an outside perspective.
  • Mediation of disputes. It’s rare for couples to agree on everything, and their strong emotional attachments may lead to heated arguments. A counselor who’s not invested in the outcome of a disagreement may be able to provide a calming, stabilizing voice.
  • Uncovering hidden issues. In many cases, the most important causes of dissatisfaction in a long-term relationship can go unsaid for years. Couples counseling can often bring these issues into the open where they can be addressed.
  • Strengthening intimacy and affection. Do you feel like the emotional or physical spark has gone out of your relationshi? Couples counseling often involves shared exercises that may help rekindle your feelings of love, intimacy, and attraction.

How Helpful Are Free Couples Counseling And Advice?

Many couples may feel unsure if they can afford therapy from a formally trained couples counselor. There are several less costly alternatives, but do they provide the same benefits? We’ll review the strengths and weaknesses of several common options for low-cost or free couples counseling.

Self-Help Materials

We live in the age of the YouTube tutorial, and free advice on dating and marriage is just as easy to find on the Internet as makeup tips or home improvement videos. There’s no shortage of videos, podcasts, questionnaires, and exercises you can use to try to strengthen your bond. If you’re willing to spend a little bit, you can also buy published self-help books and other content.

Pros:

  • Go at your own pace and work easily around your joint schedules
  • It’s anonymous, which may feel more comfortable than discussing your relationship with a stranger
  • You can return to these resources if you run into difficulties again in the future

Cons:

  • There’s no outside accountability, so you and your partner will be responsible for reminding yourself to keep doing the work
  • The advice you get won’t be personalized to your needs and situation
  • You won’t have the advantage of a neutral party who can mediate conflicts and point out the things you can’t see for yourself
  • Little to no quality control — you’ll have to do your own research and rely on user reviews to figure out if you’re getting good advice

Family Members Or Close Friends

It’s common for people to turn to those closest to them when troubles arise in their romantic relationships. If you know someone that both of you trust and respect, you may want to get their perspective on what’s going on between you. 

Pros:

  • Less to explain — this person may know you well and be familiar with your relationship dynamics, your values, and any relevant factors in your personal history
  • They’re likely to be strongly motivated to help you restore a happy partnership
  • You can feel confident in your opinion about this person’s judgment

Cons:

  • This person might have preconceived ideas about you or your partner
  • It can be hard to guarantee objectivity and neutrality, and if one party feels “ganged up on”, it may make things worse
  • There may be details you don’t want to share with someone you know, such as past infidelity or details of your sex life — but concealing these things can greatly reduce the effectiveness of counseling
  • Repeated exposure to your relationship conflicts could be emotionally exhausting for your friend or relative
  • Because they’re not being paid, they may be less willing to continue counseling you over the long term

Clergy Members And Religious Resources

If you participate in a religious tradition, your local place of worship may offer free resources for couples. This type of counseling may be performed by a member of the clergy, such as a priest, rabbi, or spiritual teacher — this is often called pastoral counseling. Alternatively, the service may be provided by a lay volunteer, or there may be scheduled group discussions among members of your congregation.

Pros:

  • Your counselor is likely to be more objective than a family member or friend
  • Some studies suggest that religious patients might benefit more from couples therapy that aligns with their spiritual perspectives and values
  • You’ll likely be working with a person who has experience (and possibly some formal training) in helping with relationship issues

Cons:

  • Likely not a viable option for non-religious or interfaith couples
  • Discussing certain aspects of your relationship with a member of your spiritual community can be uncomfortable
  • Some religious counselors may endorse potentially harmful ideas about topics like LGBTQ sexuality or partner abuse. Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) if you need help with an abusive or controlling relationship

Peer Support Groups

You may also be able to find groups of other couples who meet to discuss their relationship struggles, offering mutual support and advice. These programs are generally free or donation-based and may be very helpful for some people.

Pros:

  • Hear from other couples about what has and hasn’t worked for them
  • Can provide a sense of community, belonging, and encouragement

Cons:

  • Not always easy to find groups in your area
  • Interpersonal dynamics can vary a lot from group to group
  • Sharing time with other couples means less focus on your relationship

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Why Professional Couples Counseling May Be A Better Choice

Counseling from a licensed therapist can offer some unique advantages that the free options above can’t provide. Perhaps the most important is that professional couples counselors are trained in evidence-based techniques that have demonstrated effectiveness in both controlled trials and everyday practice. Current research suggests that 70% or more of couples who receive professional counseling experience positive results.

Licensed couples therapists generally hold advanced degrees and have completed thousands of hours of supervised counseling work. This often includes training in treating mental and behavioral health challenges. For instance, many studies have found that couples therapy works better than individual therapy for substance use disorders. If mental illness is contributing to your relationship difficulties, you’re likely to receive more effective care from a professional counselor.

Another advantage is that the relationship between you and a paid couples counselor can be strictly professional. This may make it easier to be open and honest about sensitive topics like sex, finances, and personal insecurities. There may also be less concern about the therapist “siding with” one person or the other in your discussions.

It’s worth noting that professional couples counseling may not be as expensive as you’d think. Your health insurance might be able to cover a substantial portion of the cost. And many couples therapy programs offer costs on a sliding scale based on client need.

Free couples counseling generally can’t match the training, extensive experience, and research-based methods of licensed professionals. If you’re looking for the most effective form of relationship assistance possible, a paid therapist may be right for you.

Online Couples Counseling Can Be An Affordable Option

Some budget-conscious couples may prefer online couples counseling. Many Internet-based therapy platforms are surprisingly affordable compared to face-to-face treatment. For example, counseling with Regain costs just $65-90 per week on average, with financial aid available for some low-income users. All therapy providers on the platform are trained and licensed relationship counselors.

The effectiveness of Internet couples therapy is supported by research. A 2022 trial found that online counseling produced significant improvements in the mental health and relationship satisfaction of most couples who participated. There was no noticeable difference in effectiveness between web-based and face-to-face treatment.

Takeaway

Free couples counseling can be a useful source of support when your relationship is in a rough patch. However, most low-cost options come with significant downsides and lack the robust evidence base of professional couples counseling. If you’re trying to resolve deep-seated interpersonal complications, working with a licensed therapist may be a better bet.

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