When Should You Seek Marriage Counseling And Does It Actually Work?
Updated August 20, 2019
The simple truth is: every marriage goes through rough patches. Sometimes you can work through them on your own, but there are other times when surviving those rough patches requires the kind of help a marriage counselor can provide.
But, when is the right time to turn to marriage counseling? Is it at the first sign of trouble; when things are beginning to take a turn for the worse; or when you realize you cannot get past this on your own? Furthermore, if you do opt for marriage counseling, what guarantees do you have that it will help?
Some of the answers to those questions might surprise you, so … keep reading!
What Is Marriage Counseling?
Marriage counseling is sometimes called couples therapy or couples counseling. It is a kind of psychotherapy or talks therapy aimed at helping persons recognize the sources of conflict in their relationship and equip them with the tools to resolve it.
Marriage counseling is described as short-term therapy. Some couples require just a few sessions to iron out whatever it is that has come between them. There may be occasions, however, when a couple requires longer therapy, even up to a year.
Who Is A Marriage Counselor?
You could think of marriage counselors as relationship specialists. The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) refers to Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs) as: "mental health professionals trained in psychotherapy and family systems." It goes on to explain that MFTs are "licensed to diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders within the context of marriage, couples and family systems."
Marriage counselors possess either a graduate or post-graduate degree (that is, a Master's or Doctorate) in marriage and family therapy. Their training would have included two or more years of clinical experience under the guidance of experts in the field. Most practicing marriage counselors also go through the process of being credentialed by the AAMFT.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the number of Marriage and Family Therapists at 41,500 in 2016. The AAMFT website currently reports that there are more than 50,000 MFTs with over 25,500 being AAMFT members.
Who Does Marriage Counseling Help?
Short answer: Marriage counseling can help anyone in a relationship.
Any Type of Couple: The couple does not have to be actually married or even considering it. This is why some persons prefer the term "couples therapy" instead of "marriage counseling." Also, the gender and age of the partners or the length of their relationship does not matter. Marriage counseling is for all types of couples, young and old, whether they are just beginning their relationship or have been together for a long time.
Individuals: It is not uncommon for one partner to go to marriage counseling alone, perhaps because they recognize that they have an issue which is affecting their relationship, and they need individual counseling for it. Others go alone because their partner refuses to accompany them, but they still feel the relationship can benefit from the things they learn in therapy.
Children: Marriage counseling is paired with family counseling because it also helps another person's in the family, especially the couple's children. The marriage counselor may suggest family therapy either in place of or alongside couples therapy for the greatest benefits to the entire family
Strong Marriages: Importantly, marriage counseling is not just for persons in troubled or turbulent relationships. Couples who are happy and secure in their marriage can keep their relationship going strong with marriage counseling.
When Should You Seek Marriage Counseling?
The sad reality is that too many couples wait until it is too late before they decide to enlist the help of a marriage counselor. Some estimates put the wait time at over five years between when one or both partners first recognized, there was an issue, and when one or both of them reached out for counseling.
That maybe five years too long. Resentment, distrust, and animosity have had those five years to take root in the relationship. Over longer periods, they can simply become the norm and might make the marriage unsalvageable.
So, the sooner you decide to go for couples counseling, the better.
That said, it is advisable to seek out marriage counseling at any time you realize your marriage needs assistance. Regardless of how long the problems have existed, you should still aim to give marriage counseling a try instead of resigning yourself to the thought that this is the way you will always be as a couple and before calling it quits.
Many couples who have endured years of marital struggles find that with the help of their counselor, they can restore the friendship, empathy, love, and trust which characterized their relationship in its earlier days.
20 Signs Your Relationship Needs Marriage Counseling
- You hardly ever talk to each other. A lack of communication means neither one of you knows what the other is thinking or feeling. It is one of the main reasons conflicts in a relationship escalate and last longer than is healthy.
- Conversations you do have are generally negative. When you can scarcely find anything good or constructive to say to each other, it is a grave sign that your relationship needs an intervention.
- You are afraid to speak up about your concerns. Some persons remain quiet about their discontent. They think that perhaps things are better off the way they are, and by highlighting their concerns, they are drawing attention to them and could make the situation worse.
- One of you is contemplating being unfaithful. The thought of being unfaithful to your partner suggests that you are longing so something you feel is lacking in your relationship. Discussing this feeling during therapy can help.
- One of you has been unfaithful. For many persons, infidelity is the ultimate betrayal, and many relationships fail to survive it. You can give your relationship a better chance of survival by seeking help from a counselor as soon as the infidelity comes to light.
- You keep secrets. While personal space should be respected in a relationship, it is not the same as having secrets. Secrets of any kind suggest both deception and distrust. Some secrets include infidelity, unhappiness, and making financial decisions without consulting your partner.
- You "punish" your partner by withholding affection. It is our need for love, affection, and connection with another person, which leads us into relationships in the first place. Denying your partner physical contact such as cuddling, holding hands and having sex, or emotional ones such as smiles, kindness, and attentiveness can all be construed as psychological abuse.
- Your sex life has changed dramatically. It may be that the two of you are no longer (or barely) intimate. A different warning sign which some persons tend to miss is an uptick in intimacy which could signal an effort on the part of a guilty partner to make up for an indiscretion.
- You are not honest about finances. Financial infidelity ranks high among the reasons for discord in a relationship. It can be avoided if both partners are aware of and involved in all matters concerning money.
- You constantly bicker over the same issue/s. Sticking points which the two of you just can't seem to get past can spill over into other areas of the relationship. The discord can affect how you interact even when the problematic topic is not currently an issue.
- You see your partner as an adversary or an opponent. Constantly trying to outdo each other or seeing the other person as always trying to make you angry, unhappy, or look bad are definite warning signs in a relationship. Even when you and your partner do not see eye-to-eye on an issue, you should still consider yourselves as a team, working toward a common goal.
- You are staying together "for the children's sake." This decision often ends up as damaging instead of helpful to the children. They can normally sense when there is discontent between their parents, no matter how hard the parents try to act otherwise.
- You behave negatively toward each other. When your behaviors toward each other turn resentful, spiteful, and hurtful, it is time to get help. Such unhealthy actions typically result from pent-up feelings which are best worked through with the guidance of a trained therapist.
- You can't work things out on your own. It is not unusual for a couple to be able to pinpoint what is wrong in their marriage and want to fix it but be unable to find a solution on their own. This is where a licensed marriage counselor can be very helpful - it is what they are trained to do!
- You no longer spend meaningful time together. A couple which gets to the point of operating more as detached roommates than as an intimate, committed team, is likely a couple in need of help.
- You think your partner is the only one who needs to change. Thinking that your partner needs to change and that you or a therapist can make them change will only lead to frustration. Problems in a relationship often arise when BOTH persons are at fault, and you can only change your thought patterns, behaviors, and reactions.
- Your problems have persisted and are getting worse. You may have made some efforts to change and perhaps have even gone so far as getting marriage counseling in the past. If the issues persist, however, it may be time to consider signing on for more sessions or engaging a new therapist.
- Your main source of emotional support is outside of the marriage. Occasionally turning to a friend or family member for support is not a problem. You should get help through marriage counseling; however, if you find you do it consistently because you doubt your partner's willingness or ability to provide the support you need.
- Every problem is a BIG problem. When even the little things (like your partner's habits and idiosyncrasies which never bothered you before) become the flashpoint for a blowout argument, it is time for help.
- Your partner suggests your marriage needs couples counseling.If your partner ever does this, you should always answer, "YES!" The suggestion to seek counseling is not an indication that your spouse wants to end the marriage. On the contrary, it is a signal they have identified a problem and do not want it to escalate to the point where it hurts or ends your relationship.
Other Types Of Marital Counseling
Apart from reaching out to a marriage counselor in times of relationship distress, there are other occasions on which a couple might turn to a counselor for help. Examples include instances when the marriage counselor provides premarital, ongoing, family therapy, or divorce counseling.
Despite its name, premarital counseling is beneficial not just for couples on the road to marriage but to any couple considering entering into a long term, committed relationship. Topics which are normally covered in premarital counseling include:
- Parenting styles
- Personal space
- Roles and responsibilities
- Conflict resolution
- Family and friends
Couples who go through the premarital version of marriage counseling find that its positive effects last well into their marriage. There are other cases, too, in which premarital counseling helps a couple to realize their inherent incompatibility. It may be that they have starkly different views on and approaches to some of life's most important issues. They are then able to amicably walk away before they become fully invested in the relationship.
Many couples in happy relationships realize the benefits of "tuning up" their marriage every once in a while. They are free from major conflicts and routinely practice being present and empathetic toward each other but see checking in with their therapist as a way to ensure things remain that way.
These couples may schedule visits to discuss issues such as:
- Expanding their family
- A major health condition in one partner and its effects on their relationship
- Planned career changes
Family therapy is very much like marriage counseling in that it focuses on improved communication in a relationship and conflict resolution. The main difference is that it takes in more than the couple and can include biological, adopted, and foster children. Family therapy may also include extended family members, whether they are living with the couple or not, and whose actions impact the family and the couple's marriage, in particular.
Sometimes saving the marriage is no longer an option. Perhaps one or both partners arrived at marriage counseling with this fact already firmly in mind. It can be, too, that the counselor raises it as a consideration after seeing the dynamics of the couple's relationship. In cases of infidelity, for example, it may be impossible for the hurt partner to forgive, pick up the pieces, and move on in the relationship.
Once a couple has decided to part ways by divorce (or by permanent separation for unmarried couples), they can benefit greatly from divorce counseling. The main aim of divorce counseling or postmarital therapy is to help couples avoid stereotypical acrimony, which is associated with divorce. They are instead assisted with dissolving their relationship respectfully and maturely.
Couples with children can find divorce therapy particularly useful. That is because it can help spare their children much of the emotional trauma which often accompanies having your parents go through a divorce.
10 Common Excuses People Use To Avoid Marriage Counseling
Sometimes one person sees the need for marriage counseling but is unable to convince the other person to accompany them. The unwilling party might come up with a range of excuses to not take part. Things they might say include:
- Therapy is too expensive: The cost of counseling may seem high, but you should take a moment to weigh whether your marriage is worth the investment. You can use your concern about the cost as a motivator to commit to the therapy and put all the counselor's suggestions into practice. That way, you are unlikely to need marriage counseling again.
- I don't have time for therapy: Investing money, time, and effort into your marriage is never a waste. Prioritizing your marriage on your "To Do" list means you will take the time to work at it, including attending therapy. Plus, there is the option of online marriage counseling so you can do it in the comfort of your own home without having to commute to the therapist's office.
- Our problem is not THAT serious: Delaying fixing the "small" issues is often a reason they turn into marriage-threatening events. Chances are if your partner sees a need for therapy, then the problem is THAT serious and definitely will become so if you avoid getting help.
- I don't see how talking to a stranger can help: Sometimes, that is exactly what will help. The therapist is a third-party who has no history with either of you and will not take sides. They are trained to listen to both partners' point-of-view and offer advice which, in many cases, makes them the perfect person to turn to.
- Therapy is for "crazy" people: The idea that mental health specialists deal only with mental illness and "crazy" people is a stereotype which is found throughout society. The fact is, counselors can help anyone facing emotional issues or conflict in their relationship.
- I don't want a stranger knowing private, intimate details about our relationship: The therapist is trained and licensed in the level of professionalism and confidentiality marriage counseling requires. You can rest assured that they know how to put you at ease to discuss difficult or sensitive issues and that whatever is said in the therapy session will stay in the therapy session.
- No one needs to know we have a problem: It is true what they say, "Pride goes before a fall." And, it is often just our pride, which keeps us from reaching out for help. Some persons do not want to shatter the illusion that their marriage is perfect while others are afraid of appearing unable to help themselves.
- I don't want a stranger judging me: Marriage counselors do not act as judge and jury. They are there to guide you in talking through your problems and building better channels of communication in your relationship.
- I don't want to relive the past - why do you want to bring it up?: Just because you have moved on (or say you have) does not mean your partner has. If they feel like a past issue is still unresolved, then that is because it is unresolved. You can prevent escalation of the problem by admitting this and seeking help to clear the air.
- We've already tried counseling, and it didn't work: Therapists are only human - just like the rest of us. They are trained to be neutral and impartial, but sometimes personalities do clash, and you or your partner may not be comfortable with the therapist and so fail to get the best result. That is why it is important to shop around before deciding on which counselor to see.
Each of these excuses is not just an attempt to avoid therapy; it is also an attempt to avoid the fact that your relationship is in trouble.
What Does Marriage Counseling Entail?
Marriage counseling may take place as in-person sessions or online. You can choose the mode which best suits you and your partner's schedules and the one you are most comfortable with.
A typical session with your marriage counselor will last an hour or an hour and a half. Most often, the first session is spent attempting to identify the root problem which the couple is facing. Once this is known, the couple and the therapist will work to come up with a list of objectives - the things they are hoping to achieve from counseling. It is not uncommon for couples to leave the very first session feeling like they have already made great inroads into solving their problem.
Subsequent sessions will involve working with the therapist on your communication skills, ways in which you express yourselves, and your approach to problem-solving. To help you along, the therapist may include "homework" or exercises in communication which you put into practice at home. Also, you will be taught how to be more in-tuned with and empathetic toward your partner's feeling, as well as how to identify problems in your relationship without assigning blame to your partner or yourself.
NOTE: There are relationships in which one partner has a substance abuse or addiction problem, or is suffering from some form of mental illness. If this is the case, the marriage counselor may recommend that that partner seeks help from a mental health professional who specializes in their issue. The marriage counselor will work along with that other professional to ensure you both get all the help you need.
Does Marriage Counseling Work? A Look At The Statistics
If you doubt marriage counseling could work for you, then checking out what it has been able to do for other people could change your mind. The AAMFT provides the following statistics in support of how effective marriage counseling can be.
- Marital/Couples counseling requires fewer sessions than individual therapy at averages of 11.5 and 13 sessions, respectively.
- 98% of persons in a survey rated the marriage and family counseling they received as either "Good" or Excellent."
- Marriage and family therapists hold the distinction of being the mental health therapist consumers would be most likely to recommend to friends.
- Almost two-thirds of clients surveyed revealed positive impacts of marriage and family counseling on their physical health.
- Nearly 9 out of every 10 respondents said they felt improvement in their emotional health after marriage and family therapy.
- Over 75% of clients reported that their relationship improved.
- Most clients said that therapy resulted in them functioning better at work.
- Parents indicated that in nearly 75% of cases, children involved in therapy showed positive changes in behavior.
How Can You Ensure You Get The Most Out Of Marriage Counseling?
Marriage counseling is effective, but that effectiveness is dependent on the mindset and actions of the persons involved - you and your partner. Here are some points to consider beforehand to give some support to the marriage counseling process.
- Approach it with an open mind: Chances are if you go into counseling "knowing" it will fail, then it will. Marriage counseling might just be the opportunity you needed to better understand your partner, yourself, and the dynamics of your relationship.
- Give therapy a chance: Attending therapy but threatening to leave, separate or divorce when discord occurs is an indication that maybe you are not as invested in marriage counseling as you should be.
- Don't place all the blame on your spouse: "It takes two to tango." For instance, if your partner cheated and you turned to withhold, or spiteful acts as punishment instead of facing the issue head-on, then you both have contributed to the current situation.
- Lean on your partner: Now is the time to be there for each other. Relaying your ongoing concerns or the details of therapy to family or friends may prove counter-productive, especially if you are not sharing these with your partner.
- Try to understand how the other person feels: Empathy plays a major role in a successful relationship. Listening with empathy while in session, allows you to think through how your words and actions might be affecting the other person.
- Put the therapist's suggestions into practice: Time spent in the counselor's office is only a fraction of the time required to work on fixing your relationship. You need to dedicate more time to it by diligently applying any suggestions or exercises your counselor gives.
Success in a relationship, of any kind, requires some degree of effort from each of the persons involved. Long-term, romantic relationships, such as marriage, tend to require a great deal more effort than most. Conflicts will arise from differences in outlook as well as from the responsibilities and stressors of life. The sooner these are handled to keep the relationship intact and strong, the better of the marriage will be.
If you are experiencing difficulties in your marriage, don't delay, now is the time to seek out marriage counseling and get your relationship back on track.