How Do We Know It's Time to Seek Marriage Counseling?

Updated September 6, 2023by Regain Editorial Team

Many people are open to visiting a marriage counselor with their spouse, but deciding when to go can be challenging. Experts suggest that the earlier spouses attend marriage counseling, the better their results. For most spouses, attending marriage counseling at the first sign of a problem is the correct course of action. Waiting until problems become severe makes them more difficult to solve, but even if problems are overwhelming, marriage counseling can still help. Research suggests that 70% of couples reported a substantial increase in marital satisfaction after attending therapy.

Marriage counseling is also known as marital counseling, couples counseling, and relationship therapy. It is an evidence-based approach to problems in a marriage, meaning it relies on rigorous scientific research and empirically supported techniques to help couples improve their relationship. Marriage counselors help spouses avoid blame and judgment and help them to create a safe space to discuss concerns and develop skills necessary for a successful marriage.

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Could Your Marriage Benefit From A Therapist?

Is It Time To See A Marriage Counselor?

Many people wonder if their marital problems warrant counseling, and myths and misconceptions surrounding marriage counseling may lead some people to the wrong conclusions about how to approach therapy. For example, many people incorrectly believe that marriage therapy is only useful when marital problems have become critically severe. Others believe that spouses who attend marital therapy are already in a marriage that is doomed to fail.

Neither of those myths are supported by evidence. In fact, the opposite is likely true. Evidence indicates that the sooner a couple attends therapy, the more success they are likely to have. Marriages are not doomed to fail if they need the help of a counselor either; 70% of couples report significant improvement in their marriages after working with a therapist.

In most cases, the best time to see a marriage counselor is as soon as possible. If you or your spouse have recognized a problem in your marriage and you're struggling to fix it together, strongly consider attending therapy. Even if you disagree on the cause of the problem or possible solutions, a therapist can help you navigate a healthy problem-solving process and address the issue before it harms your marriage further.

You don't need to be fighting with your spouse over a specific problem to attend marriage counseling. You may simply feel that your marriage is not where it needs to be or could be better than it is. Here are some common reasons spouses seek marital therapy:

  • Challenges associated with sexual or non-sexual intimacy.

  • Imbalance in decision-making or other mutual tasks.

  • An inability of one or both partners to function alone.

  • A feeling of emotional distance or "falling out of love."

  • Challenges associated with trust or trustworthiness.

  • Problems with kind, empathetic communication.

When Not To Seek Marriage Counseling

Very few instances exist where spouses should not pursue marriage counseling, namely abusive relationships. The National Domestic Violence Hotline recommends that marriage counseling should be avoided when any of the following behaviors are present in the relationship:

  • Violence against you, other people, or property.

  • Aggressive behavior, including shouting, throwing objects, or other forms of intimidation.

  • Controlling behavior, including monitoring who you socialize with, how you dress, how you spend money, or other factors in your life.

If you are experiencing any of the above in your relationship, strongly consider meeting with a counselor alone before initiating marriage counseling. Marriage counseling is often ineffective in abusive relationships, and in some cases, it can worsen abusive behavior. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing dangerous or abusive behavior at the hands of their partner, the National Domestic Violence Hotline can help. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. You can also seek assistance through the hotline's online chat.

Is Marriage Counseling Effective?

Modern approaches to marriage counseling are based on well-established scientific research. Contemporary therapists have access to a wide range of evidence-based tools that have been shown to help couples improve communication, intimacy, and positivity in their relationship. Marriage counseling isn't guaranteed to work for every relationship, but the best chance for success comes when spouses seek counseling early.  

Among all couples who seek the help of a therapist, 70% will likely see improvement. If both spouses are willing to commit to the counseling process, they have a real chance of improving their relationship by addressing existing problems, and they will likely gain the skills necessary to avoid new problems in the future.

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What Happens In Marriage Counseling?

Marriage counseling is a nonconfrontational, nonjudgmental process. The therapist acts as a neutral facilitator and does not assign blame. The overall goal of marriage counseling is to address current concerns spouses have about their marriage, help them overcome the problem, and introduce new skills to avoid problems in the future.

The therapist works together with both spouses to determine the best course for therapy to take. If both spouses are ready to commit to counseling, the process usually begins with the therapist and couple working together to determine the goals for therapy and each session. If both spouses are not on the same page about their marriage - if one wants to leave the relationship or avoid counseling and the other does not - the therapist may suggest discernment counseling.

Discernment counseling is an evidence-based method to help each spouse decide if they want to commit to marital therapy. It is led by the therapist and has the same nonconfrontational foundations as marriage counseling. At the end of discernment counseling, the spouses will choose one of three options: continue the marriage as is, work on the marriage in therapy, or end the marriage.

If both spouses are committed to continuing their marriage, the therapist will help them select a course for therapy. Each marriage counseling journey is different, and therapists leverage their expertise to choose evidence-based methods to help address the couple's concerns. The therapist may use multiple techniques, combine them, or modify them to ensure the approach is appropriate for the couple.

There are dozens of approaches to marriage counseling, but here are a few that are frequently used:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective psychotherapeutic treatments available. It has been used extensively with both individuals and couples, and has been studied in various settings and situations for decades. CBT focuses on the alignment between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and leverages the interaction between each category. Changing one produces chance in another. For example, a marriage therapist may focus on changing negative thought patterns to improve how spouses feel about their relationship.

Solution-Focused Therapy

Solution-Focused Therapy (SFT) emphasizes a problem's potential solutions rather than the cause. It is commonly used when practical problems are causing distress in a marriage. In SFT, the therapist and couple work together to develop a problem-solving process that focuses on resolving the problem, not who or what is to blame.

Emotion-Focused Therapy

Emotion-focused therapy (EFT) focuses on the emotional components of a marriage. Unlike other therapeutic approaches, EFT prioritizes feelings, not thoughts or behaviors. EFT helps spouses explore the emotional state of themselves and their marriage. They are given a chance to analyze and understand their feelings without judgment.

The Gottman Method

The Gottman Method was created by John Gottman, a relationship expert, psychologist, and founder of the Gottman Institute, an organization dedicated to researching and improving romantic relationships. The Gottman Method focuses on avoiding unhealthy communication and provides spouses with the skills to increase healthy, empathetic communication. Intimacy, kindness, and building a loving connection are also components of Gottman's approach.

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Could Your Marriage Benefit From A Therapist?

How Can Online Therapy Help?

Visiting a therapist online can make it simpler for you and your spouse to access the services of a qualified marriage counselor. Online therapy removes many barriers to accessing a therapist, such as traveling to an office or being restricted to nearby therapists only. You can meet with a therapist together or separately, and you can also pursue individual counseling online if you desire. Marriage counselors who deliver services online use the same evidence-based techniques as therapists who practice in an office setting. The benefits of marriage counseling are preserved if provided remotely; evidence suggests that online marriage counseling is just as effective as in-person therapy. 

Takeaway

If you think marriage counseling can help your relationship, don't hesitate to initiate the process early. Research indicates that the most success comes when couples address problems early before they get out of control or become overwhelming. A marriage therapist will work with you and your spouse to create a safe, nonjudgmental atmosphere where both of you can raise your concerns. The therapist will introduce skills you can use to solve those problems, as well as provide problem-solving strategies that you can use to avoid problems in the future.

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