Does Marriage Counseling Really Work?

couple holding hands

Photo by Taylor Hernandez on Unsplash

If you watch movies like Couples Retreat, you might have an impression of marriage counseling as something that’s there to help save relationships that are already imploding. Two people who once happily said “I do” have gotten to a place where they can barely say “hello” without screaming at each other. Marriage and couples counseling can definitely be beneficial when problems arise, but it can also help stable, happy couples deepen their bonds and avoid future disasters ahead.

To help you do the maintenance, whether you’re heading towards the altar, in a long-term happy relationship, or experiencing a bumpy period with your partner, here are the answers to some of the most common questions about marriage counseling, straight from experts Elizabeth Overstreet, Rebecca McDermott, and Mary Gale Gurnsey.

Meet the Expert

  • Elizabeth Overstreet is a relationship and love strategist based in Raleigh, North Carolina.
  • Rebecca McDermott is a licensed marriage and family therapist near Philadelphia.
  • Mary Gale Gurnsey is a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in New York, Chicago, and Phoenix.

Does Marriage Counseling Work?

Marriage counseling works if you’re willing to actually do the work. It’s not about showing up, sitting back, and having a professional “fix” you and your partner. It takes both partners being willing, open, vulnerable, and present to see results. Once you find the right counselor and commit, the sessions can take your relationship to a better, healthier place. Studies have shown that nearly 44 percent of couples go to counseling before they even say “I do,” and 98 percent of couples who went to counseling were happy with the outcome.

“Counselors have insight into problems couples face and how they can handle them because they counsel other couples with similar challenges,” Overstreet says. “They are able to bring couples a variation in how to cope with specific problems and how to bring them to resolution in a way that works.”

McDermott understands that some couples or individuals might be wary of letting a complete stranger into their marriage. “It’s very weird to sit and tell your innermost thoughts to a stranger,” she says. “There are things in marriage that are difficult, and there is pressure to present to the world that everything is OK, but we all have stuff. Conflict is our opportunity to grow.” 

Overstreet says that once the “ideal world” of the honeymoon phase ends, having conversations with a therapist about the “real world” can help you prepare for the changes and challenges that marriage inevitably brings. Learning to communicate about topics like financial goals, children, blended families, or core values is something marriage counseling can help with, and it can give couples tools to discuss these topics for years to come.

When to Go to Marriage Counseling

No marriage is so perfect that it’s completely free of issues. At times, we could all use some help, and it’s not just major issues that should steer couples to seek help, either. “The best analogy I can think of relates to if you own a car,” says Overstreet. “There is basic maintenance that is suggested so that the car continues to run smoothly. However, if you ignore doing the maintenance work, you can incur even more significant issues with your car than if you would just do the basic maintenance. The same theory holds true in relationships.” If you think of counseling the same way you think of car maintenance, every couple could benefit from counseling. “It's hard to be consistent,” she adds. “You want to ignore the little things, and you want to put the relationship on auto-cruise.”

Complacency is often where issues arise, though. Like your partner getting lazy about doing any cleaning, which leads to you silently fuming, which turns into arguments that bleed over into other aspects of your relationship that have nothing to do with cleaning the dishes.  

“Even in a happy relationship, learning more about what triggers you, establishing healthy communication methods, understanding what affects you or your partner's level of intimacy, and fighting fair are things you may have done decently, but additional insights on these areas can help to keep your relationship in a happy place,” says Overstreet.

So even happy couples could use counseling, but other signs to look for could be communication breakdown, resentments, addiction issues, or general conflict and a feeling of unhappiness or dissatisfaction from one or both partners. If you feel like you cannot connect with your partner and discuss your feelings, seeking out counseling can be a major step towards discovering what is happening between you.

Types of Marriage Counseling

Finding the right therapist might not happen with one phone call. There is a counselor out there who will understand you and your relationship, but you might need to sit with a few not-quite-rights to find your fit. Gurnsey says that EFT (Emotion Focused Therapy), Gottman, and Imago are the most well-known types of couples therapy. To help you sort through them, here’s a breakdown:

 EFT (Emotion Focused Therapy)

One of the most studied and widely practiced types of marriage and couples counseling, EFT was developed by Dr. Sue Johnson in the 1980s. It “prioritizes emotion and emotional regulation as the key organizing agents in individual experience and key relationship interactions.” It’s a structured, short-term approach that typically lasts from eight to 20 sessions. The overall goal is to improve attachment and bonding. 

The Gottman Method

Based on over 40 years of research, The Gottman Method was developed by Dr. John Gottman, along with his wife, Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman. Gottman discovered that the “Four Horsemen” of relationship issues are: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling (refusing to interact), and contempt. There are Seven Principles, which include becoming aware of your partner’s reality and emotions, positive expressions, and creating shared meaning, to name a few. It’s a widely popular method for helping couples approach and tackle issues at all stages of a relationship.

 Imago

Imago was developed by Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt in 1980, and it looks back at childhood issues, traumas, or experiences that could have led to a couple's present issues or conflicts. It encourages couples to move away from blame and toward empathy. It can help with ongoing communication issues, infidelity, lack of trust, and intimacy issues. 

Take time to ask questions, look at the different types of therapy they practice, and get a sense of whether or not the therapist understands your particular situation before committing to a counselor. Look for credentials like LMFT, MFT, or other professional licenses, plus advanced training in couples therapy. Don’t get frustrated if the first person you sit down with isn’t a match!

How Long Marriage Counseling Takes

Some types of therapy, like EFT, are structured as short-term, taking eight to 20 sessions, depending on the couple, but that doesn’t mean you stop at 20 just because you’ve reached a “magic” number. Couples therapy could be an ongoing form of maintenance, or you and your partner could feel healthy and strong after 12 sessions, with enough tools to help you move forward on your own.

McDermott suggests that couples at least establish a relationship with a therapist, “so if you hit a tough season, you have a place to go rather than waiting for a crisis to happen.” She says it can take at least 12 sessions to try and make real progress, and that’s on the short end. Marriage counseling should be a positive commitment, and a journey that you and your partner are willing to go on together, regardless of time spent. That doesn’t mean you have to commit to an hour a week for the rest of your lives, but it does mean that giving the process time, and understanding that there is no “quick fix,” is as important as showing up and doing the work.

“Go with the flow,” says Overstreet. “Realize that just as these problems didn't develop overnight, they will take time for you to understand them, deal with them, and learn to manage them differently than you have in the past.” In other words, it’s up to you. And regardless of how many sessions it takes, it’ll be worth every minute if it helps you and your partner reach a more understanding, loving, healthy place. 

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