During my freshman year of college, I met my now-husband, and we instantly hit it off.
We soon found ourselves spending hours at a time together, and we told each other everything. People would often say that we had the “perfect relationship” and they loved seeing us so happy.
A few years ago, though, things started to feel “off.” Between work demands and two children always under our feet, we stopped connecting in the same ways as we did during our college years.
I felt scared, worried, and uncertain about our future, but I didn’t know where to get help.
Out of desperation one night, I reached out to the best resource I knew: Google.
Within the first few clicks, I realized something profound. Many couples feel like their relationship loses its spark over time.
To get it back, I also learned that all I needed to do was get my husband to agree to try something new and different: marriage counseling.
Maybe you’re like me and concerned that your marriage's flame is dying out, or perhaps something recently happened in your relationship and you’re desperately trying to find a way to fix that problem and get back to what feels “normal.”
But does marriage counseling really work? And how do you know if it’s the right answer for your marriage? Let’s find out!
What does marriage counseling consist of?
In a nutshell, marriage counseling helps married couples (or even those in a long-term domestic partnership) resolve conflicts and improve their romantic relationship. This type of therapy is often provided by a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).
Unlike individual therapists, these counselors are trained to work with individuals through a relationship or family dynamic lens specifically.
Although individual marriage counselors may approach couples in different ways, Talkspace therapist Ivanna Colangelo says that most clinicians help married couples in the following ways:
- Marriage counselors will help couples work through specific problems such as infidelity, lack of intimacy, addiction, or parenting problems.
- Marriage counseling focuses on treating the relationship between two partners, not each individual as a separate being.
- Sessions will involve a lot of talking and listening, and the therapist will typically gather both sides of the story and take a non-judgemental stance without favoring one partner over the other.
- Counselors will provide solution-focused treatment that often centers around behavior and routine changes for the couple. However, some other forms of treatment may be used if the counselor deems it necessary.
Typically, marriage counseling is a short-term form of treatment. You’ll probably attend sessions weekly to begin with, then move to less frequent visits as time goes on and your relationship improves.
Some couples only work with the marriage counselor for a few months, whereas others may spend more time in treatment — it all depends on the issues within your relationship when you start the counseling process.
Ultimately, marriage counseling gives couples the tools they need to improve communication and effectively solve problems as they arise within the relationship.
No marriage is perfect, but with professional help you and your partner can learn how to resolve conflicts without heated arguments or resentment.
Working with a marriage counselor probably won’t be easy at first, and you may spend sessions glaring or yelling at each other. These responses are more than okay. In fact, they’re even encouraged because they help the counselor work towards the root issues so you can heal.
At the end of the day, a marriage counselor will help mediate conflicts and teach you and your partner how to fight fairly so that you can work through whatever issues brought you to this breaking point.
If you’d like a more in-depth look at how marriage counseling works and what marriage counselors help couples do, this video from Biltmore Psychology and Counseling breaks down what to expect from your first session and how marriage counselors typically help couples.
Is marriage counseling right for us?
Let’s be real: no marriage is perfect. Even the most successful couples run into situations where their ideas, values, or opinions don't align with their partner's.
Although these differences don’t mean that your relationship is doomed, these conflicts can test the strength of your marriage.
Of course, disagreements aren’t the only situations that cause couples to seek professional help. Sometimes specific issues like extramarital affairs or even just a gradual breakdown in communication bring couples to the therapist’s office.
In general, most marriage counselors work with couples who are struggling with issues like:
- Substance abuse or other mental health issues
- Financial stress and changes in employment
- Communication problems
- Lack of sexual intimacy
- Cultural clashes or disagreements on parenting
- Infertility, adoption struggles, or other family issues
Regardless of the cause, your relationship's turmoil can create tension, fear, sadness, and other complicated emotions.
When couples ignore their relationship problems and let them fester, they can lead to more serious issues and, often, divorce.
While many couples wait until there’s an issue to seek professional help, you don't need a troubled relationship to see a therapist.
In fact, the experts at Healthy Place stress that marriage counseling can also help couples who want to strengthen their bonds and feel even closer.
It’s important to keep in mind that marriages evolve over time, and not all couples require the same things when they see a marriage counselor.
However, most counselors will tell you that your relationship probably falls under one of three main categories:
- The "Repair' Group - In general, couples who fall under this category report high rates of dissatisfaction with their marriage and may even be considering divorce. These couples seek out professional help to hopefully repair their marriage and secure the foundation before it’s too late.
- The “Room for Improvement” Group - Unlike the couples in the first category, these couples aren’t dealing with major breakdowns in the marriage… but they aren’t completely satisfied either. These couples may be struggling with life changes or other circumstances that cause them to feel like something is “off.”
- The “Feeling Good” Group - These couples generally feel happy with their marriage, but they are determined to maintain their marital bliss. Typically these couples just want to feel even more intimate and avoid future roadblocks in communication with a quick “relationship tuneup.”
Regardless of where you stand, the only requirement you need for marriage counseling is two partners who want to improve their relationship.
Whether you’re engaged or celebrating your 30th wedding anniversary, a marriage counselor can always find ways to help.
What is the success rate of marriage counseling?
Most of the time, couples avoid counseling because they wonder if the investment of time and money will be worth it. This is especially true for couples who have already tried working through their issues or spent years avoiding the problems altogether.
According to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, though, an overwhelming majority of couples who decide to try marriage counseling feel satisfied with their decision after the fact.
In fact, over 98 percent of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists’ survey participants reported that they received excellent marriage counseling that provided exactly what they needed.
What’s more, 93 percent of the surveyed clients shared that they felt like they could more effectively deal with problems within their relationship, not to mention they felt physically and mentally healthier after repairing their relationship.
Although these high satisfaction rates don’t always translate into successful relationship repairs, the American Psychological Association states that roughly 75 percent of couples who enter marriage counseling find success and maintain their marriage.
This even includes couples with high-stress relationships like military couples, veterans with PTSD, parents of chronically ill children, and infertile couples.
What is makes it successful?
While those statistics sound amazing, licensed clinical psychologist Dianne Grande points out that some key components make marriage counseling successful.
First and foremost, both partners in the relationship must be willing to enhance their self-awareness, vulnerably share with their partner, and learn some basic communication skills. Without these components, no marriage counseling will work.
Additionally, couples must decide to stop looking at their partner as an opponent and instead see them as a team member or part of the relationship as a whole. This also means feeling empathy for your partner, even in past situations where they hurt you.
Finally, both partners must see themselves as both part of the problem and part of the solution for marriage counseling to work. Although you may have valid complaints about your partner, you must also see that your behaviors need to change, too.
How long does it take for counseling to work?
Although many couples want to know how long marriage counseling will take, there isn’t a clear-cut answer as each relationship has unique needs.
With that being said, licensed Marriage & Family Therapist Lisa Marie Bobby says that these factors ultimately impact the amount of time marriage counseling takes to work successfully:
- The specific needs of the couple
- The couple’s goals
- The methods the therapist uses and frequency of appointments
- The couple’s learning style and responsiveness to therapy
- The couple’s commitment to the process
While some couples can make progress in as little as 4-6 weeks, others may find that they require months of therapy for it to work.
The important thing is that both people in the relationship present themselves honestly during sessions and make concerted efforts to improve in between each appointment.
If you feel like you aren’t making progress or aren’t getting what you need out of marriage counseling, you need to share these feelings and listen to your partner and the marriage counselor's feedback.
Sometimes we’re just so critical of ourselves that we don’t see the small successes.
When should we stop and move on?
Just like there’s no set timeline on how many appointments you need with a marriage counselor to repair your relationship successfully, there’s also no rule that says you need to continue wasting time and money on something that isn’t working.
While there’s no hard and fast rule about when to call it quits, you can look for a few clues to help you decide if it’s time to pull the plug on marriage counseling and simply move on with your life. You should discontinue marriage counseling and move on if:
- You’re in an abusive relationship
- You or your partner lack emotion during sessions
- You or your partner are continuing extramarital affairs even while in counseling
- You dread therapy sessions and spending time with your partner
- You can’t trust your partner even after months of therapy
Whether a Google search after your first big fight or years of marital frustration brought you here, I hope that you realize you aren’t alone just like I did with my own Google search a few years ago.
If your relationship feels out of balance, don’t worry; there are people out there who can help.
Marriage counselors are trained to help couples work through problems and return to a place of comfort and intimacy — you just have to be willing to take that first step and get help.
Obviously marriage counseling isn’t a magic fix to your relationship (trust me, I’ve been there).
However, if you and your partner are committed to testing the waters out together, you may find that it’s exactly what you need to keep your marriage afloat.