Marriage Counseling 101

If you’ve ever been in a relationship, you know they aren’t perfect. Contrary to how much movies depict holy matrimony, marriages are far from idyllic. When two individuals bring their own ideas, opinions, hopes, dreams, and personal histories into a marriage, it leads to inevitable conflict. However, these inherent differences don’t need to pull a couple apart. In most cases, in fact, they are the very things that help bring two people together. It’s the clashing of the minds that can help people understand, respect and accept opposing views and cultures within the relationship and in the world around them.

But, conflict and tension doesn’t just arise from opposing personality traits. If you’ve ever been in a long term relationship, you know bonds get tested. Differences or habits that you maybe once found endearing and special may become unbearable after time together. Or sometimes relationships are tested in a larger, more traumatic way, such as an extramarital affair, loss of sexual attraction, or ongoing trigger problems in a relationship. Other times, there's a gradual decline of communication; a simple case of two people drifting apart. 

Whatever the cause, any level of upheaval in a relationship can create unwanted stress, tension, sadness, worry, fear and other problems. Unfortunately, many couples ignore signs of trouble, hoping they’ll resolve on their own, but this can only lead to a worsening situation, and potentially lead to serious physical or psychological problems, such as depression. A rocky marriage can also create problems outside the home and affect other family members or even friendships, as people feel compelled to take sides.

While you don't need to have a troubled relationship to seek couples therapy, it’s a perfect time to get professional third-party help. Marriage counseling can also help stable couples strengthen their bonds and gain a deeper understanding of each other to prevent issues from arising down the road. Marriage counseling is also an integral part of engaged couples who are preparing for a life together. Pre-marital counseling can help a couple be better prepared for the realities of married life, and establish couples therapy as a welcome tool to use throughout the entire marriage. 

What is marriage counseling?

Marriage counseling is also sometimes known as marriage therapy, couples counseling, relationship counseling, or couples therapy. It's a form of talk therapy that supports individuals in intimate relationships. Marriage counseling is typically sought out when partners are considering separation or seeking improved intimacy and understanding of each other. Marriage counseling is different than individual counseling as it focuses on the relationship between two people rather than one person’s mental health. However, while the relationship itself is the focus in marital counseling, each partner is expected to pay attention to self-improvement, communication skills, and self-awareness, ideally in individual therapy sessions in addition to the sessions as a couple. 

Originally, relationship counseling was only known as marriage counseling and reserved for engaged or married couples. The practice established itself in the United States during the 1930s. At the time marriage counselors educated people about realistic expectations for marriage and family life. However, it was rare for partners to seek relationship counseling together. In the 1960’s and 70’s, couples therapy shifted with the emergence of family therapy and the increase in divorce rates during these two decades. It was at this time that couples therapy was typically conducted with both partners present. 

In today’s practice, marriage counseling is heavily influenced by family therapy methods, which is a holistic approach designed to treat the family system together with its individual members. In modern times, couples counseling is available for married or unmarried people in all kinds of relationships and it usually includes both partners. However, there are still occasions when a marriage and family therapist will want to work with only one person. Typically, counseling for individuals in a relationship will center on personal behaviors, reactions, and/or opportunities for growth as individuals as they pertain to the relationship.

When to seek marriage counseling

Most marriage and family therapists agree it’s best to seek couples counseling at the first signs of discord. Marriage counseling can help to resolve conflicts and should not be delayed until an issue becomes a crisis. It might surprise you to learn that couples therapy is not considered an option until issues persist for an average of six years. For obvious reasons, this delay can make it more difficult to repair or resolve concerns. 

Even when there isn’t a crisis in the relationship, a couple in a healthy relationship may seek counseling to increase intimacy and partners in the middle of separating might want therapy help guide the end of their relationship respectfully. Of course, people who are engaged to be married might also choose to seek premarital counseling to help explore areas of conflict or concern that may cause difficulty or dissatisfaction in their marriage down the road. Premarital counseling can uncover more issues than a couple originally meant to discuss, which can help set the relationship up for even better success. 

While there are a great many advantages to engaging in couples therapy, domestic abuse cases where violence is causing one partner fear or physical harm is cause to call the police or find a local crisis center in the event of an emergency.

How to find a marriage counselor

Finding the right therapist is important, especially finding the right marriage counselor near you. Convenience, both in location and daytime availability, is actually an important factor in choosing a marriage counselor. The easier it is for you and your partner to make it to a session, the more likely it is for you both to commit and see results from the therapy.   

Once you find a marriage counselor near you, it’s important for you and your partner to sit down and make sure the therapist has received the required training and certification. When seeking relationship counseling, many couples try to find a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) in their area. LMFTs are licensed by the state, have advanced training and certification in couples therapy, and are often credentialed by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT). 

You also want to make sure the therapist is experienced dealing with your relationship’s specific issues, and charges an affordable fee or takes your insurance. It’s also acceptable to have an initial phone call to screen the counselor to find out how they run sessions and ask about their philosophies. 

What to expect from marriage counseling 

You can expect to show up to a marriage counseling session together with your partner. The counselor or therapist will ask you each to take turns expressing your feelings and opinions to help pinpoint and understand the sources of conflicts and, over several sessions, try to resolve them with you. Throughout the process, you and your partner will analyze all aspects of your relationship –– good and bad.

Marriage counseling can be so useful in learning skills to solidify your relationship. These skills may include communicating openly, problem-solving together and discussing differences in a rational, controlled environment. If there is any mental illness or substance abuse present in the relationship, your marriage counselor may work with your health care team to provide a complete spectrum of treatment.

Be prepared; talking about your problems with a marriage counselor may not be easy at first. In fact, there may be entire sessions that pass in almost complete silence. It’s also common to have a legitimate yelling match in the room. Both are OK. Your therapist will act as mediator to help one another be heard and understood. However, don’t expect your marriage counselor to take sides. They will remain an unbiased third-party. 

In the best case scenario, you may find your relationship improving after just a few sessions. However, depending on the state of your relationship entering therapy, you should be prepared to find your differences to be irreconcilable. It’s also possible that marriage counseling is something you’re willing to do, but your partner is not. If that is the case, you can go by yourself and benefit by learning more about your reactions and behavior in the relationship. But, it will make things more difficult if only one person is seeking help.

What types of marriage counseling techniques are there? 

Insight-gaining therapy

For couples where arguments are a daily occurance putting a major strain on the relationship, insight-gaining therapy could be a very effective method for treatment. During a session, a counselor will study and collect data on the couple’s interaction, their lifestyle and their relationship objectively, in order to find the root cause of their conflict. The counselor will then create a tailored plan to get them on a path to improving their communication and interactions.  

Communication counseling

It’s no surprise that communication is one of the most common issues facing relationships, and a major reason for two people to develop emotional distance, even without verbal fights or conflict. Communication focused marriage counselors will teach couples why expressing their feelings to their partners is crucial for their relationship’s health and how to correctly express themselves. They can also help to revamp the couple’s system of interaction in order to fill the emotional holes in their relationship.

Attachment therapy

For long-time married couples, there is often a loss of romance and passion in the relationship, which creates a wide gap in emotional connection. It can even grow to the point where partners are hesitant to even express their feelings because the intimacy is gone. In such cases, attachment therapy can be useful in getting the partners closer to each other. During attachment therapy sessions, a marriage counselor encourages partners to speak to each other about extremely private feelings, even the most trivial things. This exchange of emotions helps to rejuvenate romance in the relationship and strengthens the communication between the couple.

Gottman method of couples therapy

The Gottman method of couples therapy involves partners asked to map their own and each other’s happiness, sorrows, worries, anxieties and hopes. This helps them understand each other better and hopefully erase misunderstandings that caused conflicts in their relationship. In most successful cases, this makes couples see each other in a new light and increases appreciation and respect in their relationship.

Positive psychology couples therapy

When the spark has faded in a marriage, positive psychology therapy helps couples to remember, acknowledge and embrace the things they love about their partner everyday. A marriage therapist will ask the couple to make note of the things that made them smile and feel happy in a day, which will make each partner feel positively about the relationship and revive some of the lost excitement.  

There are many approaches and techniques used in couples therapy, and they tend to vary depending on the training of the marriage counselor and the issues experienced by the couple. 

Overall, studies indicate couples therapy can have a distinctly positive impact on relationships. Research evaluating changes in marital satisfaction after therapy shows approximately 48% of couples reach improvement or full recovery in relationship satisfaction after 5 years. Approximately 38% of couples experienced relationship deterioration, and 14% remained unchanged over the same period. 

Are you ready to start marriage counseling with your partner? Find an affordable marriage counselor with Advekit.