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Couples and Marriage Counseling

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Couples or marriage counseling is offered to support people in relationship who may be considering separation or seeking improved intimacy and understanding. In couples counseling, the relationship is the focus, although each partner should also expect to focus on self-improvement and self-awareness.
  • When Is Couples or Marriage Counseling Recommended?
  • Expectations and Goals
  • Frequency, Duration, and Effectiveness
  • History and Types of Relationship Counseling

When Is Couples or Marriage Counseling Recommended?

People in relationship seek counseling for any number of reasons, from power struggles and communication problems, to sexual dissatisfaction and infidelity. Though counseling is recommended as soon as discontent arises in a relationship, studies show that on average, partners will not seek therapy until they have been unhappy for six years. And yet, the more time has passed, the more difficult it may be to repair the relationship. In some cases, a couple who has already decided to separate may pursue therapy in order to end the relationship amicably and respectfully.


Effective therapy will likely address many aspects of the relationship, although communication tends to be the primary focus of relationship therapy. When partners repeatedly employ conflict avoidance or engage in heated power struggles, communication problems ensue; resentment builds, and repairs are never made. John Gottman, who collected decades’ worth of data on marriage and relationships, identified that the lack of adequate repair following an argument is the biggest contributor to marital unhappiness and divorce. Counselors know that one of the first steps in improving a relationship is to teach each person how to regulate their emotions, stay calm, and use healthy communication skills to resolve problems new and old, and many partners see their communication improved as a result of counseling.


Expectations and Goals

Successful therapy depends on each partner’s motivation and dedication to the process, and couples can expect to become better listeners and communicators and to find new ways to support one another. Goals will be established by the couple under the guidance of the therapist, and in order to achieve these objectives, each partner must be prepared to acknowledge and understand his or her role in the relationship. It is not uncommon for conflict to arise within therapy sessions, but ethical therapists will strive to remain neutral and avoid taking sides.


Frequency, Duration, and Effectiveness

Relationship counseling is often held once per week, but this may vary depending on your therapy goals and whether you are also attending individual or group therapy sessions. Some relationship counselors offer supplemental individual sessions to each partner as a matter of course, and some may offer individual sessions upon request. Couples and marriage counseling is offered in a wide variety of settings, including private practices, university counseling centers, and group practices. Counseling is often short-term, though healing takes time, and ultimately, the therapy will proceed for as long as the couple is committed to seeing it through or until resolution is reached.


Research evaluating changes in marital satisfaction after therapy indicated that approximately 48% of couples demonstrated either improvement or full recovery in relationship satisfaction at five-year follow-up. Relationship deterioration resulted for 38% of couples and 14% remained unchanged.


One of the most important factors for positive therapy outcomes is finding a therapist who is a good match, but it can be hard to know how to find a therapist in your area. You can search for therapists who have experience addressing a particular issue that is affecting your relationship, such as infidelity or codependency, or who specialize in a specific type of therapy that appeals to you. Therapists who specialize in relationship counseling are likely to have a marriage and family therapist license (MFT).


History and Types of Relationship Counseling

When relationship counseling was in its infancy in the United States in the 1930s, it was known as marriage counseling and reserved for people who were already married or engaged to be married. Marriage counselors educated clients about marriage and family life, and partners were rarely seen conjointly. The field was transformed with the emergence of family therapy and the increase in divorce rates in the 1960s and 1970s; conjoint therapy became the norm, and modern couples counseling evolved. Present-day couples counseling was heavily influenced by family therapy, which was designed to treat the family system and all members in it. Family therapy pioneers such as Murray Bowen and Virginia Satir helped shape the profession.


Presently, there are a multitude of different approaches to relationship counseling. For example, Imago Therapy explores how we unconsciously choose partners who reflect back the very things that we must work on ourselves. Emotionally focused therapy encourages partners to examine how communication styles or attachment experiences present themselves in interactions. Through Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), individuals learn to heal trauma and find balance by identifying the different parts of themselves, acknowledging that some parts may be overactive or ignored, and taking responsibility for their reactions and emotions. This allows partners to better understand the patterns that play out in their relationship and to better understand one another.