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Marriage counseling, also known as couples counseling, relationship counseling, or couples therapy, is a form of therapy that supports people in intimate relationships. Therapy may be helpful for partners considering separation or seeking improved intimacy and understanding. While the relationship itself is the focus in marital counseling, each partner is expected to pay attention to self-improvement and self-awareness.
It can be helpful to consider whether the marriage counselor is a good fit for both partners before scheduling a couples therapy session. It is important to choose a marriage counselor who:
- Has received the required training to offer couples counseling
- Is experienced dealing with the couple’s specific issues
- Works with the couple to develop a therapy plan
- Shows compassion to both partners
- Does not take sides
- Does not allow one partner to speak for or interrupt the other
- Maintains control of each session
- Is easily accessible
- Encourages the couple early to express if they are comfortable with the services offered
- Charges affordable fees or accepts insurance
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).
Approaches and techniques used in couples therapy can vary depending on the training of the marriage counselor and the issues experienced by the couple seeking treatment. Some common therapeutic approaches in couples counseling include:
- Imago relationship therapy explores reasons for negative perceptions or behaviors in the relationship and seeks to restore communication between partners.
- Emotionally focused therapy creates new, positive interactions between partners and strengthens their emotional bond.
- Internal Family Systems therapy helps partners better understand each other and the patterns existing in their relationship.
- The Gottman Method increases closeness, affection, and respect.
- The developmental model of couples therapy focuses on the growth and development of each partner as a person and the couple as a pair.
- Positive psychology helps partners focus on positive traits and live in the present.
- Narrative therapy explores past issues from different angles, helping couples gain insight into adjustments they may need to make in the relationship.
- Individual counseling can serve as a precursor to couples therapy. It may be a treatment approach for one partner if the other is unwilling to come to couples therapy.
The purpose of couples counseling is helping partners learn more about each other and acquire healthy problem-solving skills. The marriage counselor or LMFT may interview both partners, together or individually, during the first few meetings. Afterward, they may provide feedback. The couple may set therapeutic goals with the guidance of the therapist and develop a plan for therapy so each person knows what to expect. In couples therapy, positive results often depend on the couple’s motivation and dedication to the process.
As treatment progresses, each partner may become a better listener and communicator. Partners also often learn to support each other new ways. It is not uncommon for conflict to arise in therapy sessions. An ethical marriage counselor will remain neutral and avoid taking sides. Some marriage counselors offer supplemental individual sessions to each partner as a standard part of treatment. Others may offer individual sessions upon request.
Relationship counseling is generally held once a week. The schedule can vary depending on the couple’s goals and whether each partner is also attending individual or group therapy sessions. Couples counseling is offered in a variety of settings, including private practices, university counseling centers, and group practices.
Marriage counseling is often short-term, though healing a relationship may take more time. Ultimately, couples therapy will continue for as long as the couple is committed to completing the treatment plan or until they reach resolution.
Any couple with a history together may benefit from relationship counseling. Couples may seek counseling to resolve relationship issues, gain insight into the dynamics of their relationship, strengthen their emotional bonds, or find amicable ways to bring their relationship to an end. Premarital counseling is available for individuals who are engaged to be married.
As all couples experience tension or conflict at some point in their relationship, many people are unsure when they should seek couples counseling. The reality is that couples may seek relationship counseling for many different reasons, including:
- Power struggles
- Communication issues
- Substance abuse
- Sexual dissatisfaction
- Financial issues
- Anger issues
- Major life adjustments
- Frequent conflict or high stress levels
- Conflicting ideas on childrearing
Most couples counselors agree it’s best to seek couples counseling is as soon as discontent enters the relationship. Therapy need not be delayed until an issue becomes a crisis. In many relationships, couples therapy is not considered until issues persist for an average of six years. This delay can make it more difficult to repair or resolve concerns.
Couples therapy is also beneficial for partners who have made firm resolutions about the future of their relationship. A couple in a healthy relationship may seek counseling to increase intimacy or find new ways to connect with each other emotionally. Couples who have already decided to separate may pursue couples counseling in order to end their relationship on respectful terms.
People who are engaged to be married might also choose to seek premarital counseling. This can help couples explore areas of conflict or concern that may cause difficulty or dissatisfaction in their marriage. Therapy allows couples to discuss differences of opinion, personal values, and their expectations. Premarital counseling can uncover more issues than a couple originally meant to discuss. This may be beneficial, as it allows couples to evaluate whether they are truly compatible before marrying.
There are many advantages to engaging in couples therapy, but some situations are not improved by this approach. For example, in domestic abuse cases where violence is causing one partner to fear the other, couples therapy may not be enough. In some cases, a person’s safety or life may be jeopardized if they remain in a relationship with an abusive partner. Victims of intimate partner abuse are encouraged to call the police or find a local crisis center in the event of an emergency.
Studies indicate couples therapy can have a marked 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.
Couples therapy is most effective when both partners are committed to improving their relationship and sticking to the treatment plan. The approach is much less effective if one partner refuses to participate in treatment or the relationship is violent or abusive. Effectiveness of couples therapy is also reduced when those in the relationship only expect their partner to change. The more open each member of the relationship is to reflecting on their own perspectives and habits, the more effective couples therapy is likely to be.
Relationship counseling, originally known as marriage counseling and reserved for engaged or married couples, was in its infancy in the United States during the 1930s. Marriage counselors educated people about marriage and family life. However, it was rare for partners to seek relationship counseling together.
Couples therapy was transformed by the emergence of family therapy and the increase in divorce rates throughout the 1960s and 1970s. During this period, couples therapy was typically conducted with both partners present. Present-day couples counseling is heavily influenced by family therapy, a holistic approach designed to treat the family system together with its individual members. The work of family therapy pioneers, including Murray Bowen and Virginia Satir, was particularly impactful in developing this approach.
Today, couples counseling is available for married or unmarried people in all kinds of relationships. Counseling usually includes both partners, but there are occasions when a marriage counselor may work with only one person in a relationship. Counseling for individuals in a relationship might center on personal behaviors, reactions, and/or opportunities for growth.
Your local mental health association, family doctor, clergy or friends are good referral sources. Look for someone whose education and training best fits your needs and situation. For example, a gay couple may benefit from a counselor experienced in dealing with gay/lesbian issues. Make sure your chosen therapist is licensed by the state or accredited by a professional organization.
For the first several sessions, the therapist will attempt to evaluate your relationship. She will try to figure out:
What keeps you together
What stresses your relationship
The nature of your conflicts
Behavioral and communication patterns
Your strengths and weaknesses
The power structure
What qualities are missing or dysfunctional in your relationship
She also will study you as individuals.
Together, the two of you and your therapist will set realistic goals, which could be anything from learning how to be empathetic to figuring out new ways to negotiate problems to deciding how to share household and parental responsibilities. Your counselor will use a variety of therapeutic techniques until your goals are met or until you reach a point where either you or the therapist wants to terminate treatment.
Responsibility of the Couple
Ideally, both you and your partner will seek professional help together. But, therapy can have positive outcomes even if only one of you is willing to attend. Most important, however, is your willingness to be honest and to make changes. Although your therapist can provide direction, you are responsible for acting on such guidance. By doing so, you will enjoy improved interaction and renewed enthusiasm for your relationship
Relationship counselor or couple’s therapist
Licensed couple therapist may refer to a psychiatrist, clinical social workers, counseling psychologists, clinical psychologists, pastoral counsellors, marriage and family therapists, and psychiatric nurses. The duty and function of a relationship counselor or couples therapist is to listen, respect, understand and facilitate better functioning between those involved.
The basic principles for a counselor include:
- Provide a confidential dialogue, which normalizes feelings
- To enable each person to be heard and to hear themselves
- Provide a mirror with expertise to reflect the relationship’s difficulties and the potential and direction for change
- Empower the relationship to take control of its own destiny and make vital decisions
- Deliver relevant and appropriate information
- Changes the view of the relationship
- Improve communication
- Set clear goals and objectives
As well as the above, the basic principles for a couples therapist also include:
- To identify the repetitive, negative interaction cycle as a pattern.
- To understand the source of reactive emotions that drive the pattern.
- To expand and re-organize key emotional responses in the relationship.
- To facilitate a shift in partners’ interaction to new patterns of interaction.
- To create new and positively bonding emotional events in the relationship
- To foster a secure attachment between partners.
- To help maintain a sense of intimacy.
Common core principles of relationship counseling and couples therapy are:
- Evidence based
- Certification, ongoing training and
In both methods, the practitioner evaluates the couple’s personal and relationship story as it is narrated, interrupts wisely, facilitates both de-escalation of unhelpful conflict and the development of realistic, practical solutions. The practitioner may meet each person individually at first but only if this is beneficial to both, is consensual and is unlikely to cause harm. Individualistic approaches to couple problems can cause harm. The counselor or therapist encourages the participants to give their best efforts to reorienting their relationship with each other. One of the challenges here is for each person to change their own responses to their partner’s behavior. Other challenges to the process are disclosing controversial or shameful events and revealing closely guarded secrets. Not all couples put all of their cards on the table at first. This can take time.