A Couple’s Guide to Marriage Counseling

A Couple’s Guide to Marriage Counseling

When we get married, no one tells us that sometimes things get hard – really hard. We don’t want to think that we’ll ever need a marriage counselor. But sometimes, a marriage counselor, a specialist in relationships, is just the person to help you get back on track.

Deciding to seek marriage counseling can be overwhelming and intimidating. You and your partner are going to be sharing the most intimate details of your lives with a virtual stranger. You have a million questions. Who do you see? What should you expect? How does it work? Where do you start?

You’re about to learn everything you need to know to make the best decisions for your relationship. If you and your partner are considering marriage counseling, this guide is for you.

What is Marriage Counseling?

In marriage counseling, one size does not fit all.

Contrary to popular belief, marriage counseling is not simply “counseling” with two people present. In fact, in marriage counseling the couple and their relationship dynamics, not the individual, is the focus of the process.

Marriage counseling (sometimes referred to as couples counseling, couples therapy or marital therapy) is a specific type of therapy used to address the unique relationship issues for couples. Unlike some other types of therapy, marital therapy is brief, solution-focused, specific in its focus and goals and time-limited.

While the exact length of time in therapy will vary with the needs of the couple, it is not intended to be a long-term, open-ended process.

In marriage counseling, one size does not fit all. Each couple is unique with their own preferences and needs. There are several approaches that have proven to be effective in helping couples work through issues successfully. They are backed by solid research and are widely accepted in marriage and family therapy practice.

While this is not an all-inclusive list, let’s take a look at some of the more popular approaches to marriage and family counseling.

Imago Relationship Therapy

The word imago is Latin for “image” and refers to the “unconscious image of familiar love”.
Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT) is based on the idea that our early childhood relationships affect how we communicate and behave in adult relationships.

By learning to recognize these “images”, couples to learn new ways to listen, communicate and work through issues. Couples might participate in couples sessions or 2-day intensive workshops.

Research has found that couples who participate in Imago therapy report improvement in marital satisfaction and communication1Luquet, W. (2015, October 24). Research Summary on Imago Relationship Therapy – Imago Professional Site. Retrieved from http://imagorelationships.org.

The Gottman Method

This method is quite popular, being supported by over 40 years of clinical research and successful practice with over 3,000 couples. It is an evidence-based approach that has proven effective with a variety of couples and issues2The Effectiveness of the Gottman Method – The Gottman Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/.

Through the use of strategies to ease emotional acuity, couples learn to break through barriers to resolve conflicts and increase respect, affection and emotional intimacy.

Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy (EFCT)

This short-term, structured approach to marriage counseling is supported by over 25 years of clinical research and practice.

EFCT is a short-term, structured approach that has been found to be effective in 75-90% of couples using this method. EFCT relies on emotions between partners as the change agent with the goal being a strengthening of the bond between you and your partner.

It has been shown to significantly increase the level of marital intimacy3Soltani, A., Molazadeh, J., Mahmoodi, M., & Hosseini, S. (2013). A Study on the Effectiveness of Emotional Focused Couple Therapy on Intimacy of Couples. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences82, 461-465..

Narrative Therapy

In the narrative approach, you and your partner are considered the “experts” in your lives.
Narrative therapy is an effective, empowering approach that helps couples to separate the person/couple from the problem.

By externalizing emotionally-charged problems, the problem is viewed as separate from the couple and their relational identities. Resistance is reduced and couples can learn to communicate more compassionately and effectively as they solve problems together.

This collaborative approach can foster feelings of acceptance and trust4Mohammadi, A., Sohrabi, R., & Aghdam, G. A. (2013). Effect of Narrative Therapy on Enhancing of Couples Intimacy. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences84, 1770-1772..

Positive Psychology

Positive psychology is based on the theory that happiness stems from emotional and mental factors and helps people to focus on finding happiness in the present.

Couples learn to focus on finding the positives and building on the strengths of their relationship that are present in the here and now.

When couples focus on finding and nurturing the positives of their relationship, tend to have stronger and more satisfying relationships than those who are constantly focused on finding every little thing that’s wrong5Pawelski, S. P., & Pawelski, J. O. (2018). Happy together: Using the science of positive psychology to build love that lasts. Old Saybrook: Tantor Audio..

Does Marriage Counseling Work?

There is a common misconception that marriage counseling doesn’t work. While outcomes are not always positive, many couples do find counseling beneficial.

In fact, according to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT), after working with a marriage or family therapist, 93 percent of clients said they had more effective tools for dealing with their problems6About Marriage and Family Therapists. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.aamft.org.

Every therapeutic approach has its strengths and limitations.

The most effective approaches have certain elements in common7Benson, L. A., McGinn, M. M., & Christensen, A. (2012). Common Principles of Couple Therapy. Behavior Therapy43(1), 25-35.. These approaches:

  • Change the couples’ views of the relationship
  • Modify dysfunctional behavior patterns
  • Reduce avoidance of emotional issues and experience
  • Improve communication between partners
  • Focus on the strengths of the partners and the relationship

You might be surprised to learn that what happens outside of the counselor’s office can also affect outcomes:

  • Couples may wait so long to seek help that irreparable damage is done to the relationship
  • One or both partners may not be fully committed to the process
  • Assignments may not be completed or may be done haphazardly
  • There may even be some type of abuse or intimidation that impedes the process

In these cases, marital therapy may at best be ineffective. At worst, it may be risky for one of the partners.

Every therapeutic approach has its strengths and limitations. Which approach is right for you and your partner will depend on your relationship issues and needs, as well as your level of comfort with different styles of therapy.

Are There Risks With Marriage Counseling?

As with any type of medical or psychological intervention, there are some risks associated with marriage counseling:

  • Previously unknown underlying personal or relationship problems may be revealed
  • Problems that are not appropriate to be addressed in couples therapy may be revealed
  • Working through the process may bring up uncomfortable feelings
  • Risk of negative reaction from partner for what was said in session
  • Success is not guaranteed. Despite best effort, about 30% of couples who attend marriage counseling continue to have problems8Lebow, J. L., Chambers, A. L., Christensen, A., & Johnson, S. M. (2011). Research on the Treatment of Couple Distress. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy38(1), 145-168.

The good news is that some of these risks can be effectively addressed within couples therapy. Others, however, may require a cessation of couples counseling so that the other issues can be addressed.

The most important thing is to communicate with your therapist. If at any time during the counseling process you feel uncomfortable or distressed, let your counselor know so that together you can determine the best course of action.

When Should Couples Seek Help?

The time to act is before the damage becomes beyond repair.

People come to marriage counseling for different reasons. Some couples are seeking to repair their relationship. Other couples are seeking to enrich their relationship in some way. Still other couples come seeking a way to take the relationship apart in a way that is healthy.

This last instance can be especially important in a separating couple who have children. Sometimes they need to learn how to let go of being intimate partners while learning to lovingly co-parent their children.

The time to act is before the damage becomes beyond repair. Deciding to seek marriage counseling is a critical decision in a relationship. It is not one to be taken lightly. And, it’s not for every couple.

Each of you need to be open to exploring the hard and sometimes dark parts of the relationship. You need to be willing to hear your partner as well as open to sharing your own feelings and needs. For a couple who is struggling, being open and vulnerable can be hard.

While there are a million reasons to seek counseling, some of the more common reasons couples seek marital therapy include:

  • A breakdown in communication
  • A breach of trust
  • An inability to resolve a disagreement
  • Co-parenting issues
  • Challenges with blending families
  • Dealing with unexpected changes
  • Intimacy issues9Wolska, M. (2011). Marital Therapy/Couples Therapy: Indications and Contraindications. Archives of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy3(1), 57-64.

In general, couples counseling can be helpful when couples are struggling to stay connected and working together. When the disconnect affects other aspects of your life, it’s definitely time to consider seeking help.

There are situations, however, in which marital counseling is not appropriate10Wolska, M. (2011). Marital Therapy/Couples Therapy: Indications and Contraindications. Archives of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy3(1), 57-64..

While each situation has to be evaluated individually, couples therapy is generally contraindicated in the following situations:

  • There is physical violence between partners
  • There is a legal contact restriction (such as a no contact order or restraining order)
  • Mental illness or addiction problems are present in one (or both) partners
  • Current involvement in other intimate relationships by one or both partners and unwillingness to end one of them
  • Having made the final decision to divorce (even if they’ve not yet filed)

Once you make the decision to seek counseling, the next step is to choose a therapist.

How Do We Choose a Marriage Counselor?

Marriage counseling is a highly specialized type of therapy and as such, requires the skill of a specialist. Marriage counselors (also referred to as Marriage and Family Therapists depending on training and licensure requirements), are therapists who are specially trained in working with couples and the unique dynamics of a marital relationship.

Finding a great therapist is like finding a great pair of shoes.

According to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, marriage and family therapists (MFTs) “are mental health professionals trained in psychotherapy and family systems, and licensed to diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders within the context of marriage, couples and family systems.” They are highly skilled clinicians with extensive training and experience in working with all sorts of relationship issues.

Finding a great therapist is like finding a great pair of shoes. You may luck out on the first try. You might have to try on a few before you find “the one”. And that’s OK. The most important thing is to find the one that has both the skill and the level of comfort you need. A therapist understands this and will not be offended if the “fit” isn’t there.

With that said, if you don’t get a good fit on the first try, don’t stop trying on! Think about what qualities are most important for you and your partner to have in a therapist. What are non-negotiable? What are deal breakers?

Some of the qualities you may want to look for include:

  • Specific training and licensure (if applicable in your area) in marital therapy
  • Experience working with the couples issues you are seeking help for
  • Fully informs you of the services being offered and seeks your feedback on your comfort with these recommendations
  • Fully explains confidentiality and the limits of confidentiality within context of marital therapy
  • Conveys positive regard to each partner
  • Does not take sides
  • Maintains control of the session
  • Offers full disclosure regarding fees and insurance matters (if applicable)
  • Is reasonably accessible

What Will Counseling Be Like?

Over time, you and your partner will build the skills you need and achieve your goals.

Expect that the initial few sessions may be somewhat uncomfortable. This is a new situation and you will both be getting used to speaking about things that can be quite personal. Your therapist is learning about each of you.

Early in the process, you and your therapist will identify the goals you and your partner will work on. The initial session or two will be spent with your therapist asking a lot of questions. This is part of the assessment process to explore and identify the goals that you will be working on. The therapist may interview you individually or together. You and your partner will set goals and the therapist will work with you to develop a plan for achieving those goals.

As the sessions continue, the therapist will guide you and your partner through the process of learning the skills needed to achieve your goals. You and your partner will be learning things like listening and communicating in more effective ways. You might be learning conflict resolution skills. You will be learning to work as partners.

Depending on your therapist’s approach, you and your partner may be given homework assignments such as a specific task, worksheets, journaling or a specific book to read. These are just a few examples of the many homework assignments a therapist might use.

Marriage therapy sessions are generally held weekly for about an hour. Again, depending on your therapist’s approach, sessions may be more often or include other modalities such as a couple’s group.

Over time, you and your partner will build the skills you need and achieve your goals. At that point, therapy is completed.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, it’s important to know that you don’t have to struggle in your relationship. If you and your spouse are committed to working things through, marriage counseling can be the path to success. Couples who have completed marriage counseling often say that the hardest part was asking for help and that their biggest regret was not asking for help sooner.

If you are considering marriage counseling, talk to your partner and learn more about the basics of marriage counseling.

References   [ + ]

1. Luquet, W. (2015, October 24). Research Summary on Imago Relationship Therapy – Imago Professional Site. Retrieved from http://imagorelationships.org
2. The Effectiveness of the Gottman Method – The Gottman Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/
3. Soltani, A., Molazadeh, J., Mahmoodi, M., & Hosseini, S. (2013). A Study on the Effectiveness of Emotional Focused Couple Therapy on Intimacy of Couples. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences82, 461-465.
4. Mohammadi, A., Sohrabi, R., & Aghdam, G. A. (2013). Effect of Narrative Therapy on Enhancing of Couples Intimacy. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences84, 1770-1772.
5. Pawelski, S. P., & Pawelski, J. O. (2018). Happy together: Using the science of positive psychology to build love that lasts. Old Saybrook: Tantor Audio.
6. About Marriage and Family Therapists. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.aamft.org
7. Benson, L. A., McGinn, M. M., & Christensen, A. (2012). Common Principles of Couple Therapy. Behavior Therapy43(1), 25-35.
8. Lebow, J. L., Chambers, A. L., Christensen, A., & Johnson, S. M. (2011). Research on the Treatment of Couple Distress. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy38(1), 145-168.
9, 10. Wolska, M. (2011). Marital Therapy/Couples Therapy: Indications and Contraindications. Archives of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy3(1), 57-64.
Written by
Dr. Dawn Ferrara, LMFT