Marriage Counseling Questions:
How Marriage Counseling Works
Does Marriage Counseling Work?
Couples thinking about marriage counseling or couples therapy often have lots of questions about marriage counseling, including possibly the most important one: “Does marriage counseling work?” This is often followed quickly by another fantastic and valid question, “How does marriage counseling work? As in, how will rehashing this issue in front of a couples therapist lead to a different outcome than talking about it at home by ourselves?”
I can assure you that engaging in high-quality, effective marriage counseling, couples therapy, and relationship coaching is extremely different than fighting with each other unproductively in your living room. Tons of good research shows that marriage counseling absolutely does work, but that doesn’t mean much unless you understand how marriage counseling works.
If you understand the process of marriage counseling, have asked questions about marriage counseling, and know what to expect from marriage counseling, you’ll be able to make informed, confident choices about not just choosing a marriage counselor, but knowing what you want to get out of the experience.
Also, quick note about defining our terms before we dive in: I’ll be using the term “marriage counseling” here a lot, but for practical purposes, “marriage counseling,” “couples therapy,” “marital therapy,” “relationship therapy,” “couples counseling,” and “relationship coaching” are — in this context — all referring to professionally supported growth work for the purpose of relationship improvement. The experience of in-person marriage counseling and online marriage counseling is also very similar, and equally effective. Here’s a link to learn more about couples therapy vs. relationship coaching, and what to expect in online marriage counseling, if you’re interested in learning more about either.
One caveat: The type of marriage counseling or couples therapy experience I’m describing in this article is focused on personal growth and relationship improvement — not mental health treatment through family therapy. That is a different animal and a different experience.
If you’d like to learn more about medically necessary behavioral healthcare that involves both partners, check out the article in the links below about when you can use insurance for marriage counseling (and when you cannot) because it has a lot of information about the differences between marriage counseling as “healthcare” vs marriage counseling for the purpose of relationship improvement.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about whether marriage counseling works — and how!
Does Marriage Counseling Help?
First, let’s tackle the question, “Does marriage counseling work?” That is a really good and extremely valid question, especially when you probably know someone for whom marriage counseling has not worked (perhaps even you). The answer is that yes, absolutely marriage counseling works, but only when you are working with a trained marriage counselor who uses evidence-based couples therapy.
Unfortunately, there are many, many kind, warm, lovely and ineffective therapists who are currently working with couples. The problem is that most therapists working with couples have only been trained in individual therapy – not marriage counseling.
When individually trained therapists try to apply individual therapy interventions to couples it has limited utility. At its worst it can be damaging to the marriage, because when couples who need marriage counseling get professional help from a “marriage counselor” that doesn’t work, they can conclude that marriage counseling in general is ineffective. They may then start to feel that their relationship is doomed, and that the only solution is separation or divorce.
This is a real tragedy because a huge body of empirically validated research that shows how effective marriage counseling is when practiced by a trained marriage counselor using evidence-based approaches such as Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFCT) and The Gottman Method.
Marriage Counseling and Couples Therapy Work, If…
This research shows that not only does marriage counseling help, but the positive changes couples make in marriage counseling, relationship coaching, and couples therapy are often sustained over time.
Good marriage counseling, relationship coaching, and couples therapy does work, and they can help you restore sexual intimacy, resolve your differences around finances, learn how to parent together, improve your communication, and heal after difficult things such as a betrayal, loss, or even an affair. But this type of growth work can be complex, and for marriage counseling to work, it requires a practitioner with specialized training, skill, and expertise in couples counseling.
If you want to get involved in marriage counseling that works, it’s vital that you make informed decisions to find a marriage counselor, and not to make the choice based solely on convenience or how much marriage counseling costs. I’m going to share lots of information with you about how marriage counseling works, but if you’re not working with an effective marriage counselor you won’t have the experience that I’m describing below.
Here is tons more information on how to find a good marriage counselor who practices evidence-based forms of couples therapy, and I hope that you check it out before making your first marriage counseling appointment.
Speaking of that, if you’ve already been browsing around and are confident that you’d like to work with a Growing Self relationship expert, schedule a free marriage counseling consultation to get started.
How Does Marriage Counseling Work?
It’s one thing to understand, intellectually, that “research shows that evidence based marriage counseling works.” While that’s true, I don’t think that hearing dry research statistics about the fact that counseling works for many people is particularly meaningful when you’re trying to wrap your head around how marriage counseling or couples therapy will be able to help you, specifically. So I’ll spare you the statistics.
Instead, I’m going to assume that you’re like me, and that you’re here because you have a sincere and genuine desire to educate yourself about how marriage counseling and couples therapy actually work, and what the experience is like. If I were in your shoes (as I have been in the past) I would be asking, “Yes, but how? How will the process of marriage counseling work… for me.”
I have so much respect for that, and would ask absolutely the same question in your position… now. Now I would, but that wasn’t always the case. When my husband and I did marriage counseling about 20 years ago I didn’t know enough about it to understand what questions to ask, or anything about how it worked. I just knew we needed help for our relationship. My husband was reluctant to try marriage counseling at first, but he knew that what we were doing was not working so was open to at least giving it a shot.
Thankfully, through luck alone it worked out for us and was a positive experience. I’m going to share with you what I know now that I didn’t know then. I’ll do my best to paint you an accurate picture so that you can make informed decisions about what to expect, and whether marriage counseling is going to be helpful for you or not.
Why Marriage Counseling Works
Good marriage counseling helps you hear each other, and have productive conversations that actually resolve things on a deep level (instead of another fight.)
When a relationship is stressed, negative communication patterns creep into many interactions. It becomes extremely difficult to have a productive, helpful conversation where you can actually feel closer, more connected, and find solutions to a problem.
Before my husband and I did marriage counseling, we were just going round and around, and having basically the same argument about the same thing repetitively. It was not helpful. I was angry and withdrawn. He was angry and hostile, often upset. At the time, I was not aware that we were in a (common) entrenched negative communication pattern that made it impossible to hear each other. One of us would launch into the same thing, the other would react badly, and our conversations would escalate into fights— or we would just stop talking and withdraw (until the next horrible fight, anyway).
We were legitimately doing everything that we knew how to do to make it better. It felt like we were talking about it. But we weren’t moving forward, or resolving anything productively. We just didn’t know what we didn’t know about what was really happening under the surface until we connected with a marriage counselor.
Then, everything changed.
What Does a Marriage Counselor Do?
1: Relationship Assessment
A genuinely good marriage counselor does many things, but the first and most important thing they’ll do is take some time to figure out what is going on between the two of you that’s creating issues and hurt feelings in the first place. They will never just jump in to begin making recommendations about what to change without first taking the time to thoughtfully understand where each of you are coming from.
I know from experience as a marriage counselor (and as a marriage counsel-ee) that you’re probably eager to have a marriage counselor wade right in and in the first 10 minutes of the first session say, “Okay everyone, here’s what needs to change.” (And then points the finger at your humbled spouse.)
And let’s all be honest here about our collective secret codependent fantasy that the imaginary marriage counselor is going to tell your partner that the problem is exactly the same thing that you’ve been telling them the problem is — which is them, basically. I know that would feel incredibly validating… but that is not likely to happen.
Fortunately (unfortunately?) a good marriage counselor will take a much more balanced and systemic perspective. In their assessment of your relationship, they will seek to understand why you are both reacting to each other in the way you are. You will both feel validated, though probably not “vindicated”.
While this is not nearly as gratifying as hearing a marriage counselor tell your partner that they need to shape up, I can assure you that it is infinitely more productive, and will lead to a genuinely transformational growth experience for both of you.
Depending on what is going on, you can expect a solid and thorough relationship assessment to take at least a few sessions. They may ask you to take a relationship quiz that is much more involved than our free “How Healthy is Your Relationship” quiz. They might ask both of you a bunch of questions in order to understand your core beliefs about relationships, your attachment style, your ways of communicating, and how your reactions to each other make sense.
As they’re creating their working “map” of your relationship, you and your partner will begin to develop a new understanding of what has been happening between you too.
And that’s the next thing a great marriage counselor does:
2: Supported Listening and Understanding
Marriage counseling works by creating experiences that are essentially the opposite of what usually happens in relationship conflict.
Let me invite you to reflect for a moment, honestly, on what it feels like to be you when you and your partner are having a conflict. I will bet you a cookie that you’re like me (and everyone else) when things get heated in that you’re focused on what you are thinking, and feeling, and wanting, and what you’re going to say next. We all get self-focused, understandably, when we’re feeling wronged.
Furthermore, if you’re like most people, you also probably have well-developed ideas about what would improve your relationship, which primarily involves your partner making changes on their end. Literally everyone does this because we view the situation from our perspective. And if we’re all being extremely honest, let’s just go ahead and acknowledge that we believe the changes our partners should make would be to accept our ideas, be nicer to us, or handle things the way that we would. This is completely valid: Our way of being makes sense to us!
However, this is what often creates conflict and impedes communication in a relationship. Because of all these understandable factors I described above, when we are in conflict with our partners, we all generally put all our energy into making ourselves understood, attempting to get our points across, or defending our own positions. (Totally zero judgment right now if you can relate: I have been married for 20+ years and I have done all of these things many times.)
One of the things a marriage counselor does is reverse this, and support both of you in hearing each other, letting each other’s perspective in, and learning how to be responsive to what your partner is saying.
Before my husband and I started marriage counseling I was completely confident that I knew exactly what he was thinking, and why he did the things he did, and how if only he could adopt my own point of view, our relationship would be great.
To my great surprise, when I was “gently assisted” in listening to my husband differently, I began to experience him in a completely different way. He learned a lot about me too. It was truly transformational.
It was because she was blocking us from having our knee-jerk, self-focused reactions to each other, and instead insisting we actually listened to each other — with empathy. And it worked. Things finally changed for the better, once we started listening.
3: Transformational Growth Experiences
Good marriage counseling is not “informational.” It’s experiential.
An effective marriage counselor is going to be very actively helping you two have extremely different experiences with each other during your sessions. You will be taught how to listen to each other differently, and offered different ways of understanding each other and what is happening between you.
This experience of listening and understanding will lead you to feel differently about your partner, in time. Once that understanding is established, it becomes the solid foundation upon which to build concrete skills for changing your interactions, in order to have more positive experiences with each other.
Please know that, in this way, good marriage counseling is very much a “growth experience” that is genuinely transformational in nature.
A good marriage counselor is not going to jump right in and give you trite relationship advice. They are going first to help you and your partner have a set of experiences together that will fundamentally change your understanding of yourselves and each other — through a series of productive conversations centered on listening to each other and understanding each other.
Once you have that, the skills-based aspects of improving your relationship become much easier.
4: Emotional Safety and Connection
Expert marriage counselors do many things to help couples (education, coaching, skills, new ideas, emotional support, accountability ) but most importantly, they provide a safe environment where a couple — even a long-distance couple, thanks to online marriage counseling — can communicate without the influence of negative communication patterns.
This allows people to really listen to each other, and understand each other. With this understanding often comes empathy, feelings of emotional closeness, new solutions to old problems, and a desire to change for the better. In this emotional climate, it becomes easier to unravel negative patterns that cause problems outside of the counseling room and create positive, lasting change.
One of the experiential changes you can expect from good marriage counseling, over time, is how to be emotionally safe and supportive partners for each other. Your marriage counselor will be showing you how to listen and communicate in sessions, and you will be practicing this new way of being. This creates emotional safety in and out of sessions, because it develops self-awareness.
5: New Self Awareness
As you get increasingly comfortable and familiar with how to listen, understand, and respond to your partner in your marriage counseling sessions, it becomes much easier to do this outside of sessions, too. Not just because you’re learning new skills, though you’ll get that too, but because you are becoming more self-aware and, consequently, more emotionally intelligent.
You’re eventually going to have a moment where you’re at the kitchen table and your partner is telling you something that feels a little triggering and you’ll have the self awareness to say to yourself, “Oh! Right. This is the part where I can feel myself getting defensive, but I’m going to do [insert: this thing I’ve been practicing in our couples therapy sessions] instead so I don’t make her feel invalidated, because that’s when she feels really hurt and shuts down.”
No one can just tell you how to be emotionally safe, emotionally intelligent, a good listener, and an effective, self-aware communicator. You have to learn how to become things through an experiential process of doing it in the room with a couples therapist who can provide you with feedback, direction, and practice.
If you don’t have an experiential self-awareness of what is happening inside of you (for example) when you’re about to defensively interrupt your partner, you will not be able to make real and lasting change. You will continue your old pattern, perhaps without even realizing when you’re doing it until it’s done.
Gaining genuine self-awareness often requires having had challenging but growth-promoting experiences with a good couples therapist who said, “I noticed that when he said that, you interrupted with this comment, and it shut the conversation down. Can you tell me what was starting to happen inside of you right before you said that?”
Without that type of self-awareness-expanding experience in an extremely emotionally safe environment, the habitual “defensive interruptor” would never have been able to articulate what thoughts and feelings lead them to communicate this way. Without that awareness, they can’t change it. Being highly attuned to your own inner experience while simultaneously, empathetically attuned to that of your partner allows you to respond in a way that authentically creates connection.
It’s deep stuff. It’s good stuff. It’s powerful stuff. But it is impossible to do that on your own in the midst of a fight. You need support and emotional safety in order to create a supportive and emotionally safe relationship. We all do.
6: Direct Guidance & Relationship Coaching
Marriage counselors do many things throughout the process of marriage counseling. As we mentioned, phase one of marriage counseling is generally a relationship assessment. This paves the way for increased understanding, capacity to listen with empathy, self-awareness, and a deeper emotional connection. It’s important for these things to happen first, so that couples have new, healing experiences with each other and reconnect with their love.
However, talking about things and having “magical moments” in the room and even out isn’t enough. They create the foundation, but in marriage, just like anything else, the only thing that will really change your relationship for good is consistently taking positive action. This means that, once you know what to do and how to do it, you need to follow through with the things that you learn about in marriage counseling.
Couples often come to Growing Self frustrated with previous attempts at couples counseling, because they felt they didn’t get enough practical support and guidance about “what to do.”
These couples had often previously been working with therapists who did not have specialized training and experience in marriage counseling, so they conduct marriage counseling in the same way they would individual therapy sessions. While these therapists might help couples talk about things differently in marriage counseling sessions, and develop new insight into themselves and each other… that’s often where it stops.
A good, experienced marriage counselor (or discernment counselor) understands that the new experiences couples have together in sessions are the seeds of change, but those fragile seeds will immediately wither without being encouraged to grow into robust behaviors. Skills, strategies, and homework assignments that help couples put nebulous things like “empathy,” “emotional safety,” and “self-awareness” into daily practice are what makes marriage counseling work, ultimately.
This approach to marriage counseling works well, because it draws from both evidence-based marriage counseling approaches, as well as a relationship coaching orientation that emphasizes positive change. Here is more information on the difference between couples therapy vs. relationship coaching, if you’re interested.
Because the marriage counselors of Growing Self use an evidence-based, coaching informed approach, they specialize in positive, action oriented strategies that will help you make real-world changes. Once you’ve developed understanding and connection through supported conversations, you can expect to leave your marriage counseling sessions with practical solutions for how to maintain the positive changes in your relationship.
If you’d like to do this transformational personal growth work with your partner here, at Growing Self, schedule a free consultation.
The Marriage Counseling Process
In the article above I provided lots of information about the transformational growth process that really good marriage counseling, couples therapy and relationship coaching can provide. I hope that it gave you a clear understanding of not just the fact that it does work, but how it works.
I know that this is a long article so if you’ve been skim-scrolling, here’s a quick summary:
It’s a process of growing together…
Marriage counseling works on a number of different levels to help you and your partner create a happier relationship. This work is much more “experiential” than it is “informational,” and it happens in phases. I like to use the metaphor of gardening to help people understand the process of marriage counseling.
#1. Preparing the Soil
In the first phase, marriage counseling works because you and your partner have made the choice together to seek help in making things better. The fact that you both say “we need to do some things differently” puts both of you in a receptive and more willing state of mind to make changes. Making the decision to enter marriage counseling is like preparing the soil for the seeds of change to be planted.
You’re telling each other that you both care enough about your relationship to try, and that you’re willing to invest time, energy, and resources into your relationship. In this way, you’re already growing together.
#2. Planting the Seeds
As an unbiased third party, a good marriage counselor will first spend time doing a thorough relationship assessment. As they get to know you and understand why each of you make sense, they will be helping you two to understand each other in a different way too.
As your marriage counselor comes to understand each of your feelings and perspectives, then he or she can then interpret what you are really saying and feeling to your partner in a way that they can understand. While this is happening, your marriage counselor will be indirectly (or directly) modeling for both of you what listening with empathy looks like, and how you help each other feel connected and validated. You will be encouraged to practice listening with empathy, being emotionally safe, and being validating.
Through these experiences you will develop a new emotional self awareness, as increased awareness of what is going on for your partner. This new perspective will help you understand what was really going on under the surface of the conflicts that you have been having, and you will have a brand new landscape in which to connect with each other authentically.
Your marriage counselor helps you understand the systemic patterns occurring between the two of you. You begin to understand how you are each affecting the other, and perhaps contributing to the other’s position in the relationship, and then you will be more able to make different choices.
During this important time of new understanding the seeds of change are planted.
#3. Tending the Garden
In order for the seeds of change to grow, you and your partner will need to start doing things a little differently outside of your sessions too. This involves learning the specific relationship skills, communication skills, and ways of relating to each other and responding to each other that will strengthen your relationship.
In effective marriage counseling, you’ll be having lots of conversations about how to turn your emerging understanding about yourself and each other, and your patterns of interaction into actionable changes in the way you do things.
This might involve practicing new rituals of connection, listening to each other with empathy, showing up with kindness, generosity and respect, or even overhauling your process around the way you manage finances with each other, or initiate sexual intimacy, parent together, or restructure your time.
You’ll also begin to be able to see negative communication patterns starting to happen, and practice shifting into more positive interactions before a conflict starts.
All of these things will feel new at first, and perhaps challenging. But these “first-order changes” are often necessary to create renewed trust, increased connection, and feelings that you’re both cared for and respected by the other.
This action-oriented work is like the regular watering, weeding, and fertilizing that a garden needs to grow healthy and strong.
The “connecting conversations” you’ll be having in your couples therapy sessions as well as outside of them will begin to bloom into something beautiful. You will feel like your bond, your trust, and your emotional security are healing. You’ll start to feel emotionally safe with each other again.
You’ll also be settling into the new ways of being that nurture your relationship with each other. As you both become more confident in your abilities to show up for each other in ways that feel good to you both, you’ll begin to re-experience the lightness, joy, and fun that you’ve been longing for in your relationship.
Your efforts to create emotional safety and show each other love and respect every day is the process of healing and growing, together. When this blooms, it’s beautiful.
The beautiful harvest season of all of this growth is increased maturity in each of you, new empathy for each other, and new enjoyment of each other. When you understand how you’re each affecting the other and are able to communicate the love and attachment that is underneath it all, you can transcend any conflict. You will feel like your partner “gets you.” You will have more fun together. You will have happy new experiences with each other that will reinforce all the growth you have accomplished.
But most importantly, you will come to a point in this work where you have a keen awareness of how much you have grown because of this experience. (Learn more about how long marriage counseling takes.) You will both be able to look back at what you were doing previously with empathy, but also with gratitude for how far you have come.
You will feel confident in your ability to stay connected, turn towards each other, and resolve issues productively as they come up. Your relationship stops feeling like “work,” and starts feeling like love.
None of us ever “arrive” and then stop. We are all constantly learning, growing and course correcting, and every couple needs to do this over and over again in order to have a healthy and strong long term relationship. As we all continue to evolve, we become new people, and this provides continual and exciting new opportunities to get to know each other over again throughout the years.
As babies are born, new jobs are taken, and circumstances change, people change and grow too. Couples will often get to a point where they find that what had been working well in the last “life segment” doesn’t work as well in the new one. They need to adjust their approach, and reconnect again in order to keep growing together.
One of the goals of great marriage counseling that works is to provide couples with a comprehensive tool box, skill set, and road map for how to stay connected through the inevitable ups and downs of life. One of the most important skills that strong couples have is feeling comfortable with getting support for their relationship when they need it.
Successful couples often find that it’s helpful to stay connected with their marriage counselor for quarterly “check ins” or during stressful periods when they feel like they may be reverting back to old behaviors. Then after a “touch-up” marriage counseling session or two, they can get back to a good place much more quickly and easily. A relationship with a good marriage counselor offers long-term support for your marriage.
In a rich and vibrant life and relationship, the growth process is never-ending. We’re always here to support you both in your personal, professional, and relationship growth process.
Wishing you all the best,
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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