Marriage counseling, also called couples therapy, is a type of psychotherapy. Marriage counseling helps couples of all types recognize and resolve conflicts and improve their relationships. Through marriage counseling, you can make thoughtful decisions about rebuilding and strengthening your relationship or going your separate ways.
Marriage counseling is often provided by licensed therapists known as marriage and family therapists. These therapists have graduate or postgraduate degrees — and many choose to become credentialed by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT).
Marriage counseling is often short term. Marriage counseling typically includes both partners, but sometimes one partner chooses to work with a therapist alone. The specific treatment plan depends on the situation.
Why it's done
Marriage counseling can help couples in all types of intimate relationships — regardless of sexual orientation or marriage status.
Some couples seek marriage counseling to strengthen their partnership and gain a better understanding of each other. Marriage counseling can also help couples who plan to get married. Premarital counseling can help couples achieve a deeper understanding of each other and iron out differences before marriage.
In other cases, couples seek marriage counseling to improve a troubled relationship. You can use marriage counseling to help with many specific issues, including:
- Communication problems
- Sexual difficulties
- Conflicts about child rearing or blended families
- Substance abuse
Marriage counseling might also be helpful in cases of domestic abuse. If violence has escalated to the point that you're afraid, however, counseling alone isn't adequate. Contact the police or a local shelter or crisis center for emergency support.
How you prepare
The only preparation needed for marriage counseling is to find a therapist. You can ask your primary care doctor for a referral to a therapist. Loved ones, friends, your health insurer, employee assistance program, clergy, or state or local mental health agencies might offer recommendations. It can be helpful to interview several therapists before you decide on one.
Before scheduling sessions with a specific therapist, consider whether the therapist would be a good fit for you and your partner. You might ask questions about:
- Education and experience. What is your educational and training background? Are you licensed by the state? Are you credentialed by the AAMFT? What is your experience with our type of issue?
- Logistics. Where is your office? What are your office hours? Are you available in case of emergency?
- Treatment plan. How many sessions should we expect to have? How long is each session?
- Fees and insurance. How much do you charge for each session? Are your services covered by our health insurance plan?
What you can expect
Marriage counseling typically brings couples or partners together for joint therapy sessions. Working with a therapist, you'll learn skills to solidify your relationship, such as:
- Open communication
- How to discuss differences rationally
You'll talk about the good and bad parts of your relationship as you pinpoint and better understand the sources of your conflicts. Together you'll learn how to identify problems without blame and instead examine how things can be improved.
Here are some things to keep in mind when considering marriage counseling:
- It might be hard to talk about your problems with the counselor. Sessions might pass in silence as you and your partner remain angry over perceived wrongs — or you might yell or argue during sessions. Both are OK. Your therapist can act as a referee and help you cope with the resulting emotions.
- You can go by yourself. If your partner refuses to attend marriage counseling sessions, you can still attend. It's more challenging to mend a relationship this way, but you can benefit by learning more about your reactions and behavior.
- Therapy is often short term. Some people need only a few sessions of marriage counseling, while others need it for several months. The specific treatment plan will depend on your situation. Sometimes, marriage counseling helps couples discover that their differences truly are irreconcilable and that it's best to end the relationship. Sessions can then focus on skills for ending the relationship on good terms.
- You might have homework. Your counselor might suggest communication exercises at home to help you practice what you've learned during your session. For example, talk face-to-face with your partner for a few minutes every day about nonstressful things — without any interruptions from TVs, phones or children.
- You or your partner might need additional care. If one of you is coping with mental illness, substance abuse or other issues, your therapist might work with other health care providers to provide more complete treatment.
Making the decision to go to marriage counseling can be tough. If you have a troubled relationship, however, seeking help is more effective than ignoring your problems or hoping they get better on their own. Sometimes taking the first step by admitting the relationship needs help is the hardest part. Most individuals find the experience to be insightful and empowering.