Have you considered going to therapy with your partner before?
If you and your partner are having trouble with a tough-to-resolve issue or it feels like the two of you are drifting apart, you might wonder whether marriage counseling can help. So…can it?
It’s normal to be a little skeptical. Therapy is an investment—and the idea of sharing personal or private details about your relationship with a third party might make you a little uncomfortable.
But research shows that marriage counseling really can be effective—and not just for couples with problems. “Every marriage needs to be a partnership,” says Tina B. Tessina, PhD, psychotherapist and author of How to Be Happy Partners: Working it Out Together. “Therapy can teach you how to do this, even if you already get along.”
Here’s what every couple should know about marriage counseling, what it’s really like, and how to tell if it’s really working.
What can you expect during marriage counseling?
Nearly 50 percent of married couples say they’ve gone to some form of counseling with their spouse, according to a recent MidAmerica Nazarene University study.
Each session lasts 60 to 90 minutes in your therapist’s office—which requires extra time, money, and lots of emotional energy. Marriage counseling is typically not covered by insurance… so if you and your partner are going to go to counseling, it makes sense to give it your all.
That means being prepared to put in the work to communicate honestly, truly listen to your partner (even if you don’t always like what they have to say), and own up to your actions and shortcomings. “Feeling like the therapist should be able to fix the couple while they passively take in therapy will not work,” says Philadelphia-based marriage and family therapist Sarah Epstein, MFT. “The couple must be willing to grapple with discomfort, dig into issues, and keep working on the relationship at home.
Identifying your goals for counseling at the outset can also be helpful. Your therapist can help you and your partner pick a target—like arguing less or feeling a deeper connection with each other, says Risa Ganel, MS, LCMFT, a marriage and family therapist in Columbia, Maryland. If you’re looking for something a little more objective, ask your therapist about specific measurements you can take before and after each session, like an Outcome Rating Scale or Session Rating Scale.
So, does marriage counseling really work?
Indeed, research suggests that counseling really can make your marriage better. Studies have shown that therapy helps couples feel more satisfied with their relationships, develop healthier coping abilities, and deepen their emotional and sexual intimacy. (Sounds pretty nice, right?)
That’s because marriage counseling can teach you how to talk—and listen—more effectively. “Fighting is not a necessary part of marriage, but communication is, and therapy will help you change your fighting to communication,” Tessina explains. “When you learn how to listen to each other, and how to communicate without confronting, arguments become sessions for understanding and working things out.”
But does every couple benefit from marriage counseling?
Maybe you and your partner have an issue that you already suspect could be worked out through counseling. But if you’re on the fence about couples therapy, these questions might be worth considering, says Epstein. Marriage counseling might be right for you if:
- You feel like you have the same argument over and over again in different ways.
- You feel disconnected, like you’ve lost each other in the midst of your busy lives.
- Sex and intimacy has dwindled and you feel alone.
- You have a sense that something isn’t working the way it should be—and you’ve done everything you can think of to fix it.
- You’ve gone through a major life upheaval that’s left you struggling—like adding a child to your home, having a parent move in, getting a new job, or getting a serious medical diagnosis.
That said, seeing a therapist won’t work for every person—or every couple. Marriage counseling is inappropriate for situations where there’s domestic violence or active drug or alcohol abuse, says Ganel.
It also won’t work if one or both partners aren’t truly invested in the counseling process. “If you go to couples therapy so you can say you ‘tried everything’ but aren’t truly there to try, it’s a set up for failure,” Ganel says.
Just as important? You have to do your best to be a grown-up and play fair—even when you’re angry. “A surefire way to sabotage couples therapy is to be defensive, use what’s said in session against your partner at home, or argue in session the same way you do at home,” Ganel says. Those are the types of behaviors that’ll set you and your partner up for failure.
How long does it take for marriage counseling to work?
Resolving your issues and improving your communication in couples therapy is a process—but it doesn’t have to go on forever. “I want couples to be able to implement the skills they learn in session to the point where they no longer need me,” says Ganel, who estimates that many couples will see big benefits after eight to 10 sessions.
That said, putting all your feelings out there can make for some serious turbulence starting out. “Counseling can lead to feeling more raw before things start to improve,” Epstein says. But after that, you should begin to sense some positive changes. You might start to feel more heard or more understood, or notice that you and your partner are being kinder to each other, Epstein says. Your sex life might start to improve too.
On the other hand? Even with a few months of successful therapy, there’s no guarantee a new issue won’t pop up down the road. When that happens, going back to your therapist for a tune-up can help. “A marriage therapist may develop a relationship with a couple over the course of many years, in which the couple checks in on the health of their relationship or comes in during a particular transitional moment or stressful time,” Epstein says.
The bottom line: Marriage counseling is a healthy and effective way to work through consistent relationship problems—but only if both partners put in genuine effort to improve communication.