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Marriage Counseling: Does It Work?

First in a series of blogs about marriage counseling.

In general, surveys show that marriage counseling has positive benefits. It helps spouses communicate better and recognize each other’s emotional responses. It provides a safe and neutral environment for motivated spouses to work through their problems. Statistics from the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and the Chicago Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy report between 70 percent and 98 percent of their clients were satisfied with their results. Although these numbers do not necessarily correlate with marriages saved, very few clients reported marriage counseling making things worse.

Realistic Expectations
“When many people ask the question ‘does marriage counseling work?’ they are really asking whether or not marriage counseling can save their marriage,” wrote Racheal Tasker in the article, “Does Marriage Counseling Work? 8 Surprising Statistics & Facts.”

There are many factors that can make marriage counseling more successful in terms of avoiding divorce.

Early Intervention is a positive factor. Obviously, the longer the problems have gone unresolved, the more likely they’ve become deeply entrenched in the couple’s common experience. Years of unacknowledged and accumulated resentment may prolong or derail the therapy process.

“One of the main factors that can determine the effectiveness of marriage counseling is the motivation level of both partners. For some couples, marriage counseling is really divorce counseling because they’ve already thrown in the towel,” according to a Huffington Post article by Terry Gaspard.

Couples’ counseling works best when both spouses are interested in remaining married and are willing to put in the work to repair their relationship. As many counselors describe, a therapist alone cannot repair a relationship. A therapist is a motivator, moderator, teacher, coach, and referee. The true work of repairing the marriage falls on the couple themselves outside of the counseling office. Couples that do their homework and actively seek opportunities to communicate are the most successful. Saving a marriage requires desire and effort.

When there are unequal levels of motivation, some counselors may refer to the two parties as leaning-in or leaning-out. Individual therapy sessions deal with each partner’s issues differently.

Trust is an important factor in the effectiveness of marriage counseling. In cases of infidelity, the spouses might do well to have their own individual counselors in addition to couples’ counseling. As Marilyn Wedge explains in her article, “After the Infidelity: Can counseling help?” it’s the marriage counselor’s job to be “on the side of the marriage going forward.” For that reason, she makes sure that both parties feel their voices can be heard while in joint sessions regardless of who cheated.

For various reasons, marriages may end in divorce even after therapy. “According to some research, approximately a quarter of couples who receive marriage therapy report that their relationship is worse two years after ending therapy, and up to 38 percent of couples who receive marriage therapy get divorced within four years of completing therapy,” wrote Tasker.

Gaspard writes, “Here are certain conditions under which couples counseling may not help a couple repair their marriage:

  • The problems in the marriage are too ingrained and longstanding for the counseling to be effective.
  • One or both partners have already decided to end the marriage and he/she uses the counseling as a way to announce this to their partner.
  • Addiction or mental illness is having a major impact on the marital relationship because it has not been treated prior to attending sessions.
  • Verbal or physical abuse is an issue in the marriage and one of the partners is fearful about their safety or well-being so clams up in sessions.
  • One or both partners are unwilling to complete homework assignments necessary to reverse negative relational patterns.
  • The therapist is not qualified to treat couples due to inadequate training or credentials; or there isn’t a good fit between the therapist and the couple.”

It’s worth a try
Therapy may not be able to rescue a doomed marriage. It may even solidify some couples’ resolve to pursue divorce. Having gone through counseling, though, the spouses can face divorce with the peace of mind that they tried everything. Therapy most likely gave each spouse communication and coping skills that will make the legal negotiations less painful. In addition, therapy clients already have a relationship with a counselor who can continue to help throughout the divorce and possibly post-divorce.

Other than the financial cost of therapy, there are no negatives to attempting couples’ counseling. Reports show positive results in clients’ attitudes, resiliency, outlook and emotional strength after relationship counseling, whether it saved their marriage or not.

The Huffington Post, “Marriage Counseling: Does it Help of Not?” Terry Gaspard, January 24, 2014.

GuideDoc, “Does Marriage Counseling Work? 8 Surprising Statistics & Facts,” Racheal Tasker.

Psychology Today, “After the Infidelity: Can Counseling Help?” Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D., September 18, 2013.

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