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Does Marriage Counseling Work? Your Questions Answered
Ever since Consumer Reports tested different types of therapy in the 1990s and found marriage counseling to be the least effective of all of them, couples counseling has been treated with skepticism in the press.
In 2005, The New York Times published an article titled, “Married With Problems? Therapy May Not Help.” In the early 2010s, a series of Huffington Post articles questioned the effectiveness of marital therapy, prompting Terry Gaspard, LCSW, to write a response defending it.
With all the skeptical press it’s received, it’s easy to feel cynical about couples counseling. Even if you’ve read that modern marriage counseling now helps 70 percent of couples who get it, you might still worry about being one of the 30 percent who aren’t helped. Making the decision to go to therapy is already hard enough.
The type of counseling you get, the specific therapist you choose, the relationship issues you’re trying to address, and when you go to counseling all play a role in determining whether therapy will help you heal your relationship. Read on to learn whether couples or marriage counseling might be right for you.
On This Page
- Does Marriage Counseling Work? Statistics and Research
- When Does Marriage Counseling Work?
- Does Marriage Counseling Work for Infidelity?
- How Does Marriage Counseling Work?
- Does Marriage Counseling Work If Only One Person Goes?
- Does Online Marriage Counseling Work?
- How Long Does It Take for Marriage Counseling to Work?
- What Can You Do to Make Marriage Counseling More Successful?
- The Importance of Seeing a Qualified Marriage Counselor
Does Marriage Counseling Work? Statistics and Research
Marriage counseling is no simple task. Experts say it’s the hardest type of therapy for therapists to perform and that untrained therapists have an especially hard time doing it well.
Even the therapists who are trained to take on the challenge are meeting it at a difficult time. Cultural norms about marriage are always changing, but those changes have been particularly profound since the 1960s, when the divorce rate began to increase significantly until it reached its current level of about 50 percent.
Couples Counseling Statistics
Here are some facts and figures we’ve drawn from the research on couples counseling:
- In the 1980s, couples counseling had a 50 percent success rate.
- Currently, couples counseling has a success rate of roughly 70 percent.
- About 80 percent of therapists in private practice offer couples therapy.
- Nearly 50 percent of married couples have gone to marriage counseling.
- People who participate in couples counseling participate for an average of 12 sessions, with 66 percent of participant relationships improving in 20 sessions or less.
- About 30 percent of couples who seek couples counseling have a “mixed agenda,” with one person wanting to save the relationship and the other “leaning out.”
- Most couples wait an average of six years after issues start to arise in their relationship to go to couples counseling.
The types of relationships people bring to counseling have also become more diverse. It’s not just married couples anymore; most people now accept many other types of relationships as being just as important and worth saving as marriage.
This has increased the number of couples who seek couples counseling and the number of people who seek couples counseling earlier in a relationship. It’s also increased the complexity of relationship issues that counselors are called upon to understand and treat. How could any approach to couples counseling help every type of couple who seeks therapy?
Surprisingly, though, as the field of couples counseling has become more complex, it’s also become more effective. Research shows that not only does couples counseling work better than it did when Consumer Reports evaluated it in the 1990s, it works regardless of a couple’s ethnicity or nationality and is just as, if not more, effective for same-sex couples as it is for heterosexual couples.
When Does Marriage Counseling Work?
It makes sense that most couples take six years to make the decision to go to couples counseling. It’s already difficult to get on the same page about everyday issues in a relationship. It’s even harder to get on the same page about seeing a counselor.
Most people get nervous about the idea of delving into difficult issues in therapy. It’s even harder when the target of the therapy is a conflict-ridden relationship that could crack under pressure. People worry a therapist will take sides and drive them further apart. Some see going to counseling as a sign of defeat. Many people are willing to try everything else before going to a marriage therapist.
Six years is a long time to let resentment build. Relationship advisors Linda and Charlie Bloom say, “The more intrenched the problems, the longer it takes to resolve them, and in some cases, irreparable damage can occur.” Waiting until negative patterns have played out for over half a decade may be the reason that marriage counseling ultimately ends in divorce for some couples.
One solution to making marriage counseling more effective is simply to go sooner. “Timing is everything when it comes to marriage counseling,” writes Terry Gaspard. The Blooms agree, and they say that by the time one member of the couple thinks couples counseling is needed, “it’s probably time.”
Marriage therapists interviewed by CNN said a majority of their clients agreed they should have started therapy years earlier than they did. They said that most couples should go to therapy “before they think they need to.”
Does Marriage Counseling Work for Infidelity?
According to research described in The New York Times, couples counseling can help even deeply troubled and long-suffering couples whose “trust in each other ha[s] been shattered by extramarital affairs and other serious injuries to their relationship.” Research by Dr. Susan M. Johnson found that “after 8 to 12 sessions, a majority of [these] couples had healed their injuries and rebuilt their trust.”
That isn’t to say that every couple coping with the aftermath of infidelity will be able to repair their relationship. It’s particularly important that couples dealing with significant violations of trust clarify whether both people are willing to put in the work to heal the relationship and that they choose their counselor carefully.
Complicated relationships are less likely to be helped by simple interventions. The form of counseling that helped the troubled couples in Dr. Johnson’s study is one of the most effective forms of couples counseling: emotionally-focused therapy.
How Does Marriage Counseling Work?
Exactly how marriage or couples counseling works depends on the type of counseling you receive. However, there are common factors that unite all marriage counseling methods.
What Does Couples Counseling Do?
In general, couples counseling helps people in relationships:
- Become more aware of dysfunctional relationship patterns
- Identify and change the behaviors that harm the relationship
- Examine communication patterns and improve communication skills
- Learn how to be more vulnerable and speak more openly about emotions
- Reduce blaming language and increase empathy and mutual understanding
One of the earliest and most influential marriage counseling methods is behavioral couples therapy (BCT), also known as behavioral marital therapy. In BCT, you learn practical skills that help you improve the quality of your relationship.
The focus of BCT is learning communication skills like using “I statements” that describe how you feel instead of “you statements” that point a blaming finger at your partner. It also teaches you and your partner how to change your behavior in ways that reduce negative relationship patterns. Research supports BCT as effective.
However, research has also showed that traditional methods like BCT, while effective, don’t always lead to lasting change. The New York Times reports that BCT helps “about half of couples improve initially, but many of them relapse after a year.”
Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean BCT is only effective for a year; it means that relationships are complex and that one round of therapy may not be enough.
Evidence is strongest for emotionally focused therapy (EFT) and suggests that couples who engage in it are more likely to experience lasting improvement in their relationship.
As its name indicates, EFT focuses on emotion. It is based on attachment theory and targets patterns of relating that contribute to “emotional disconnection and insecure attachment.”
In EFT, after you identify negative patterns in your relationship that interfere with trust and intimacy, you and your partner learn how to make your connection more secure by learning how to be more vulnerable with one another. The powerful emotions that result from opening up to one another reinforce new relationship patterns and are a significant factor in the lasting impact of EFT.
Does Marriage Counseling Work If Only One Person Goes?
One of the trickiest parts of going to couples counseling is convincing your partner to go. It's rare that the decision troubled couples make to go to marriage counseling is mutual. Instead, one partner often pressures the other until that person relents and agrees to go.
While partners can change their minds and become more open to counseling after trying it for the first time, dragging a resistant and unmotivated partner into therapy is rarely a recipe for success.
Marriage and family therapist Risa Ganel says, “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.”
So, if you can’t get your partner to agree to go, or suspect they’ll only go once or twice just to say they did, isn’t it better just to go yourself?
Yes and no. Yes, the work you do on yourself in individual therapy will undoubtedly have an impact on your relationship, not least by helping you figure out how much you want to fight to save it.
Couples counselors primarily treat the relationship, and they do their work by observing and intervening in your interactions in the therapy room. This is work that one person simply cannot do.
Whether you’re inside or outside of the therapy room, trying to shoulder all of the work of the relationship on your own increases imbalances in the relationship and is ultimately unsustainable.
The best results for therapy come when you’re motivated to change, and this is just as true for couples. If only one of you wants to fix the relationship, and only one of you is willing to use what you learn in therapy at home, any change that occurs from going to counseling is likely to be short-lived and superficial.
Does Online Marriage Counseling Work?
There isn’t enough research to state with accuracy whether online marriage counseling works. Research on the efficacy of online therapy for individual clients has been promising, especially research on the efficacy of video counseling sessions (such as these studies from 2002 and 2012), but couples counseling is more complex and introduces more variables into the equation.
While online couples counseling has not been proven effective, it hasn’t been proven ineffective, either. If you and your partner know you need to see a counselor, but there aren’t any couples counselors within driving distance from you, or you can’t afford local marriage therapy rates, it might be worth trying online couples counseling instead of just giving up.
Do keep in mind that the limitations of online counseling mean that your degree of motivation to do the work is even more important if you choose to pursue it. If you’re not sure one or both of you are ready for counseling, there are other online options you can try first instead.
While it might not help with thornier issues, research shows that relationship education can help couples improve their communication skills and levels of relationship satisfaction. And there are generally fewer compromises required to deliver course material online than there are in translating more complex interventions to online formats.
How Long Does It Take for Marriage Counseling to Work?
The research is quite specific on how long it takes for couples counseling to work. According to one therapist interviewed in the 2005 New York Times article, most couples take 5 to 10 sessions to get results from couples counseling.
The article also cites a study showing that even the most troubled couples can repair relationship injuries and reestablish trust after 8 to 12 sessions. The Society of Clinical Psychology confirms these numbers and reports that EFT “typically takes between 8 to 20 sessions” to successfully complete.
How Long Do Couples Spend in Couples Counseling?
The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy reports that “Marriage and family therapists regularly practice short-term therapy; 12 sessions on average. Nearly 65.6 percent of the cases are completed within 20 sessions, 87.9 percent within 50 sessions. Marital/couples therapy (11.5 sessions) and family therapy (9 sessions) both require less time than the average individuated treatment (13 sessions).”
This means if you and your partner need to see a counselor but are worried over whether you can sustain the expense and time commitment over months, or even years, you can relax a little. While some couples need or choose to stay in therapy longer than the 12-session average, many do not. If you only have the time or money for short-term work, you can still get effective results from just two or three months of weekly sessions.
What Can You Do to Make Marriage Counseling More Successful?
Doing any of the following will increase your chances of success in couples counseling:
- Go early. The sooner you get help to change destructive patterns in your relationship, the less damage they can do.
- Choose wisely. The technique a marriage counselor uses can make a huge difference. While behavioral, integrative, psychodynamic, and cognitive behavioral techniques are supported by research as effective, the couples counseling technique with the strongest research support is EFT.
- Address individual issues first. While you don’t have to achieve individual perfection for couples counseling to be effective, it’s much less likely to work if you or your partner have active, untreated mental health conditions or substance use disorders.
- Do your homework. Therapists can’t “fix” passive clients. The process of therapy is dynamic and requires your active participation to work. No kind of therapy—individual, marital, or family—works if you don’t make the effort to apply what you’re learning to life outside the therapy room. In couples counseling, this means both of you have to be motivated to do the work.
An additional, and essential component of successful marriage therapy is making sure you work with a qualified counselor who has been specifically trained in couples counseling. Couples counseling is so different from individual therapy that you’re a lot less likely to be helped if you don’t see a counselor who has been specifically trained in couples counseling techniques.
The Importance of Seeing a Qualified Marriage Counselor
According to The Chicago Tribune, one of the main reasons marriage counseling doesn’t always work is that a significant number of counselors who offer couples counseling don’t know how to do it.
The mistakes counselors can make if they apply the same strategies they use in individual therapy to couples work include “appearing to side with one partner over the other.” In fact, many couples hope that is what will happen in couples counseling, according to Dianne Grande, PhD:
“Many individuals come to couples therapy with a list of complaints about the other person and a desire for the therapist to validate the complaints and change the behavior of the other person. Although there are valid complaints, nothing is resolved unless both individuals are open to change some aspect of their behavior.”
Another common mistake untrained couples counselors make is “allowing hot conflict” to take place in sessions by standing back while partners interrupt, blame, and criticize one another.
The traditionally restrained role of the individual therapist doesn’t work in couples counseling. When a therapist passively allows conflict to continue in the therapy room, counseling sessions become actively destructive to the relationship.
By nudging you along through your own process instead of guiding you toward what they think is the right answer, an individual counselor helps you come to your own, more lasting insights.
However, a passive approach in couples counseling facilitates a different kind of process: allowing you and your partner to continue the fight you were having at home in the therapy office.
Some of the most important tasks of the marriage counselor are to de-escalate conflict and redirect each member of the couple when things get heated.
In an article about destructive patterns in relationships, clinical psychologist Dr. Kathy A. McMahon describes the quick and skilled action couples counselors have to take in the therapy room to help partners change negative communication patterns and says, “This is why true couples therapists are called ‘Ninjas’.”
While the evidence in support of EFT is strongest, many marriage counseling modalities help people improve their communication skills, reduce destructive behavior patterns, and increase their capacity to be emotionally available and responsive to their partners.
People who see couples counselors are usually helped within 20 sessions or less and can be helped even if significant relationship injuries like infidelity have occurred.
Pro Tips for Couples Counseling
You’re more likely to be helped by a couples counselor if you go as soon as problems begin instead of waiting until problems in your relationship have become entrenched (most couples wait six years until they see a counselor).
You’re also much more likely to be helped if you choose a counselor who has specific training in marriage or couples therapy methods and who knows how to manage and redirect conflict in the therapy room.
If you and your partner know it’s time to see a couples counselor, you can use the search tools on OpenCounseling.com to begin your search. Just make sure to review the information in each therapist’s profile and ask them over the phone whether they provide couples counseling and whether they have the right training and experience.
If you think online couples counseling might be your best option, you can try online counseling with our sponsors, BetterHelp (for individuals) or ReGain (for couples). Whatever’s right for you, the sooner you go, the more likely you are to get the help you need to get on the right track with your partner.
Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments.