Does Marriage Counseling Work? (How to Fight The Odds)
You might be considering couples counseling but wondering if it’s worth it. If you can even get your skeptical partner to agree to go, will it matter? Does it even work?
The answer depends on when and why you’re going and what kind of couples counseling you get. But chances are good it will help you. Couples counseling helps most of the people who get it. Even people who are going through particularly intense challenges in their relationships can benefit from it.
So why do so few people seem to believe in it?
Why Do People Say Couples Counseling Doesn't Work?
If you’re skeptical about couples counseling, it might be because of something you read.
In the 1990s, Consumer Reports tested different types of therapy and found marriage counseling to be the least effective of all of them. Ever since, 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.
Its bad reputation is unfair, however. Therapists have developed effective new methods and the research has caught up, showing that it now helps 70 percent of couples who get it.
Not only does the research show that many modern couples counseling methods are effective, but it also shows how and why couples counseling works and when it’s more likely to help you.
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.
So, if you learn a little more about it, and choose well, you’re much more likely to succeed. Read on to learn whether it might be right for you and how to increase your chances of success in couples therapy.
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Does Marriage Counseling Work? Statistics and Research
Marriage counseling isn’t easy. Experts say it’s the hardest type of therapy to do well and that untrained therapists have an especially hard time getting it right.
Even therapists who are trained to take on the challenge don’t have an easy job. Couples counseling has become a more complex field.
While it used to be mostly married couples that went to counseling, now people seek help with many other types of relationships. More people are seeking couples counseling, and they’re seeking it earlier than couples did in the past. So, couples therapists need to understand a wider range of relationships and relationship dynamics to be effective at what they do.
Couples Counseling Statistics
Statistics from the research on couples counseling show that it’s popular, effective, and doesn’t necessarily take a long time or a lot of sessions to work.
- 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.
In short, couples counseling is more effective than it was in the past and now helps most people who get it—especially if they start soon after problems begin.
You might think that the increased complexity and diversity of relationship issues therapists have to address would mean couples counseling is even less successful now. Surprisingly, though, as couples counseling has become more challenging, it’s also become more effective.
Research shows that not only does it work better than it did when Consumer Reports evaluated it in the 1990s, couples counseling works regardless of a couple’s ethnicity or nationality. It’s also just as, if not more, effective for same-sex couples as it is for heterosexual couples.
When Does Marriage Counseling Work?
Marriage counseling works better the sooner you get it. Most couples take six years to make the decision to go to counseling, and many problems and resentments are deeply entrenched by then.
It’s understandable, though, that it takes many couples that long. It can be a hard decision to make. It’s already difficult to get on the same page about everyday issues in a relationship, and it’s even harder to get on the same page about seeing a counselor.
If you’re on the fence about couples counseling, it might be because the idea of delving into difficult issues in therapy makes you nervous. You might worry that your conflict-ridden relationship with your partner could crack under pressure. You might worry a therapist will take sides and drive you and your partner further apart. You might see going to counseling as a sign of defeat and want to try everything else before going to a marriage therapist.
Six years is a long time to let resentment build. According to relationship advisors Linda and Charlie Bloom, “The more entrenched 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 half a decade may be the reason marriage counseling ultimately ends in divorce for some couples.
So, 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: they say 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.”
So, if you think you might need couples counseling, but aren’t sure, consider going sooner rather than later. You’re much more likely to be successful than if you wait until you’re completely sure you need it.
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. If you’re dealing with significant violations of trust, it’s particularly important to clarify whether both of you are willing to put in the work to heal the relationship. It’s also important that you choose your counselor carefully.
Not all couples counseling methods are effective in addressing infidelity and other serious violations of trust, but some of them are. The troubled couples in Dr. Johnson’s study who were able to reestablish trust were getting one of the most in-depth and effective forms of couples counseling: emotionally-focused therapy.
How Does Marriage Counseling Work?
Like any other kind of therapy, couples therapy helps you and your partner figure out what the problem actually is, what’s causing it, and what you can do to make things better. How long this takes and how difficult it is depends on what the issue is, how long you’ve had it, and what you need to do to fix it.
Think of couples therapy the same way you’d think of regular therapy: you might start out by learning skills that can help you manage and cope with conflict and other emotional situations better than you could before.
Then, over time, you might delve a little deeper. You might not only dig down to find the origins of your challenges as a couple, but you might dig even further to find out how they’re rooted in things that happened to each of you long before you were a couple.
What Does Couples Counseling Do?
There are common factors that unite all marriage counseling methods. In general, couples counseling helps you:
- Become more aware of dysfunctional relationship patterns
- Identify and change the behaviors that are harming your relationship
- Examine your communication patterns and improve your communication skills
- Learn how to be more vulnerable and how to speak more openly about your emotions
- Reduce blaming language and increase empathy and mutual understanding between you
This might be all you need to get things back on track. If so, most couples counselors should be able to help you.
Many couples are surprised by how helpful is it just to learn different ways to communicate with one another. However, if you’re struggling with complex issues, you may benefit from seeing a therapist who uses more specialized techniques.
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. These basic skills have helped a lot of couples turn things around.
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 to address negative relationship patterns. Research supports behavioral couples therapy 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.” This is especially true for couples with more complex issues.
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 tried, 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.
You get the best results in therapy 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.
Does Online Marriage Counseling Work?
There isn’t enough research on online marriage counseling to say scientifically whether it works. But the evidence that does exist is encouraging.
That said, there are unique challenges for couples counselors who offer online sessions. It may be more difficult to de-escalate conflict if both partners are in the same room but the therapist is only present via video. It may also be harder for partners to focus on each other when their attention is pulled to a computer screen.
However, skilled therapists and motivated couples can overcome these challenges if they form a strong therapeutic alliance.
While online couples counseling hasn’t 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 in driving distance or you can’t afford local marriage therapy rates, it’s worth trying online couples counseling instead of just giving up.
Do keep in mind that the limitations of online counseling mean that how motivated you are to do the work is even more important than it already is in therapy. But while there are challenges to making it work, there are benefits to going online, too.
If you’re not sure one or both of you are ready for counseling, or if your local or online options don’t feel like a great fit, another option you can try is to take a relationship education course locally or online.
While it might not help with thornier problems, research shows that relationship education can address many of the issues that bring couples to counseling. It can help you improve your communication skills and levels of relationship satisfaction. Classes translate well to the online format and online classes may be a better option for some than online couples counseling sessions.
How Long Does It Take for Marriage Counseling to Work?
Couples counseling can work surprisingly quickly. According to one therapist interviewed in a 2005 New York Times article, most couples take 5 to 10 sessions to get results from couples counseling. That’s about one or two months’ worth of weekly sessions.
According to the same article, even deeply troubled couples can repair relationship injuries and reestablish trust after 8 to 12 sessions of emotionally-focused therapy (EFT).
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:
“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 worry that you might not be able to sustain the time commitment and expense 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 emotionally-focused therapy.
- 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, substance use disorders, or other individual problems that are derailing your relationship.
- 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’re not motivated and don’t make the effort to apply what you’re learning in therapy to life outside the therapy room.
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 therapist 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.
Counselors can make many mistakes if they apply the same strategies they use in individual therapy to couples work. One is taking one person’s side over the other’s, or even just appearing to do so. This can actually make a couple’s relationship worse. Unfortunately, though, many couples go into counseling hoping that is exactly what will happen, 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, couples therapy sessions become actively destructive to the relationship.
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. She says, “True couples therapists are called ‘ninjas.'”
According to the research, couples counseling is an effective way to improve your relationship.
While the evidence in support of emotionally-focused therapy is strongest, many marriage counseling modalities can help you improve your communication skills, reduce destructive behavior patterns, and increase your capacity to be emotionally available and responsive to one another.
Couples counseling usually helps within 20 sessions or less. It can help even if you and your partner have experienced significant relationship injuries like infidelity.
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.
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 have the right training and experience to provide couples counseling.
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 your relationship back on track.
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.