Does Marriage Counseling Work?

Couple's Therapy
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Marriage counseling is when couples receive guidance from a professional in order to navigate relationship troubles—such as shared responsibilities, infidelity, and more.

There are a number of reasons a couple might seek professional help for their relationship. Marriage counseling and couples therapy can be very effective, especially when started sooner rather than later.

Once you've decided to give therapy a try, the next step is finding a counselor who specializes in marriage or couples therapy. You may have to meet with more than one therapist to find the right fit. It's important that both partners feel comfortable, so keep trying until you find the right person.

This article covers how effective marriage counseling may be, reasons people seek counseling, as well as who may benefit from it. It also discusses what to do if your partner doesn't want to go to counseling (but you do), plus some tips for healthy conflict resolution.

Effectiveness of Marriage Counseling

The most studied and effective form of couples therapy is emotionally-focused couples therapy (EFT), developed by Dr. Sue Johnson. Research shows that this treatment is long-lasting and helpful with those of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds as well.

One 2017 study, for example, looked at the effectiveness of couples therapy in a group of veterans, with variation in age and race, and found it to be generally effective, with relationships still improved 18 months after treatment.

Another study from 2017 also found improvements lasting 24 months after treatment. Research published in 2015 found EFT helpful in couples experiencing infertility.

Does Marriage Counseling Really Work?

Marriage counseling can work to improve your relationship; however, there are many factors that contribute to its effectiveness such as your willingness to work on your relationship.

Generally, marriage and relationship researchers suggest that the goal of couples therapy should be to change the patterns of interaction, emotional connection, and communication between the partners.

Is Marriage Counseling Worth It?

Marriage counseling can be worthwhile for any couple who wants to find ways to make their partnership better. It can be helpful at various points in a relationship and can address a wide variety of issues that might exist in a marriage.

  • Younger couples may benefit from counseling: Counseling may help them establish healthy communication early on in a marriage. One study found that counseling prior to marriage could also empower couples to maintain their relationship over the long term. 
  • Partners who want to work on themselves may benefit: Counseling may be more effective when both partners are open and willing to look at their own flaws and are willing to make changes.
  • Couples that seek help earlier may achieve better outcomes: According to Dr. John Gottman, one of the leading experts on relationships and marriage, couples that get counseling before problems become severe may benefit a great deal from counseling.

Even couples who have reached the point where they are considering divorce can still benefit from marriage counseling.

Do You Need Marriage Counseling?

There are many reasons why a couple might seek marriage counseling. While some people are at a higher risk for divorce due to factors such as marrying at an early age, having divorced parents, or being in a lower income bracket, none of these alone are signs you need counseling.

Instead, you should consider aspects of your relationship that might be contributing to distress, dissatisfaction, or conflict. Consider the following questions about yourself, your partner, and your marriage:

  • Do you and your partner have conflicts over religious faith or values?
  • Do you often criticize one another?
  • Is there a lot of defensiveness in your marriage?
  • Do you tend to withdraw from one another?
  • Do you feel contempt, anger, or resentment for one another?
  • Do you believe your communication is poor?
  • Do you feel indifferent to your partner?
  • Do you feel like you and your partner have nothing in common?
  • Do you feel like you are growing apart from your partner?
  • Is there infidelity, addiction, or abuse in your marriage?

If you answered "yes" to several of these questions, then you may have a higher risk for relationship dissatisfaction and divorce. It doesn't mean that divorce is inevitable, but it may mean that you have to work much harder to keep your relationship healthy and happy. A marriage counselor can help you with that work.

There are many reasons why a marriage might reach a point that counseling is needed. The stress of daily life combined with the demands of work and family can make it more difficult for couples to feel close and connected.

It's important to remember that thinking about marriage counseling isn't a sign that your relationship is doomed. Instead, it indicates a willingness to do the work to improve your marriage, strengthen your communication, and grow closer to your partner.

Spouses who have realistic expectations of one another and their marriage, communicate well, use conflict resolution skills, and are compatible with one another are less at risk for divorce.

And even these couples can benefit from counseling at times of transition or simply to reinforce their communication skills and strong connection.

When to Start Marriage Counseling

It may be a good time to start counseling if both you and your spouse feel dissatisfied within the relationship—especially if you're working through a specific marital problem such as financial difficulty, infidelity, childcare issues, or another challenge.

It's a myth that your problems need to be "bad enough" for counseling. Even if you're not dealing with serious issues right now, counseling can be a great way to check in on your marriage and learn tips for maintaining a healthy relationship.

One study found that partners who made a greater number of attempts to improve their relationship on their own felt more distressed and less satisfied in their relationship than partners who made fewer attempts.

In other words, if counseling is available to you, it may benefit you and your partner to get a professional opinion when problems first arise so you can manage future obstacles together.

If Your Partner Refuses to Go to Marriage Counseling

It's not uncommon that one partner in the relationship does not want to attend therapy. Below are some common concerns and how you might address them with your partner if you do want to give counseling a try.

  • Your partner has never been to therapy before: Reassure your partner that it's common for couples to receive therapy or counseling. Try not to invalidate their fears, but rather, educate them on what will happen during a session so it seems less intimidating.
  • Your partner is worried that your relationship will change: Try gently reminding your partner that the goal of counseling is to create positive change in the relationship for both of you.
  • Your partner doesn't like the counselor: If you partner is uncomfortable with the therapist or counselor, try picking a new professional together.
  • Your partner won't open up: If your partner is unwilling to discuss their feelings with a professional, try to be patient. It may help for them to have a phone call with the counselor before a session to ask questions and get more comfortable.

Ultimately, you can't control whether or not your partner will want to go to marriage counseling.

If your partner chooses not to go to counseling, you can go by yourself. A counselor can still teach effective ways to approach problems in your marriage that will benefit both you and your partner.

How Happy Couples Handle Conflict

It is important to recognize that even people in healthy, happy relationships experience problems and face conflicts in their relationships. Research also suggests that these happy couples also tend to argue about the same things that unhappy ones do.

Happy couples also argue about money, kids, in-laws, and intimacy. The key to the success of these couples lies in how they manage these disagreements.

John Gottman's research looks at happy couples. He has discovered that even though all couples experience conflict in their marriages, happy couples apparently know how to handle their disagreements because of a foundation of affection and friendship. Unhappy couples may struggle with this skill set.

The exact problems couples argue about can also have an effect. In one study published in the journal Family Process, researchers found that happier couples tend to focus on issues that can be resolved more readily.

Unhappier couples instead center their conflicts on long-standing issues that lack an immediate resolution.

"Being able to successfully differentiate between issues that need to be resolved versus those that can be laid aside for now may be one of the keys to a long-lasting, happy relationship," suggested lead author Amy Rauer in a press release.

Where to Find a Marriage Counselor

Resources to help you find a marriage counselor near you include the following:

In addition, there are plenty of services that provide marriage counseling online, which in some cases, may be more affordable and convenient for you and your partner.

A Word From Verywell

While people often wait until their relationship problems become unbearable, seeking help early on may be helpful and improve your experience. Learning to work on your communication, finding effective ways to resolve conflicts, and rebuilding your emotional intimacy can help strengthen your connection and help you feel closer to your partner.

No marriage is perfect or completely free of conflict. If you feel like you might be facing a problem as a couple, marriage counseling can be a helpful tool to help you get your relationship back on track.

12 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Sheri Stritof
Sheri Stritof has written about marriage and relationships for 20+ years. She's the co-author of The Everything Great Marriage Book.