Couples or marriage counseling is offered to support people in relationships who may be considering separation or seeking improved intimacy and understanding. In couples counseling, the relationship is the focus, although each partner should also expect to focus on self-improvement and self-awareness.
When relationship counseling was in its infancy in the United States in the 1930s, it was known as marriage counseling and reserved for people who were already married or engaged to be married. Marriage counselors educated those seeking counseling about marriage and family life, and partners were rarely seen conjointly. The field was transformed with the emergence of family therapy and the increase in divorce rates in the 1960s and 1970s; conjoint therapy became the norm, and modern couples counseling evolved. Present-day couples counseling was heavily influenced by family therapy, which was designed to treat the family system and all members in it. Family therapy pioneers such as Murray Bowen and Virginia Satir helped shape the profession.
Presently, there are a multitude of different approaches to relationship counseling.
- Imago relationship therapy explores how we unconsciously choose partners who reflect back the very things we might benefit from working on ourselves.
- Emotion-focused therapy encourages partners to examine how communication styles or attachment experiences present themselves in interactions.
- Through Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), individuals can learn to heal trauma and find balance by identifying the different parts of themselves, acknowledging that some parts may be overactive or ignored, and taking responsibility for their reactions and emotions. This often allows partners to better understand the patterns that play out in their relationship and to better understand one another.
People in relationships seek counseling for any number of reasons, from power struggles and communication problems to sexual dissatisfaction and infidelity. Though counseling is recommended as soon as discontent arises in a relationship, studies show partners will not seek therapy until they have been unhappy for an average of six years. And yet, the more time has passed, the more difficult it may be to repair the relationship. In some cases, a couple who has already decided to separate may pursue therapy in order to end the relationship amicably and respectfully.
Counseling is often recommended for couples who are preparing for marriage. Typically, licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs) offer premarital counseling to couples who wish to explore areas of conflict or concern that may cause later difficulty or dissatisfaction in a marriage. In premarital counseling sessions, couples can discuss differences of opinion, personal values, and their expectations of the marriage. Premarital counseling may uncover more issues than a couple originally sought to discuss, but this can be beneficial as it can allow couples to discover whether they truly are compatible before they marry.
Effective therapy will likely address many aspects of the relationship, although communication tends to be the primary focus of relationship therapy. When partners repeatedly employ conflict avoidance or engage in heated power struggles, it is often the case that communication problems ensue; resentment builds, and repairs are never made. John Gottman, who collected decades’ worth of data on marriage and relationships, identified the lack of adequate repair following an argument as the biggest contributor to marital unhappiness and divorce. Counselors know one of the first steps in improving a relationship is to teach each person how to regulate their emotions, stay calm, and use healthy communication skills to resolve problems new and old, and many partners see improved communication skills as a result of counseling.
Successful therapy depends on each partner’s motivation and dedication to the process, and couples can expect to become better listeners and communicators and to find new ways to support one another. Goals will be established by the couple under the guidance of the therapist, and in order to achieve these objectives, each partner must be prepared to acknowledge and understand their role in the relationship. It is not uncommon for conflict to arise within therapy sessions, but ethical therapists will strive to remain neutral and avoid taking sides.
Some relationship counselors offer supplemental individual sessions to each partner as a matter of course, and some may offer individual sessions upon request. Therapists who specialize in relationship counseling are likely to have a marriage and family therapist license (MFT).
Relationship counseling is often held once each week, but this may vary depending on your therapy goals and whether you are also attending individual or group therapy sessions. Some relationship counselors offer supplemental individual sessions to each partner as a matter of course, and some may offer individual sessions upon request. Couples and marriage counseling is offered in a wide variety of settings, including private practices, university counseling centers, and group practices. Counseling is often short-term, though healing takes time, and ultimately, the therapy will proceed for as long as the couple is committed to seeing it through or until resolution is reached.
Research evaluating changes in marital satisfaction after therapy indicated approximately 48% of couples demonstrated either improvement or full recovery in relationship satisfaction at five-year follow-up. Relationship deterioration resulted for 38% of couples and 14% remained unchanged.
- Christensen, A., Atkins, D.C., Baucom, B., and Yi, J. (2010). Marital status and satisfaction five years following a randomized clinical trial comparing traditional versus integrative behavioral couple therapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78, 225-235.
- Gurman, A. S., and Fraenkel, P. (2002). The history of couple therapy: A millennial review. Family Process, 41(2), 199-260. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/218895478?accountid=1229
Premarital counseling. (2014, November 25). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/premarital-counseling/basics/definition/prc-20013242
- Seldon, L. (2013, July 08). Premarital counseling: The pros and cons. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/galtime/premarital-counseling-the_b_3542952.html
- Weil, Elizabeth. (2012, March 2). Does Couples Therapy Work? The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/04/fashion/couples-therapists-confront-the-stresses-of-their-field.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
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