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Couples and Marriage Counseling

Couples or marriage counseling is offered to support people in relationship 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 Is Couples or Marriage Counseling Recommended?

People in relationship 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 that on average, partners will not seek therapy until they have been unhappy for 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.


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, communication problems ensue; resentment builds, and repairs are never made. John Gottman, who collected decades’ worth of data on marriage and relationships, identified that the lack of adequate repair following an argument is the biggest contributor to marital unhappiness and divorce. Counselors know that 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 their communication improved as a result of counseling.


Expectations and Goals

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 his or her 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.


Frequency, Duration, and Effectiveness

Relationship counseling is often held once per 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 that 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.


One of the most important factors for positive therapy outcomes is finding a therapist who is a good match, but it can be hard to know how to find a therapist in your area. You can search for therapists who have experience addressing a particular issue that is affecting your relationship, such as infidelity or codependency, or who specialize in a specific type of therapy that appeals to you. Therapists who specialize in relationship counseling are likely to have a marriage and family therapist license (MFT).


History of Relationship Counseling

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 clients 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.


Types of Relationship Counseling

There are many specific models for relationship counseling, but not every therapist has a firmly established modality. Many apply strategies from several different modalities to suit a couple's unique needs and difficulties. Some common approaches to couples counseling include:

  • Gottman Model – Originally developed by John Gottman, this model is based on Gottman's extensive research on what causes marriages to fall apart. Gottman found that contempt, criticism of a partner's personality, stonewalling and defensiveness were at the root of many marital conflicts. His model focuses on avoiding these common pitfalls, increasing compromise and attempts at connection and altering the way couples respond to anger.
  • Emotionally focused therapy  encourages partners to examine how communication styles or attachment experiences present themselves in interactions. This type of therapy is relatively short-term and was originally developed by Sue Johnson. Johnson argues that attachment issues are at the heart of many conflicts. Rather than, for example, trying to compromise about who does the laundry, this type of therapy focuses on how disagreements provoke long-standing attachment issues.
  • Pastoral counseling is marital therapy with a member of the clergy. Priests, pastors, rabbis, and other clergy members draw on their religious faith and experience to guide couples. While pastoral counseling does not always occur with a therapist, some clergy members are therapists and use both elements of pastoral counseling and other modalities in their practice.
  • Imago therapy explores how we unconsciously choose partners who reflect back the very things that we must work on ourselves. The model emphasizes that the disillusionment of daily stress and fights can undermine closeness and focuses on helping couples re-establish the behaviors and thoughts that helped them fall in love in the first place.
  • Internal Family Systems therapy (IFS) helps people 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 allows partners to better understand the patterns that play out in their relationship and to better understand one another.



  1. 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.
  2. Gurman, A. S., and Fraenkel, P. (2002). The history of couple therapy: A millennial review. Family Process, 41(2), 199-260. Retrieved from
  3. Weil, Elizabeth. (2012, March 2). Does Couples Therapy Work? The New York Times. Retrieved from



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