3 Keys to Marital Counseling Success

couple hugging on couchBefore developing a specialty in working with couples, I had heard a lot of rumors saying that couples counseling was a waste of time. It didn’t work in most cases, particularly with high-conflict couples. I didn’t pay much attention to these rumors at first, because in the beginning of my career I did not have an interest in couples therapy.

But now, after years of counseling couples and working through challenges in my own marriage to eventually create a strong relationship and happy family, I understand why marriage counseling has gotten a bad rap. The reasons some couples don’t succeed in marriage counseling are the exact same reasons they don’t succeed in marriage!

What Counselors Can Offer Couples

Counselors and therapists have a plethora of training and tools to offer. In couples therapy, clients can learn conflict resolution skills, effective communication skills, empathy, problem solving, parenting techniques, how to get their needs met, how to speak their spouse’s love language. I could keep going and name 25 more things you can learn and achieve in therapy.

Plus, counselors offer their clients understanding, compassion, and a safe place to talk openly about problems. They can also give concrete advice and solutions. We even offer homework assignments, so you can do more learning and growing to improve your relationship between sessions!

Yet, for many couples, marriage counseling doesn’t seem to lead to significant and lasting change. And some people who have tried couples counseling tell me it didn’t work for them at all!

What’s going on? If therapists have so many tools and solutions to offer couples, why isn’t marriage counseling always (or even mostly) effective?

Client Factors in Therapy

Research tells us that the most important factors in therapy success (that is, the factors that account for the largest portion of variance) are client factors. What does this mean exactly? It means that the things clients bring to therapy—their attitudes, their beliefs, their fears—are a key factor in how successful the therapy will be.

This brings me back to my opening comment: the reasons some couples don’t succeed in therapy are the exact same reasons they don’t succeed in marriage!

How to Get the Most Out of Couples Counseling

There are three things that couples can do to almost guarantee success in couples counseling and in marriage.

  1. Don’t throw in the towel. Marriage takes work, and persistence pays off (in any endeavor). I can’t count how many times a couple comes in for two or three sessions and then at least one of them tells me, “I don’t think this is working.” I’m constantly reminding people that problems unresolved for ten years won’t be magically fixed in three 45-minute sessions. For some people, when things get difficult, when they don’t get immediate gratification, they become fearful that “it’ll never work anyway.” So they just want to quit early to avoid disappointment. If you give up too soon, your therapy won’t work, and it’s likely that neither will your marriage!
  2. Focus on your growth. Couples who don’t succeed in marriage or in counseling are often focused on trying to fix their partner or on what they are not getting from their partner. This focus does not work. Instead, you must focus on your own growth. How can you become more patient or more assertive? How can you be less controlling or begin taking more initiative? How can you rein in your strong emotions or express what you feel more openly? You see, it doesn’t matter which side of the fence you’re on (over-emotional, distant, controlling, or passive); either way, there’s an opportunity for you to grow and improve. You are only responsible for your half. Your partner’s half is his or her business. I read a comment in a book a few years ago that said most people see marriage as the opportunity to experience the best in another person, but marriage is really the opportunity to experience the best in yourself. It is simply a different context for personal growth—your growth.
  3. Have realistic expectations. Just like many couples have unrealistic expectations about marriage, they also have unrealistic expectations of therapy. People expect their spouses to make them happy and meet most of their needs. People expect their therapist to be the one to fix their marriage.

This may surprise you, but it is not the job of your marriage counselor to fix your marriage. It is the job of your marriage counselor to teach you how you can fix your own marriage. Just like it isn’t your spouse’s job to make you happy and meet your needs. Of course, in a well-functioning marriage, your spouse will bring you joy (in part because you will choose to delight in the good qualities they possess), but you are the one responsible for creating happiness for yourself.

Plus, it’s normal for marriages to go through tough times. It’s unrealistic to think you can live with someone for 40 years and not have a few rough years in between. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be difficult forever.

Both marriage and therapy can be amazingly wonderful and life-transforming experiences. They both provide the opportunity to grow and become a more loving, patient, insightful, and forgiving person, which automatically leads to more happiness, satisfaction with life, and inner peace. Both marriage and therapy are opportunities. It’s completely up to you whether or not to take advantage of them.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Chantal Gagnon, PhD, LMHC, Postpartum Depression Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Bonner

    May 30th, 2014 at 11:40 AM

    It really is up to each individual couple to determine what if anything they choose to get from the experience. If they are closed off to the possibility of marital repair then guess what? No fix. If they are open to it but don’t know how to get what they want from the relationship this is where a great couples therapist can really help them out. But this is something that takes two willing parties who are commited to making the marriage work. This can’t be something that is one sided- that is therapy that is doomed to fail.

  • melanie s.

    May 30th, 2014 at 2:15 PM

    If at all possible it is critical to find a counselor that both of you can relate to in some way.

    Many times I think that one spouse or the other feels like the counselor is taking sides against him or her and only looking at the things that they are doing wrong and not the things that they are doing right. You know that this could easily turn someone off and make it so that any time you go to see this person they will clam up and not get anything productive accomplished.

    If you are able to find someone who can speak to both partners equally and on the same level, someone that you can both feel like is on your side then I think that more progress can be made and you can get more out of those sessions.

  • Jameson

    May 31st, 2014 at 5:44 AM

    You have to think that a huge problem likely comes form people who think oh ok, this is the person who is going to fix all the junk that is going wrong in my marriage without understanding that YOU are the only person who can fix all of that, they are just going to help you find the tools to do that. I think that lots of people when this doesn’t happen and they see that they will have to so some work, well they just get frustrated with the whole process and decide that this is too hard and not worth the effort. This is not the case at ll, it is worth the effort that you have to put into it but no one sadid that the repairs would be easy :/

  • Dr. Chantal

    May 31st, 2014 at 1:31 PM

    Thank you for your comment! You are correct: in most any type of psychotherapy or counseling, when someone is open to the process the result is often much better. It is definitely more difficult to have a good outcome in marriage counseling if both parties are not actively participating, but at the same time it is possible to greatly improve a relationship by changing one person’s behavior. It’s like a dance, when one partner changes their step, sometimes the other follows.

  • Dr. Chantal

    May 31st, 2014 at 1:38 PM

    Melanie S.,
    Thank you for commenting on my post! You are right that it is important to find a therapist that both spouses feel a connection with. In my experience, therapists generally are well able to look at things from both perspectives and don’t take “sides”. Rather, they point out to each person what that person can improve. Unfortunately, some clients come to therapy already defensive and have a tendency of feeling “attacked” instead of being open to take an honest look at themselves. In cases where someone is focused on figuring out what “side” the therapist is on, or focused on wanting the counselor to confirm that their spouse or partner is at fault, a better course of action might be to have some individual sessions for a period of time first, to help that spouse reduce their defensiveness, their focus on blaming others, and help to move them out of a “victim” mentality to a place of feeling more empowered and collaborative.

  • Dr. Chantal

    May 31st, 2014 at 1:40 PM

    Well said! Marriage and counseling require some work; but sustained effort in most anything in life pays off!

  • Christina Stanley

    May 31st, 2014 at 7:50 PM

    I love counseling couples. Every couple has a love story and I like to learn about and explore what it was about that person they fell in love with. Once I meet that couple I have a conversation trying to get that couple to show up in my office. Taking sides and finding goals for the couple is not a focus when the couple can begin to remember love and focus on the future. I ask both clients the same question and both must answer even if I have to ask the question again or in a different way. Building together a more preferred future takes blame, contempt and taking sides out of the therapy office where it doesnt belong.

  • morgan

    June 2nd, 2014 at 3:51 AM

    Once you start to see the growth and the change in yourself then I think that you will also start to see that in your partner. Until you work through some things on your own you may not be able to recognize those changes quite yet, and the same is probably true for him too. Once you both begin the process though, start feeling good about that and liking what you see as potential in yourself, chances are pretty good that you will start to see those same positive things in your spouse too.

  • Roxie M

    June 2nd, 2014 at 3:13 PM

    There are a whole lot of couples who look to counseling to help resolve and repair something that is broken in their relationship and while that is great it is also a little more realistic to see that this is not the end all and be all. You can’t just go to a therapist and then expect that everything will automatically change and get better. For most of us to even get to this point there are probably already some pretty deep fissures in the marriage and to think that change will happen overnight is silly. This will take some work people, and it may bring up some issues that the two of you have wanted to avoid working on for a very long time, but it is possible to make some forward progress when both of you are committed to saving what you got married for in the first place.

  • Dr. Chantal

    June 29th, 2014 at 6:04 AM

    Thanks for your comment Christina! You’re right, contempt and blaming are counter-productive in couples therapy. The challenge for many couples is that who they fell in love with is in part their spouse, but in part the fantasy of who they wanted their spouse to be. For me, “becoming married” is not only about remembering what you first admired about your partner, but discovering anew, without the rose-colored classes of falling in love, who they really are and learning to love that person unconditionally. When both parties are able to do that, they experience a much deeper, and lasting love.

  • Dr. Chantal

    June 29th, 2014 at 6:07 AM

    Morgan, Thank you for taking the time to comment on my post. Indeed, in any type of relationship (love, work, parenting) when one person begins to change, it usually creates a change in the other. Changing yourself (which usually means changing how you approach and interact with the other person) is always the best way to improve relationships!

  • Dr. Chantal

    June 29th, 2014 at 6:11 AM

    Thank you for your feedback Roxie! Yes, usually by the time a couple comes to counseling, the issues are fairly deep and have been ignored for some time. With a commitment to success and a little patience, things can indeed improve. Sometimes, I do wish that more couples would seek premarital counseling or come to therapy as newlyweds though. That would avoid years of pain and frustration!

  • couragecounselling

    December 14th, 2016 at 4:27 AM

    To get almost all of us to even get to this point there are likely already some pretty deep fissures in the marriage and feel that change will happen immediately is silly. This will take some work people, and it may bring up some problems that the two of you have wanted to avoid working on for a very long time, but it is possible to make some forward improvement when you both are committed to saving what you acquired married for to start with.

  • hilarysilver

    January 10th, 2017 at 3:39 AM

    I like counseling couples. Every few has a love history and I like to learn about and explore what it was about that individual they fell in love with. Once I actually meet that couple I actually have a conversation attempting to get that few to show up in my office. Taking factors and finding goals for the couple is not a focus when the couple can get started to remember love and give attention to the future. I ask both clients the same question and both must answer even if My spouse and i have might the question again or in a different way. Building along a much more preferred future will take blame, contempt and taking sides out of the remedy office where it doesnt belong.

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