It can be called marriage counseling, marital counseling, couples counseling, or couples therapy. All focus on helping a couple’s marriage.

good couples therapy
Marriage Counseling

What is marriage counseling?

In it’s simplest, marriage counseling consists of a couple and a therapist trying to uncover and improve the couples problem by talking about them. But unlike your parent’s couples therapist, a skilled couples therapist is more effective in helping couples change.

What does a marriage counselor do?

If we toss a burger in the pan, we can call it “cooking.”  But knowing how to do it well is another thing entirely.  In all areas of life, to be good at something requires knowing the rules of the game and cooperating with them.

Teaching Speaking and Listening Skills

Bad marriage counselors act like coaches in a street fight. They keep trying to insist upon a set of rules for “good communications” that the couple neither knows about nor cares about adopting.

Good marriage counseling clarifies these rules, makes them explicit, and transfers responsibility for maintaining those rules to the couple.

Skills deficits like listening and the ability to effectively negotiation also show up outside the home. Improving these skills in the marriage, especially in when the situation is tense, transfers well to other areas of life.

Navigates the emotional tension in the room

A skilled marital counselor can both heat things up and cool things down in a room. And they teach this skill to the couple as well. Couples learn to emotionally regulate themselves and how to regulate their partner for maximum effectiveness.

In good marriage counseling, the therapist knows when to take sides and why

If a therapist clearly sides with one spouse against the other, this is damaging and ineffective. But there are also times when it is important to challenge a partner, question them in greater detail, or help them to express their issues more clearly. On other cases, a spouse won’t stand up for themselves in the counseling. A good counselor is able to make this side-taking explicit, so the couple understands what they are doing and why.

What makes a professional a “relationship expert”?

The section above speaks to basic skills needed to conduct good marriage counseling. But a relationship expert does more.

Naming the repetitive Negative Cycle

Emotionally Focused couples therapy calls this cycle the ‘demon dance.’ John Gottman has labeled four behaviors he calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” to describe the elements of this negative cycle.

Naming and teaching the couple to stop these negative cycles is key. Negative cycles:

  • interfere with problem solving reduce the number of issues couples fight about improve future problem solving is easier to change than personality disorders allow couples to feel closer “in the moment,” even if the problem itself doesn’t evaporate.

It is wise for the true relationship expert to start with less charged emotional issues when working with these negative cycles. Once they can tackle these, they can go on to focus on more emotionally reactive issues.

Labeling the negative cycle as the enemy

When you fight, it is easy to label your partner as the source of the problem. Often couples shy away from therapy for this very reason. But when relationship problems escalate, it is usually a “chemical process” of putting two people together. When couples therapists help couples to resolve conflicts, they each them how each play a role in escalating the difficulties. Some fights are so explosive and resistance to change, that they need more exploration. Learning about hidden issues and fears are part of this work.

Enhancing Romantic Relationships

While Gottman’s work focuses on enhancing fondness and admiration, removing the fangs from argument about the frequency of sex is equally important. One writer recalls a couple who called it “the morass/more-ass” battle that made both miserable.

Holding yourself responsible for your partner

In effective marital counseling, each becomes aware of how they worsen or improve these patterns. Just as ways of relating can make couples a good fit, clinical trials have demonstrated that individuals can work to try to regulate their partner’s level of emotional upset with efforts like “repair attempts” which effectively give ground, make concessions or validate the importance of their partner’s perspective.

What does it mean for a couple to “improve their relationship”?

Win-win conflicts improve marriages. In fact, staying calm and seeing your partner as an ally instead of an enemy is a backdrop to keeping your cool. Researchers have found that couples feel more confident and proud of their marriage when they are able to engage successfully in disagreement.

What does it mean to “resolve conflicts”?

Years of research studying intimate relationships has taught us that most problems in a marriage don’t get “resolved” in any objective sense. They just fade in importance as the couple feels comfortable and effective in talking about them and negotiating around them.

They learn what contributes to the conflict and ways to change the pattern. For example, to the extent that Derick focuses on work on Saturday, Beth will fight with you about it and become resentful and be disinterested in sex Saturday night. In this situation, Derick learns the role he plays in his wife’s anger, resentment, and lower sexual desire. Other therapists refer to this cycle as “the more, the more…”

How long should the marital counseling session be?

The length of the sessions are typically 45-55 sessions. This is problematic. Many therapist continue to try to use an insurance model and treat couples the same as individual patients. With a couple as clients, you need 80-90 minutes according to research. This not only allows the couple to raise important issues, but have the time to practice processing them as well.

Do happily married couples have higher mental health?

Yes. Happier couples have:

  • higher levels of physical wellbeing
  • high levels of economic success and
  • communication skills improve

…according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT). A happy marriage is probably the best predictor of overall happiness, according to research.

Good Read: Is it Ever Too Late to Save a Marriage?

Many thanks to Arthur Nielson, MD for his most recent compelling book.