Couples therapy vs marriage counseling

Many people want to know “what’s the difference between couples therapy and marriage counseling?”

And because inquiring minds want to know, several therapy websites have presented misleading information, pretending to answer this question with clarity.

Shame on them.

Couples therapist...marriage counselor...or couples counselor? These are terms couples use to find qualified expert help for their marriage.

Frankly, despite what you may have read on other websites, there is absolutely NO distinction between the terms “couples therapy” and “marriage counseling” beyond regional cultural differences in the USA. 

Anyone telling you different is lying to you just to briefly capture your eyeballs in order to sell you something.

A fake answer to a popular question; what’s the difference between marriage counseling and couples therapy?

Mental health professions should not create confusion while at the same time asking you to trust them. 

One popular website (I won’t name them), made the claim that while couples therapists dig into the historical, family of origin stuff, marriage counselors forego insight into the past and prefer to work on specific issues in the here and now.

It is not true that marriage counseling focuses exclusively on the “now.” 

There is no temporal distinction between marriage counseling and couples therapy.

While it is true that couples therapy “deals with the present day but also any history that caused unhealthy patterns of relating.” It is also true that marriage counseling does the same exact thing.

Couples counseling, couples therapy, and marriage counseling all address the historic arc of relationships. Both involve an inquiry into patterns learned from caregivers in the family of origin.

Here’s the answer to the question; what's the difference between the terms couples therapy and marriage counseling?

Geography and culture.

Marriage counseling and couples therapy are different search terms that are asking for relationship help. Period.

What is a Google search for “marriage counseling”?

As I mentioned, it is not true that couples counseling works on present-day issues and not the past. 

Marriage counseling is simply a popular Google search term used mostly, (but not exclusively), by Americans in the South. It suggests a frame of reference that sees relationships as serious commitment, often religiously yoked.

They don’t complain that “we’re only here to work on issues in the here and now.” These couples don’t balk when we ask them to complete their BIG BIG Books which deeply delve into their past AND present.

They want relationship help. They simply choose to call it “marriage counseling.”

One author conflated the term “marriage counseling” with couples “seeking marriage counseling before the wedding.”

No, the correct term for this is premarital counseling. 

While premarital counseling can lower your risk of divorce by 30%, It’s not called marriage counseling because the couple isn’t married yet.

What is a Google search for “couples therapy”?

“Couples therapy” is the dominant search term used in the Northeast Corridor, major Midwestern cities, and the West Coast. It suggests a frame of reference which is secular and sees relationships as improvable through scientific methods. 

The terms “marriage counseling” and “couples therapy” are merely regionally different ways of describing the same immediate desire; to get help for a struggling intimate relationship.

Am I nitpicking the difference between couples therapy and marriage counseling?

I hope not, because misconceptions of the professionals are also abundant and we need to touch on that briefly.

Another article on a popular website that purports to explain the difference between marriage counseling and couples therapy, unfortunately, misrepresents a marriage “counselor” as specifically tasked with listening to the problems and facilitating discussion toward “an organized method of communication.”

Perhaps the most unhelpful statement in the article is that “the role of the counselor involves being kind of the referee – avoiding the couple from speaking in unison, yelling at each other, and manifesting any kind of aggressive behavior towards the other.”

I can assure you that a couples counselor is not a referee. And “an organized method of communication” is not a clinical term used to describe the often messy process of de-escalating couples and teaching them new skills.

While it is true that all marriage counselors, couples counselors, and couples therapists (these are completely interchangeable terms) will intervene to de-escalate, such action is not the sole purview of a “marriage counselor.”

One article states that some couples counselors “do not always hold licenses...but can counsel.”

No, that is not exactly true. 

Many blog articles are outsourced with more of an emphasis on keywords rather than useful and accurate information. This author may not be familiar with licensing laws; they may in fact live in an area where regulations vary greatly from those of the United States.

There are some distinct categories for people that offer relationship support while lacking mental health credentials. These distinctions include:

  • Premarital counseling, which is sometimes done by Marriage Educators who may have non-clinical terminal degrees.
  • There are “Marriage Coaches” who are typically absent mental health degrees, (and often absent degrees of any kind).
  • “Pastoral Counseling” offered by pastors, priests, Rabbis, etc. who may be formally trained or not.

Another distinction...coaching (not marriage counseling) focuses on the here and now

Coaching has become a popular term with the general public, and does often focus exclusively on the “here and now.” 

At Couples Therapy Inc, we offer you coaching with qualified, trained couples therapists. Sometimes there is a need for an approach to couples that is based on managing a specific, pressing issue making itself felt in the here and now.

This is where coaching can be a great help for couples, our coaches will even work with individuals to address relationship concerns.

There is something far more important than the difference between couples therapy vs marriage counseling...what happens in the session

It should be clear that the distinction between the two terms is inconsequential, it's the equivalent to whether you refer to your fizzy beverages as tonic, soda, or cola. 

Researching couples therapy (or marriage counseling) before making a commitment is the right call. This is an important decision for you and your partner that could have a lasting impact.

Here are 4 critical questions to ask instead:
  1. 1
    Is the therapy or counseling evidence-based, or “seat of the pants?”
  2. 2
    What is the structure? Are your therapy sessions weekly? Are sessions conducted in a more effective intensive format?
  3. 3
    What kind of training and experience does the clinician you’re considering have conducting couples therapy? Are you formally trained in an evidence-based model such as Gottman or Emotionally-focused Couples Therapy? If so, what model and what level?
  4. 4
    Does the couples therapist identify as pro-marriage? What does good couples therapy look like?

If you are interested in delving more into this topic, you can check out our Definitive Guide to Finding the Best Couples Therapy Retreats. It’s in the bonus section of our free course. The Guide includes a set of questions to ask any therapist before you begin working with them.

Ask tough questions up front

It is critical that you ask tough questions before putting your relationship in the hands of a professional. A recent national survey revealed that 81% of all private practice therapists in the United States say that they offer couples therapy or marriage counseling. 

But only about 12% of the nation’s licensed therapists are in a profession that requires any course work or supervised clinical experience in marital therapy.

What is the difference between couples therapy and marriage counseling?

Here is my answer to that question:

“Marriage Counseling” is a term used primarily in the American South which is often inclusive of pastoral counseling. It conveys a frame of reference that sees relationships as committed and religiously yoked. 

Similarly, “Couples Therapy” is the dominant search term used in the Northeast Corridor, major Midwestern cities, and the West Coast. It suggests a frame of reference which is secular and sees relationships as improvable through scientific methods. 

Both describe a formal process of unpacking marital woes with a trained expert with an eye toward better functioning. 

What’s the difference between marriage counseling and couple therapy? 

Where you live and the words you use. 

You deserve a truthful answer, and now you have one.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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