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Marriage counseling tips: an intro to couples therapy

From when to get marriage counseling to the best advice from therapists, these marriage counseling tips cover everything you need to know about couples therapy.

Despite the fact that I have been married three times, I’ve never had marriage counseling.

In my first marriage, I was unhappy and actively wanting to leave for a year before I actually did so.

By the time I gathered my courage, there was no going back. I’d mentally said my goodbyes, done my grieving and wasn’t open to change.

In my second marriage there were issues beyond what any counselor, psychologist or all powerful deity could fix.

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By the time I left that marriage, I felt almost as broken as I’ve ever been in my life. Going back wasn’t something I wanted or needed.

In my third marriage, things have always been very solid. We’ve gone through some tough times – but not as a couple, rather as individuals – and we’ve worked through them with as much team work as we can muster.

However at various stages in my life I’ve seen counselors and psychologists and I know how much benefit having the right one can bring to your life.

And considering that 40-50% of all first marriages in the USA fail, with the rate even higher for remarriages (source), it’s important that we’re all informed on the following:

  • who benefits from marriage counseling,
  • when to get marriage counseling
  • what marriage counseling involves
  • marriage counseling success rates

In addition, it’s useful to have information on online therapy options should traditional therapy not be something you want to or can get into right now.

Providing her expert opinion on these matters is marriage counselor Nicole Arzt.

Nicole Arzt is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist working in Southern California. She has been privileged to provide therapeutic services for a wide variety of individuals, couples and families. Her clinical emphasis lies in working with females with substance use, eating disorders, and complex trauma. A passionate writer, she has authored several scholarly articles, blog posts, and professional research centered on addiction and mental health. You can find her at Soul of Therapy.

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She also shares her craziest moment in her years of couples therapy, so stick around until the end!

This post contains affiliate links. If you click on one of these links and make a purchase, I receive a small commission at no cost to you. Click here for my full disclosure policy.

When to get marriage counseling

Sad looking couple at a cafe after a marriage counseling session - they need marriage counseling tips.

It can be difficult to make the decision to get marriage help.

Admitting out loud to yourself, to your partner, and to another individual, that things are not as they should be in your marriage takes it out of your head where it’s been living and into the real world.

That can be a very scary experience.

So try this instead.

Consider how happy you are with your marriage right now.

Now, most of us fall into one of three categories when it comes to our marriage:

  • things are bad. We’re thinking about divorce, maybe there has been an affair or some other betrayal, and overall our marriage is a source of pain and / or dissatisfaction.
  • things aren’t that great but we believe things can get better. We’re going through a tough time, or there’s a persistent issue in our marriage that causes grief and yet we haven’t done anything to solve it. We still love each other.
  • things are good, great even. Our marriage is a constant source of happiness and satisfaction in our life.

Now the reality is that couples counseling can be of use in all three of those categories: like all things it often depends on what you are seeking to gain.

However I would suggest that the best time to get couples therapy would be when you’ve been stuck in Category 2 for a while. You’re starting to veer towards Category 1 but you’re not there yet.

This is because research suggests that the following couples get the most benefit from relationship counseling (source):

  • couples who are younger
  • couples who have less traditional roles in their relationship
  • couples who are still in love
  • couples who are willing to examine how they are contributing to the problem
  • couples who are willing to give therapy a try because they are prepared to change.

However couples who are least likely to benefit from relationship counseling share these characteristics:

  • couples who have waited too long to get help
  • couples where one or both partner’s wants a divorce
  • couples where one or both partners don’t want to accept any personal responsibility or put in any effort
  • couples where one partner is suffering from an alcohol, drug or pornography addiction

If you’re in Category 2, yes you have some issues. But because the love is still there, you’re invested in the relationship, and you’re willing to work on things, marriage counselling could be of real help.

In addition, Nicole suggests that there are some other key signs should alert you that there’s a problem that marriage counseling might help. They are:

  • when you feel like you’ve had the same argument over and over again
  • when you feel like you’re “walking on eggshells” with your partner
  • when you feel like you can’t “trust” your partner (whether you have a legitimate reason or not)
  • when you feel like you/your partner’s mental or physical illness continues to impede the relationship

The most common issues she sees in her practice include:

  • communication issues
  • lack of trust
  • disagreeing about core values (i.e. children, how to spend money, religion)

Remember, if you think you might need marriage counseling, get it before it is too late!

You might also like: Struggling marriage? Quotes to inspire and encourage.

How to bring up marriage counseling

Sad looking couple thinking about couples therapy. They still love each other because they are holding each other but they need some marriage counseling tips.

Maybe it was in a conversation with your spouse that you both decided one solution for your marriage problem was to start couples therapy. In that case, half the battle is done.

However if this is a conclusion that you’ve formed on your own, it’s a little bit more challenging.

How do you even mention to your spouse that marriage counseling is something you think you need?

Here, Nicole shares her marriage counseling tips. “I recommend that clients start by emphasizing the importance of the relationship. You want to make it work. You want to see if you two can learn new ways of coping and dealing with stress.”

Because your emotions might be high on the surface, I recommend thinking carefully about what you are going to say and rehearsing it until you feel comfortable.

For example, “Hey. You know how much our relationship means to me. It seems like we’ve been fighting a lot lately, especially about XXX. I’ve been thinking that it would be useful to go and see someone, to get some help.”

Chances are you will have an ideas as to the reason’s your spouse may not want to go, so be prepared for that.

Other than they actually don’t care enough about the marriage to think about counselling, they’re set on divorce, or those other reasons marriage counseling often doesn’t work that I mentioned above, there are some common objections:

  • they don’t think it’s that bad
  • they don’t believe it will work
  • it costs too much
  • they don’t have the time
  • they don’t want to share the details of their marriage with a third party
  • they think you will blame them for all your marital problems

Note that I don’t recommend you script a response to any of these concerns and add it to your intro.

If you preempt, interrupt or get defensive, it’s going to work against what you really want – which is agreement that this is a good thing for your marriage.

Instead try these rules for listening to objections:

  • stop, take a breath and think the word, “calm”
  • listen to understand – when they have finished speaking, start with, “So you’re saying [insert paraphrase of the discussion]. Is that right? If you were wrong, give them the chance to express themselves again, and then check for understanding once more
  • explore the thinking behind their objection. If, for example, they said that they don’t believe it will work, ask what is it about counselling that they don’t think will work. Tip – try to avoid the word “why” wherever possible. There is something super confronting about that word that gets many people’s backs up. I have a theory (completely untested) that this is because when we were kids
    • Why don’t you think it will work versus
    • What exactly is it about counselling that makes you think it won’t work?
  • now provide your response to their concerns. This is where you can add that you’ve looked at the budget and if you cut out such and such it can work, or you’ve found some online options, or you know that you’ve contributed to these problems because…

Nicole also notes that, “It’s important to be patient and compassionate when approaching your partner. Ask during a neutral time- not during the heat of the moment.”

It’s also important that you ensure you have enough time to discuss it fully without one spouse having to dash off and pick up the kids and take them to sports’ practice.

If the worst case scenario comes to pass and your partner refuses to attend marriage counseling, but you think they are still invested in the marriage, it is possible to get some benefit from attending marriage counseling yourself.

As Nicole says, “These sessions may provide you with your own resources and tools for healing.”

How to find a good marriage counselor

Woman reading book on her own

Out of all the marriage counseling tips, what to look for in a marriage counselor is probably the most important.

Remember how I said I has seen counselors and psychologists before?

Well, one was an unlicensed professional who established a borderline cult that ended in multiple marriage breakups, dependency and a suicide.

Oh the stories I could tell!

But that is for another time.

Nicole suggests the following:

  • ask your friends or family if they have any recommendations
  • check Psychology Today where you can search for therapists by state
  • call around- it’s normal to “interview” a few different therapists to find the right match

In addition, I would suggest

  • check they are a marriage counselor first and foremost. It’s fine if they offer individual therapy on the side, but marriage counseling is a separate beast
  • if you are in a remarriage which has meant you have created a step family, make sure they have experience in dealing with step family dynamics also. Trust me, stepfamilies are not the same as marriages without stepchildren
  • check what types of therapy they offer. EFT, or emotionally focused therapy, the Gottman Method, and Imago Relationship therapy are all appropriate specialists for anyone seeking marriage help

How to prepare for marriage counseling

couple contemplating marriage counseling

Nicole advises that couples who want to prepare for marriage counseling identify the goals they really want to work on.

It’s easy to get caught up in daily arguments or resentment, but put the focus on identifying what you want to see improve, otherwise sessions can be wasted with couples focused on the latest slight or argument, rather than working on what they need to do moving forward.

She suggests you ask the question, “What are the biggest hurdles you’re facing?”

You should also go in with the mindset that you are there to learn how to work on yourself in your relationship, not on how your partner will be told to change.

Finally you should consider that what goes on in couples therapy sessions is just a small part of the work you will need to put in: real change is going to be what happens at home every day.

What to expect at the first marriage counseling session

pensive looking couple walking together outside as part of their marriage therapy tips

It’s normal to be nervous before your first couple’s therapy session, so knowing what to expect can help.

Nicole notes that for the first marriage counseling session, “Therapists typically do an intake with the couple. They’ll ask about your history, relevant background details, and problems in the relationship. They will usually spend time asking each individual to describe what he or she wants to receive from therapy.”

You can see that spending some time thinking about your goals – HAVING goals – for your therapy is important so you can make the most of this opportunity. 

How long does marriage counseling take?

The backs of a couple as they face a marriage counselor: marriage counseling tips

Nicole suggests that the answer to this depends on the couple. “Some therapists provide brief treatment that may last anywhere from 1-3 sessions. Others work with couples for years. The average time tends to be a few months.”

You should expect to see your counselor once a week to keep the momentum going.

She also notes that if your spouse is experiencing reluctance after a couple of sessions, “have an honest conversation with your partner. What do they need to feel more comfortable? Is it switching therapists?”

Remember that having clear goals about what you actually want will help you know when it is working, and when it is time to stop marriage counseling.

What is the success rate of marriage counseling?

couple hugging after marriage therapy - experiencing some success after these marriage therapy tips.

It’s perhaps misleading to look at the success rates of marriage counselling and use them to see if your own marriage will be able to become a life-giving, affirming relationship that forms the foundation of everything you do.

The factors are so variable and dependent on how far gone things were when people started, how motivated they both were and how good the counseling was.

EFT, the emotionally focused therapy I mentioned above, sees 90% of couples have a positive change in their relationship with recovery being achieved 70-75% of the time (source).

If you’re checking success rates online, remember to check the date of publication of articles. Many of these are outdated and inaccurate. Advances in therapy modalities, such as using EFT, have made a significant increase in the couples’ therapy success rate.

Regardless, remember to ask yourself whether the pain of getting a divorce and starting life again is equal to the pain you’re experiencing in your marriage before you decide that marriage counseling is not for you.

Online marriage counseling

A couple doing online marriage counseling.

Now it may be that you think you need marriage help but the traditional marriage counseling I’ve discussed here just does not seem right for you or you can’t access a face-to-face therapist.

There are various alternatives that you can try.

One such option is Marriage Fitness with Mort Fertel.

Although not traditional marriage counseling, even his free material is super useful.

Once you sign up at the link provided above, you get an email inviting you to do the Mort Fertel marriage assessment, which are in fact five different assessments.

These assessments cover

  • priorities
  • knowledge of your spouse
  • giving patterns
  • decision making
  • fidelity 

I have to say I was shocked at some of my results. For the “knowledge of your spouse” assessment, it claimed I was living with a virtual stranger! Luckily I made it up with 100% decision making!

After the assessments, you get sent a series of emails which helps you improve in these areas, as well as offers for his Marriage Fitness program.  

Take the assessments here.

Final words from our marriage therapist

Marriage therapist’s can find themselves in challenging situations. I asked Nicole what the most challenging situation was that she ever find herself in.

“When a couple told me they were going to use this session as the determining factor as to whether they wanted to stay married or not (and I was a brand new therapist).”

Just a little bit of pressure then!

Nicole has one last piece of marriage counseling advice if you’re going through a tough time. She says, “Remember why you fell in love with your partner. The more you can tap into those reasons, the easier it is to believe in your relationship.”

You might also like: 10 tips for a happy marriage.

Summing up these marriage counseling tips

As someone who has been divorced twice, I can tell you divorce is hard. I don’t regret my decisions, especially since I am now very happy in my current and forever relationship, but the emotional and financial cost were huge. They set me back for years. 

As I said before, if you can do something to work on your marriage – do it before it’s too late.

Let these marriage counseling tips take your fear of the unknown away so you can do something proactive to make your marriage better.

Want greater connection in your relationship?

Then you'll want this freebie.

It's called The KISS Connection and it's a FREE 4-step everyday practice that will bring back that loving feeling.

Hit the pink button to grab your free copy today.

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steven solomon

Thursday 9th of September 2021

I like that you mentioned there are three categories when it comes to marriage and how we should be able to identify which one is our case. I will definitely consider what you explained in this article and will talk to my husband and look for a therapist to be able to fix the situation.

Vincente Mozell

Tuesday 6th of April 2021

Marriage counseling can help couples in all types of intimate relationships, regardless of sexual orientation or marital status. Some couples seek marriage counseling to strengthen their partnership and gain a better understanding of each other. Marriage counseling can also help couples who plan to get married. Premarital counseling can help couples achieve a deeper understanding of each other and iron out differences before marriage. Marriage counseling might also be helpful in cases of domestic abuse. If violence has escalated to the point that you're afraid, however, counseling alone isn't adequate. Contact the police or a local shelter or crisis center for emergency support.

Katie

Saturday 2nd of January 2021

You're welcome!

Megan Alder

Thursday 23rd of July 2020

My husband and I have been fighting very constantly for the past months for the same issues over and over again, and we don't know how to handle it anymore. I like that you mentioned there are three categories when it comes to marriage and how we should be able to identify which one is our case. I will definitely consider what you explained in this article and will talk to my husband and look for a therapist to be able to fix the situation.

Ellie Davis

Thursday 26th of September 2019

It's interesting to know that a marriage counselor can be used for couples who have less traditional roles in their relationship. My brother is getting a divorce, and we are looking for advice to help him. I will let him know about the benefits of getting marriage counseling to see if it helps.

Katie

Thursday 26th of September 2019

Thanks Ellie - sorry to hear about your brother. Marriage counselling can benefit all couples and should be considered if the marriage is worth saving.

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