What Is Marriage Counseling?

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A couple seated on a couch listens to a marriage counselor.Marriage can be a deeply satisfying experience — one that offers love, companionship, intimacy and stability to last a lifetime. But even in the best marriages, spouses can experience points of tension or conflict. Many couples choose to see marriage counselors, who apply psychological and therapeutic principles to help couples work through their disagreements and strengthen their relationships.

What is marriage counseling? Broadly put, it’s a type of psychotherapy that spouses engage in together to work through difficulties that could include everything from external stressors and emotional disconnection to problems with physical intimacy. Marriage and relationship counselors are trained to guide couples through this process and help them understand relationship dynamics. A master’s-level education can help aspiring counselors prepare for this important role.

What to Expect in Marriage Counseling

The marriage counseling experience can vary based on a counselor’s particular training and approach, and the nature of sessions may differ depending on the needs of the couple. Couples considering therapy often research what to expect in marriage counseling. While each counseling experience is unique, couples should expect plenty of honest, vulnerable and sometimes difficult communication, prompted and facilitated by the counselor.

This may entail discussing challenges or insecurities within the marriage, or experiences dating back to childhood. Initial sessions usually begin with goal setting and a discussion of therapeutic parameters to ensure each participant feels safe, while subsequent sessions may dig deeper into specific issues.

A common concern about marriage counseling is that the counselor will take sides, favoring one participant over the other. This would mark an ethical violation and a professional lapse, and a well-trained counselor should be able to offer every assurance that this will not happen. In some cases however, spouses may decide that seeing therapists individually makes more sense than seeing a counselor together as a couple.

Couples exploring counseling may wonder whether it can save their marriage. As with other forms of therapy, the effectiveness of marriage counseling is often dependent on how committed each participant is to the process. If both spouses are invested in strengthening their bond, counseling can be exceedingly beneficial, leading to deeper understanding, greater clarity in communication and improved methods for conflict resolution.

Even if only one spouse is willing to go to counseling, the process can still yield helpful insights into proper communication and conflict resolution.

What Is Pre-Marriage Counseling?

Some couples choose to begin their counseling experience before they get married. Pre-marriage counseling may be an excellent way to work through childhood experiences and other issues that can impact adult relationships. It also helps partners develop communication techniques that can help establish a solid foundation for their marriage just as it’s beginning.

How to Choose a Marriage Counselor

To find the right counselor, couples should seek someone who has specialized training and certification in couples counseling or in marriage and family therapy. It’s reasonable to conduct an initial phone call or to simply use the first session to “interview” the counselor.

It’s crucial to find someone with whom both partners feel comfortable and secure. Couples may begin with a short list of credentialed therapists in their area, interview them, then narrow their options, taking into account personality types, cultural considerations and other factors.

7 Types of Marriage Counseling

Those wondering what marriage counseling is should note that the field is broad and diverse. Couples can choose from many types of marriage counseling, each employing different methods but working toward similar goals. When interviewing a marriage counselor, couples should ask which school of counseling they prefer and ask them to explain their approach and why it’s beneficial.

Some common types of marriage counseling include:

  • Couples counseling: This approach typically focuses very narrowly on addressing conflicts, tensions, disagreements or other concerns between the couple.
  • Family therapy: The family therapy model may take a wider approach, addressing issues specific to the marriage but also issues with parenting or adjusting to blended family dynamics.
  • Religion-based marriage counseling: Some couples may wish to see a counselor who draws on ethical principles or readings tied to their specific religious tradition such as Pre-Cana, a marriage preparation course for couples who are getting married in a Catholic church.
  • Imago Relationship Therapy: This approach encourages couples to examine conflict not as disharmony, but simply as the natural outcome of specific circumstances. It usually involves analyzing childhood experiences to get to the root of marital concerns.
  • Tailored programs: Some therapists may offer programs that are custom-tailored to the needs or expectations of the couple, especially when extenuating circumstances such as mental illness are present.
  • Gottman method: The Gottman method focuses on providing couples with specific tools to resolve problems, especially in areas of conflict or tension. The primary goals of this approach are to improve communication, enhance intimacy, and establish a heightened sense of empathy and understanding in the relationship.
  • Narrative method: The narrative method empowers spouses to describe their own lives, positioning themselves as the experts and prompting them to walk through their circumstances and feelings in a blame-free environment.

Does Marriage Counseling Work?

Before beginning marriage counseling, many couples want assurance that the process will offer them meaningful results, fostering peace and intimacy in their marriage.

However, counseling is less about achieving a specific measurable outcome and more about involving both spouses in the active work of building a stronger, healthier marriage. Counseling can equip both partners with the tools they need to understand one another better, grow in shared affection, and make progress toward individual and shared goals.

The effectiveness of marriage counseling depends in large part on the level of commitment and participation from both spouses, as well as the knowledge and skills the marriage counselor brings to the table. Counselors are responsible for helping couples understand the purpose of counseling and guiding them through the process.

Having a formal background in counseling is invaluable, as it positions the counselor to help their clients in a number of ways. Specifically, marriage counselors support their clients by:

  • Encouraging an honest discussion of emotions and experiences
  • Helping guide clients through difficult life changes
  • Equipping clients with tools and strategies to replace negative thoughts with more constructive, life-affirming ones.
  • Referring clients to external resources to help with issues like addiction

Strengthen Relationships and Improve Lives

Marriage counseling can be a powerful way to improve relationships, both among relatively healthy and happy couples as well as couples in crisis. Marriage counseling can be an especially helpful process for those who feel like their marriage is approaching a point where it cannot be salvaged. For those who wish to play a part in this challenging yet meaningful work, education is a top priority.

Explore the Wake Forest University Master of Arts in Counseling program, which imparts the foundational therapeutic principles that aspiring counselors can use to help married couples connect. The program’s core curriculum examines family and couples counseling, and covers the various ethical, legal and professional issues associated with this form of counseling. Learn more about what marriage counseling is, and how it may be an avenue to helping spouses build healthier relationships.



Recommended Readings

What Is a Substance Abuse Counselor? A Career Path in Clinical Mental Health

How an Advanced Counseling Degree Can Help with Different Types of Crisis Management

3 Types of Counseling Specialty Areas and Careers



American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, About Marriage and Family Therapists

Choosing Therapy, “Imago Therapy: How It Works, Cost, & What to Expect”

Forbes, “Does Marriage Counseling Work?”

GoodTherapy, Imago Relationship Therapy (IRT)

The Gottman Institute, “The Gottman Method”

The Marriage Group, “What Do You Do at Pre-Cana?”

TalkSpace, “Couples Therapy Techniques: Therapy Approaches & Exercises”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Marriage and Family Therapists

Verywell Mind, “What Is Couples Therapy?”

Verywell Mind, “What Is Premarital Counseling?”