Couples or marriage counseling is offered to support people in relationships who may be considering separation or seeking improved intimacy and understanding. In couples counseling, the relationship is the focus, although each partner should also expect to focus on self-improvement and self-awareness.
People in relationships seek counseling for any number of reasons, from power struggles and communication problems to sexual dissatisfaction and infidelity. Though counseling is recommended as soon as discontent arises in a relationship, studies show partners will not seek therapy until they have been unhappy for an average of six years. And yet, the more time has passed, the more difficult it may be to repair the relationship. In some cases, a couple who has already decided to separate may pursue therapy in order to end the relationship amicably and respectfully.
Counseling is often recommended for couples who are preparing for marriage. Typically, licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs) offer premarital counseling to couples who wish to explore areas of conflict or concern that may cause later difficulty or dissatisfaction in a marriage. In premarital counseling sessions, couples can discuss differences of opinion, personal values, and their expectations of the marriage. Premarital counseling may uncover more issues than a couple originally sought to discuss, but this can be beneficial as it can allow couples to discover whether they truly are compatible before they marry.
Effective therapy will likely address many aspects of the relationship, although communication tends to be the primary focus of relationship therapy. When partners repeatedly employ conflict avoidance or engage in heated power struggles, it is often the case that communication problems ensue; resentment builds, and repairs are never made. John Gottman, who collected decades’ worth of data on marriage and relationships, identified the lack of adequate repair following an argument as the biggest contributor to marital unhappiness and divorce. Counselors know one of the first steps in improving a relationship is to teach each person how to regulate their emotions, stay calm, and use healthy communication skills to resolve problems new and old, and many partners see improved communication skills as a result of counseling.
Expectations and Goals
Successful therapy depends on each partner’s motivation and dedication to the process, and couples can expect to become better listeners and communicators and to find new ways to support one another. Goals will be established by the couple under the guidance of the therapist, and in order to achieve these objectives, each partner must be prepared to acknowledge and understand their role in the relationship. It is not uncommon for conflict to arise within therapy sessions, but ethical therapists will strive to remain neutral and avoid taking sides.
Some relationship counselors offer supplemental individual sessions to each partner as a matter of course, and some may offer individual sessions upon request. Therapists who specialize in relationship counseling are likely to have a marriage and family therapist license (MFT).