Marriage Counseling: Does It Help Or Not?

Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

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Recently, the effectiveness of marriage counseling has been called into question by a few Huffington Post contributors. For instance, in an article entitled “Marriage Counseling Made My Relationship Worse,” the author leads with: “Does anyone have a good experience with marriage counseling? I hope so. In my experience, marriage counseling actually made things worse.” While I appreciate this author’s candor, the premise of the article – that marriage counseling doesn’t work simply because it didn’t help the author – seems simplistic and it’s not based on research.

The truth is that there are many factors that can impact the potential success or failure of marriage counseling for any given couple. Understanding these factors is important in determining whether or not seeking therapy for problems in a marriage is the best decision. Findings from a recent study in the “Journal of Marital and Family Therapy,” report that marriage counseling helps seven out of ten couples find great satisfaction in their marriage. However, not all research is that optimistic. In his summary of a consumer reports study, E.P. Seligman Ph.D. reports that marriage counseling is not as effective as other treatment modalities.

Why do some studies show limited success when evaluating the merits of couples counseling? Most experts agree that couples counseling is a relationship between three individuals and it’s not the therapist’s responsibility to “fix’ the marriage. Author Linda Bloom writes, “Your counselor is a consultant, not a fixer.” Early detection is also a big plus. Renowned marriage researcher John M. Gottman claims that the average couple that enters marriage counseling has experienced marital difficulties for over six years. It makes sense that the longer a couple waits to seek assistance, the more deeply entrenched the communication problems – thus making them more resistant to treatment.

Here are certain conditions under which couples counseling may not help a couple repair their marriage:

• The problems in the marriage are too ingrained and longstanding for the counseling to be effective.
• One or both partners have already decided to end the marriage and he/she uses the counseling as a way to announce this to their partner.
• Addiction or mental illness is having a major impact on the marital relationship because it has not been treated prior to attending sessions.
• Verbal or physical abuse is an issue in the marriage and one of the partners is fearful about their safety or well-being so clams up in sessions.
• One or both partners are unwilling to complete homework assignments necessary to reverse negative relational patterns.
• The therapist is not qualified to treat couples due to inadequate training or credentials; or there isn’t a good fit between the therapist and the couple.

One of the main factors that can determine the effectiveness of marriage counseling is the motivation level of both partners. For some couples, marriage counseling is really divorce counseling because they’ve already thrown in the towel. For others, they haven’t taken the time to choose a therapist who is a good fit for them. For instance, Alicia came to my office distraught because she had finally convinced her husband Jared to attend marriage counseling and the sessions weren’t going well.

Alicia, a forty year old accountant and mother of two sons, explains: “Jared doesn’t talk during the sessions and complains that he can’t leave work early to go. I’m wondering if I should have let him pick the therapist because he says she favors me. I don’t think this is true, but we’re not getting along any better and we’ve already had several sessions.”

Married couples go through several stages in their relationship and Alicia and Jared were having difficulty integrating recent changes. It appeared to me that they were struggling with integrating the addition of two young children, Jared’s recent job change, and the large-scale investment of buying a new home. Although some of these changes seem positive – such as a new home and job – they also represent major stressors due to increased time and financial expenditures. While marriage counseling can be a fruitful way to assist Alicia and Jared in navigating through these changes, both partners need to buy into the process for it to be effective.

In his best-selling book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John M. Gottman, Ph.D., describes “marital masters” as “folks who are so good at handling conflict that they make marital squabbles look like fun.” Gottman has published groundbreaking studies showing measurable differences between couples whose marriages were happy and those headed for misery and/or divorce court. In his bookThe Relationship Cure, he writes: “It’s not that these couples don’t get mad or disagree. It’s that when they disagree, they’re able to stay connected and engaged with each other. Rather than becoming defensive and hurtful, they pepper their disputes with flashes of affection, intense interest, and mutual respect.”

Further, Gottman coins the phrase “turning toward “one another to describe how couples can learn to react in a positive way to another’s bids for attention rather than “turning away” – which generally involves ignoring a partner’s bid, or acting preoccupied. He writes, “turning toward one another is a kind of secret weapon against elements such as contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling – factors that can destroy any relationship.”

How can marriage counseling help couples?

• A motivated couple can begin to explore their problems from a new perspective.
• They can learn new ways to recognize and resolve conflicts as a result of the tools provided by the therapist.
• Partners can improve communication that may have eroded the quality of their interactions. It’s common for couples to reach an impasse and lose the ability to be vulnerable and trusting of one another.
• It can provide “neutral territory” to help couples work through tough issues or to put aside “baggage” that prevents the couple from moving on.
• Couples can decide to rebuild their marriage and make a renewed commitment, or clarify the reasons why they need to separate or end the marriage.

In sum, for marriage counseling to be effective, both partners need to be willing to take responsibility for their part in the problems, to accept each other’s faults, and to be motivated to repair the relationship. It’s important for couples to have realistic expectations because it takes more than a few sessions to shed light on the dynamics and to begin the process of change.

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