Marriage Counseling Success: How to Maximize Your Chances
Every relationship has its ebbs and flows, but if yours feels turbulent or consistently off-kilter, you may benefit from marriage counseling.
Marital problems are often distressing and excruciating. However, a therapist can provide objective, informed guidance to help heal emotional wounds, facilitate open communication and rekindle your connection.
"Teaching communication and conflict management skills are ways to create opportunities for couples to co-create their story with new tools and techniques," said Gilza Fort-Martinez, M.S., L.M.F.T., the founder of Resolution Counseling Center in Miami.
Collaboration and negotiation play vital roles in any relationship, requiring a willingness to consider the other person's viewpoint, feelings and ideas.
Not all couples who attend therapy stay together—and sometimes that's for the best. But there's a much greater chance of repair or amicable separation if both parties are informed about and invested in the process.
Let's find out from counselors and therapists what advice and tips they'd recommend to maximize the benefits.
When should couples seek counseling?
Most couples seek professional help when one or both parties are already at a breaking point, experts said.
These relationships are frequently rife with criticism, contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling, according to Fort-Martinez. These behaviors were deemed by John Gottman, founder of the Gottman Method of therapy, as the "Four Horsemen," which often precede a breakup or divorce.
"These situations are typically marked by intense conflict and become difficult to sustain," Fort-Matinez said. "Couples facing such challenges often either opt for counseling or choose to divorce."
Once one or both parties are experiencing such significant pain and uncertainty, it can be particularly challenging to reconcile, said James Miller, a licensed psychotherapist and licensed professional counselor in Miami and the host and executive producer of "Lifeology Radio."
"Often, one party is ambivalent, with one foot out the door, and the other is desperate to repair the relationship," he added.
To avoid reaching that point, experts advise seeking professional help sooner rather than later.
"When things begin to feel consistently off—when there's constant bickering, a lack of understanding, empathy, emotional attunement or intimacy—a couple should begin to talk more seriously about what's been happening and what is going on," said Michael T. Mongno, M.Sc., M.F.T., a psychotherapist at Present Centered Therapies in New York City. "If this becomes difficult, unproductive or reactionary, it's definitely time to seek help."
Miller suggested couples benefit most from seeing a therapist before problems arise.
"Ideally, it's recommended that couples create a working relationship with a clinician and seek out counseling at least once a year to either celebrate how well their relationship is progressing or tighten up any areas that may be slipping," Miller said. "Counseling shouldn't only be used when things are breaking down."
How to get the most out of marriage counseling
Whatever state your relationship is in, experts say commitment and perseverance can increase the likelihood of a positive outcome.
Our experts offered five top tips to help you get the most of couples counseling.
1. Choose the right couples therapist
When searching for a therapist, it's important to look for licensed and certified professionals that make both parties feel comfortable. If either of you isn't feeling it, it's a no-go.
Many counselors will provide an initial consultation at no charge, so you can determine if it's a good fit, said Susan Horton, L.M.F.T., a counselor and author based in Marshfield, Massachusetts.
Additionally, look for someone who specializes in couples counseling, since it's quite different from individual therapy.
"The dynamics involved in working with two individuals simultaneously can be complex, so expertise in this area is crucial," Fort-Martinez explained.
Miller suggested looking for additional certifications specific to relationship counseling, such as the Gottman Method of Couples Therapy, emotionally focused therapy (EFT), integrative behavioral couple therapy (IBCT) or imago relationship therapy (IRT).
Asking about the therapist's experience can be helpful, too, Mongno noted. Although most can handle common relationship issues, some specialize in one area, such as infidelity, sexual intimacy, parenting, gender orientation, open relationships or polyamory, or living apart together.
Finally, ask the therapist how they'll help you, suggested Terri DiMatteo, L.P.C., a couples counselor based in Princeton, New Jersey. At the end of your first session, a qualified, seasoned clinician should be able to provide a clear outline of the main problems they'll help you address and how.
"A couple should seek a therapist they feel comfortable with, who they deem competent, experienced and knowledgeable, and who can help them move from pain to secure connection," she added.
2. Set realistic expectations
Restoring a relationship through counseling doesn't mean you'll never experience conflict or distance again, DiMatteo explained. Instead, it's designed to equip couples with the tools to navigate future hurdles constructively.
"Marriage counseling should help them repair what's interfering with their connection and help them learn ways to reconnect and repair their relationship post-therapy," she said. "In other words, counseling should help make the relationship more resilient and durable so that the couple can, in the future, maneuver through challenges."
Sometimes, marriage counseling can be a means to assess a relationship and decide whether to make it work or part ways.
"One function of marriage counseling is to help couples gain clarity, and the clarity that surfaces sometimes leads to separation," DiMatteo said.
Whatever your situation and objectives, experts stress the importance of recognizing change takes time and effort. Therapy isn't easy, nor is it a quick fix. Generally, counselors recommend attending regular sessions for at least three months to reap the benefits.
3. Communicate openly
Fort-Martinez said poor communication is one of the main reasons people end up in her office.
"Couples come in saying that 'they can't communicate,' or one of them says that the other person does not 'get them,'" she said. "One reason for this is that they have different understandings of what communication means."
Learning to communicate effectively is a primary objective of therapy, and it's an essential part of the process.
Effective communication requires both speaking and active listening, Fort-Martinez said, adding that active listening means paying attention to the words spoken and their intentions and meanings. During sessions, it's crucial for couples to actively listen to each other to fully comprehend what's been said and ensure the other party feels heard.
Without continual practice with the methods taught in the session, they will revert to their previous dynamic.
Honesty and forthrightness about your feelings are equally important, experts agreed.
"Keeping secrets, whether from your partner or the therapist, undermines the therapy process," Fort-Martinez said. "The discovery of a secret can be highly damaging, while disclosure can be more beneficial. If only the therapist is unaware of the secret, it completely taints the therapy process.
"It's also detrimental when a partner chooses to share a secret in an individual session and prevents it from being discussed in the couple's session."
According to a 2020 review of therapeutic interventions conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), couples who experience infidelity are more likely to divorce, and the likelihood increases if they don't disclose their transgression in counseling.
4. Be flexible and receptive
Another of the most common hurdles experts encounter is when one or both partners are unwilling to acknowledge their role in creating the conflict. Everyone makes mistakes. Owning them is a necessary precedent for healing, Mongno said.
"For couples therapy to work, each partner must be willing to honestly look at the part they're playing in their co-created dynamic," he continued. "Often, one partner wants the therapist to fix the other, thinking that will make it all better.
"The only way couples therapy can be successful is if both partners are open and committed to honestly confronting their behavior, to seeing the impact it's having on the other, as well as fully registering what their partner is saying."
Horton agreed, acknowledging both parties must maintain an open mind, strive for greater self-awareness, and be receptive to feedback from their therapist and partner.
"Understanding that every story has multiple sides is crucial in developing the skills of negotiation and compromise," Fort-Martinez said. "It does not mean always accommodating the other person, but rather being open to different perspectives. Collaboration and negotiation play vital roles in any relationship. They require a willingness to consider the other person's viewpoint, feelings and ideas."
The key is approaching differences of opinion with a willingness to find win-win solutions. Doing so is a way to foster emotional intimacy.
5. Apply skills outside of therapy
Therapy is only effective if couples apply the skills they learn outside the clinician's office, according to Miller.
"Often, couples will do well in the session and stay in that euphoric high for a few days and forget that without continual practice with the methods taught in the session, they will revert to their previous dynamic," he said.
To help couples use these methods, a therapist should create a plan that outlines the couple's goals, quantifiable objectives and strategies to implement throughout treatment, Miller said.
Usually, said plans include homework assignments or specific activities that encourage couples to implement suggestions and skills, according to Fort-Martinez.
"When one or both partners neglect to complete their assigned homework, it can create a negative impression," she added. "It may imply a lack of interest or indifference in resolving their relationship issues, which can lead to further conflict or emotional distance."
The bottom line
Marriage counseling is a valuable tool for fostering positive change and growth, Fort-Martinez said.
But for it to work, both partners must give it their all.
"When a marriage is struggling, it's important to realize that to improve it—and sometimes save it—real measures must be taken," Mongno said.
That takes commitment and courage. At times, it's not for the faint of heart.
"But there is no better investment than in the discovery and healing of oneself in front of a trusted other—both partner and therapist—and no greater achievement than to find the love that's been lost and to experience the real transformation of a relationship," he concluded.