Love. Relationships. Marriage.
Such powerful words that evoke meaning and emotion, hopes and dreams, memories, and heartache.
Marriage is a culturally recognized union involving a legal, economic, emotional, and physical partnership. But, like all intimate relationships, it can be, well… complicated.
Marriage and other committed monogamous relationships involve imperfect, flawed humans trying to navigate an imperfect, complex world together. And while creating a strong relationship involves pain, struggle, and suffering, the joy, connection, camaraderie, support, and love are worth the efforts.
A great marriage isn’t something that just happens, it’s something that must be created.
Fawn Weaver (2014)
With all the love and tears involved in creating a lasting and strong relationship in mind, we look at marriage counseling therapy to understand what it entails, different approaches, and the benefits of therapy.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients build healthy, life-enriching relationships.
This article contains:
- Marriage Counseling Explained
- How Does It Work?
- Can It Help? Four Benefits of Marriage Counseling
- 9 Common Marriage Problems That May Arise
- Setting Sessions Up for Success: 4 Steps for Marriage Counselors
- Handling Affairs in Counseling Sessions
- A Note on Narcissistic Partners
- 10 Interesting Podcasts and Books on the Topic
- PositivePsychology.com Relevant Resources
- A Take-Home Message
Marriage Counseling Explained
The word marriage is thought to have originated around 1250–1300 CE from Middle English, describing a way to unite families. For centuries, arranged marriages were designed for economic reasons rather than love (Uglow, 2017).
Early on, marriage was a practical approach for procreation, safety, and support. In today’s times, the concept of marriage involves practical, economical, social, psychological, and emotional aspects.
As the expectation of what a marriage is and should be has increased, the disappointment, disagreement, and struggle to meet all the expectations have also increased. Marriage counseling is a great solution to moderate the difference between expectations and reality within a relationship.
Marriage counseling is also called “couples counseling” and is designed to help resolve conflict and improve relationships (Mayo Clinic, 2020). It can be effective for all types of intimate relationships, regardless of sexual orientation or marital status.
Working with a therapist, couples learn skills like developing open communication, effective problem solving, and how to discuss differences rationally. Couples are counseled to talk about both the good and bad parts of the relationship, identify problems, and consider how things can improve.
Most therapists claim to take an “eclectic” approach to couples counseling, but there are specific, research-backed approaches that demonstrate efficacy (Holt-Lundstad, Birmingham, & Jones, 2008).
Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT)
Emotion-Focused Therapy focuses on emotions and creating secure attachment, resilience, and healthy relationships (Nakonezny & Denton, 2008).
This is most effective for couples impacted by traumatic stress, past emotional injuries, abuse, and severe health problems such as cancer.
Behavioral Couple Therapy
Behavioral couple therapy emphasizes behavior change by helping clients understand how behaviors impact those around them.
This therapy includes Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy, which focuses on emotional acceptance and behavior change. It helps couples identify disturbed behavior patterns that are detrimental to the relationship. Once they are identified, couples can find new ways of interacting that are positive for their relationship.
Traditional Behavioral Couple Therapy focuses on developing more assertive communication and problem-solving skills (Nakonezny & Denton, 2008).
The Gottman approach
The Gottman approach helps couples form stronger relationships using a model called the Sound Relationship House. This model is supported by over 40 years of research conducted by the Gottman Institute. The focus is on becoming emotionally intelligent couples, attuning to one another’s needs, and building a friendship in trust and commitment (Gottman, 2020).
This new approach to counseling addresses couples’ needs when one member is considering divorce (Nakonezny & Denton, 2008). The spouse who wants a divorce practices “leaning out,” while the one who wants to work on the relationship “leans in.”
The immediate goal is to clarify what each spouse is thinking rather than resolve marital problems. It is a brief counseling that helps determine if more intensive counseling is worth it.
How Does It Work?
Emotion-focused therapy or EFT is one of the most effective forms of couples counseling.
It is a systematic approach to change patterns of interactions between distressed couples (Robles, Slatcher, Trombello, & McGinn, 2014).
EFT helps couples change their individual responses to strengthen the emotional bond and establish secure attachments. This type of therapy is not recommended for couples in abusive relationships or in the process of separating since one of the main goals is developing a bond and secure attachment.
In any style of couples counseling, the first session is often spent learning more about each individual person and the relationship in general. It is often referred to as a process of growing together.
The effectiveness of marriage counseling is directly dependent on the motivation levels of each partner. Gottman (2020) estimates that it takes most couples six years before seeking therapy to restore a relationship.
Like individual therapy, it is essential to develop goals and a timeline or treatment plan (Gaspard, 2020). Goals can range from ending the relationship on a good note to improving communication and intimacy. Goals can change through the course of treatment but usually revolve around developing or relearning critical skills like patience, forgiveness, trust, selflessness, and stress management.
Generally, relationship therapy will also include homework outside of counseling sessions. Couples must practice what is discussed in session and work on the issues in real life. Typical homework assignments might include going on a date without technology, practicing physical touch without sex, reading relevant books and discussing them, practicing active listening, creating a “safe word” for arguments, etc.
Can It Help? Four Benefits of Marriage Counseling
According to the American Psychological Association (2020), couples counseling using EFT is about 75% effective. Most research on counseling effectiveness uses a self-report measure called the Dyadic Adjustment Scale that provides a fair comparison of success rates.
The primary positive outcome is a reduction in relationship distress or complaints between partners.
1. Improve communication
Marriage counseling can help couples learn to communicate more effectively, whether it is the simple act of active listening or learning to speak up without offending their partner.
Basic communication skills such as using “feeling” words and learning to distinguish thoughts from feelings are very effective.
2. Resolve conflict
Better communication will help couples resolve conflict more effectively. When couples can learn to listen before responding and learn to hear what the other person is saying, the actual conflict can be identified and dealt with.
3. Process unresolved issues
A therapist provides a safe space to express issues that arise in any relationship. Each person brings their own baggage to the partnership, and it can be difficult to unpack this without an objective third party who is trained to identify and fairly address it (Leeuw, 2015).
Couples counseling can help the relationship, but it can also open the door to working through individual problems.
4. Develop deeper intimacy and trust
Intimacy can be defined as the feeling of closeness or connectedness. This can be physical or emotional. No matter what state a current relationship is in, intimacy and trust can always be deepened.
Touch, encouragement, discussing feelings, forgiveness, and shared experiences can help develop intimacy and build trust (Leeuw, 2015).
9 Common Marriage Problems That May Arise
1. Sexual differences
The amount of sex married couples have is not as significant as the couple’s shared belief about sex and intimacy (Gaspard, 2020).
Loss of libido for either partner can often cause conflict in the relationship. Couples must agree on the frequency of sex and specific sexual preferences to have intimate compatibility.
2. Life stages
Personalities and personal interests can change over time. Couples can either grow apart or grow closer by sharing interests and keeping communication lines open as interests and attitudes change.
3. Financial issues
One of the most common reasons for divorce is financial strain (Gaspard, 2020). Couples need to be on the same page with finances, no matter how much money is involved or who the “breadwinner” is.
It is essential to establish common financial goals and a realistic budget that both parties can respect.
4. Traumatic situations
The loss of a child is one of the most significant predictors of divorce (Gaspard, 2020). Other traumatic situations include major health issues or injuries; the loss of a parent, friend, or another relative; or a major life change. Navigating these horrible events with a therapist can not only save a marriage, but help the couple grow closer through it.
Stress is a part of life. How couples manage stress and stay connected through stressful times is a crucial component of a successful relationship.
From children to finances, stressful events will happen, and they can make or break the relationship.
Boredom is underrated and seems like a minor issue. However, when one or both partners become bored, other aspects of the relationship break down. These include things like respect, trust, excitement for the future, a vision of life together, and intimate connection.
It is normal for some jealousy to be present in loving relationships. But when one or both partners become overly jealous, it creates tension and codependency problems, and develops into fear, mistrust, and a need for control.
Infidelity is one of the most common marriage problems. It can include anything from one-night stands to long-term physical or emotional affairs. It is generally a symptom of a bigger problem such as boredom, feeling unwanted, or a lack of respect and shared values.
9. Unrealistic expectations
No human is perfect, and we often have a fairytale view of what a relationship will be like. Many people put too much pressure on their spouse or significant other to provide for their every need (physical, emotional, psychological, etc.). When disappointment sets in, there can be major issues.
Getting to know your partner well and developing realistic expectations of one another is one of the most essential things any couple can do.
Setting Sessions Up for Success: 4 Steps for Marriage Counselors
Unfortunately, many counselors are not fully prepared for the complicated dynamics that couples counseling often entails. Couples counseling is not individual counseling times two. Most couples approach couples therapy amid major conflict or after years of building tensions (Meyerson, 2008).
Gather the appropriate information. While tensions might be high and the couple may want to dive into what they see as the critical problems (or start blaming the other person for being in therapy to begin with), getting background information is essential.
This includes the number of years the couple has been together, current living situations, health issues, prior counseling, employment, hobbies and interests, and how they relate to each other.
Establish goals and make it clear that the therapist is not a referee. Clarify that one person is not “right” or “wrong,” that there are multiple perspectives, and that the couple is there to learn new communication methods. The therapist should foster the concept of “we” versus “me.”
Think about the most effective way to position the couple in the office setting. Therapists may have couples face each other and practice different types of body language and eye contact.
These subtle messages sent from one person to the other can play a large role in how much the couple benefits from each session. Having couples “mirror” each other’s messages is another effective way to set up communication within the session.
Summarize the session and prepare for the future. Have each person in the couple share their thoughts about what happened during the session and come up with something they can personally do before the next appointment to improve the relationship.
Reinforce the concept that couples should avoid talking to friends or family about their conflicts (Meyerson, 2008).
Handling Affairs in Counseling Sessions
Affairs happen for many different reasons, and up to 20% of people will engage in extramarital sex at some point (Barash & Lipton, 2001).
But physical infidelity is not the only type of cheating that can destroy a relationship. Emotional affairs can do more harm than a physical affair.
Other types of infidelity include:
- Object affair
Pursuing an outside object or interest to the point of near-obsession and neglecting the relationship.
- Sexual affair
When one partner has sex outside of the relationship.
- Cyber affair
When a breach of trust occurs through sexts and chats, it often stays online and never reaches a point of sexual intimacy. Pornography can be perceived as one form of this.
- Emotional affair
When one partner becomes emotionally connected with someone else, the partner begins to discuss relationship problems with a person outside the relationship. They might also neglect to do this with their partner.
Deficiencies in physical or emotional intimacy within a relationship reduce satisfaction, which makes any kind of infidelity more likely (Treas & Giesen, 2000). To address infidelity in marriage counseling, finding the root of the issue is a good first step.
Affairs can be based on a lack of satisfaction, or they might be rooted in personal unhappiness. Reasons for infidelity include low self-esteem, the desire to end the relationship, a desire for more physical or emotional intimacy, sex addiction, depression, or avoiding personal or relationship problems.
As the couple unpacks the reasons behind the affair and reestablishes goals for the future, healing can begin. The counselor can help reestablish trust, rekindle intimacy and connection, and prevent future infidelity.
A Note on Narcissistic Partners
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a legitimate mental health condition that must be diagnosed by a mental health professional. Only about 3–5% of the population actually has NPD, but narcissism is a trait or characteristic that many people have to varying degrees, and it can negatively impact relationships (Legg, 2019).
Narcissistic people are more likely to manipulate, take advantage of others, and display a high level of self-esteem and importance, but they are overly sensitive to criticism and often fail to recognize or care about their partner’s needs.
If someone is trapped (or feels trapped) in a relationship with a narcissistic individual, they can be encouraged to take a few steps to protect themselves (Legg, 2019).
- Take the spotlight off of them. Narcissists will want to be the center of attention. Regularly remind yourself that you matter, and make a list of your strengths, desires, and goals.
- Speak up for yourself. But do it in a kind, specific, and consistent way with how you expect to be treated. Tell them how their words and behavior affect you, and be prepared for the fact that they may not understand or care.
- Set boundaries. Narcissists have a sense of entitlement and little sense of personal space. Decide what is worth putting up with and what isn’t. Learn the art and ability to say “no,” and remember you are not responsible for another person’s happiness. Avoid taking blame just because you fear conflict. If you know the truth, don’t let anyone take that from you.
- Require action rather than promises. People with narcissistic personalities are good at making promises (to change, fulfill commitments, take care of responsibilities, etc.). Ask for what you want and insist you will fulfill their requests after they’ve fulfilled yours.
10 Interesting Podcasts and Books on the Topic
Marriage counseling podcasts
Where Should We Begin?
Esther Perel works with real couples who reveal the most intimate, personal, and complicated details of their conflicts.
She tackles open marriage, racism inside an extended family, coming out in a religious home, and chronic infidelity, among other delicate dynamics.
The Couples Therapist Couch
The Couples Therapist Couch is a podcast by licensed marriage and family therapist Shane Birkel.
The show provides education, support, and connection for therapists, marriage counselors, and relationship coaches.
This podcast discusses the intimate bond between two people and delves into how relationships are formed and developed.
That Relationship Show
Experienced marriage counselors Deb and Nao share what they’ve learned over decades of working with couples.
This documentary explores the meaning of marriage and how to make it last in a lighthearted way.
Couples therapy books
1. The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts – Gary D. Chapman
Dr. Gary Chapman helps couples identify, understand, and speak their spouse’s primary love language.
This could be quality time, words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, or physical touch.
Available on Amazon.
2. Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence – Esther Perel
Esther Perel offers a provocative take on intimacy and sex.
Mating in Captivity invites the reader to explore the paradoxical union of domesticity and sexual desire.
She explains what it takes to bring lust home.
Available on Amazon.
3. Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love – John Gottman, PhD, Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD, Doug Abrams, and Rachel Carlton Abrams, MD
Drawing on 40 years of research, Dr. John Gottman and Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman invite couples on eight fun, easy, and profoundly rewarding dates.
Each date is focused on a make-or-break issue: trust, conflict, sex, money, family, adventure, spirituality, and dreams.
Available on Amazon.
4. Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship – Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT and Harville Hendrix, PhD
Wired for Love is a guide to understanding a romantic relationship built on love and trust.
Synthesizing research findings drawn from neuroscience, attachment theory, and emotion regulation, this book presents 10 guiding principles that can improve any relationship.
Available on Amazon.
5. Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage: America’s Love Lab Experts Share Their Strategies for Strengthening Your Relationship – John Gottman, Julie Schwartz Gottman, and Joan DeClaire
In Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage, marital psychologists John and Julie Gottman provide vital tools that can be used to regain affection and romance lost through years of ineffective communication.
Available on Amazon.
PositivePsychology.com Relevant Resources
Positive Relationships Masterclass
The Positive Relationships Masterclass© is a six-module masterclass designed for professionals to help clients flourish in social relationships.
It can be applied to more than just romantic relationships as it emphasizes the importance of social bonds and support across the lifespan.
Managing Toxic Relationships
Gain insight and information on how to cope with and set boundaries within toxic relationships by using the Managing Toxic Relationships tool as a guide.
The Positive Relationship Timeline
The Positive Relationship Timeline worksheet helps couples explore the past, present, and future of their relationship to reconnect and re-experience positive events, memories, and emotions.
Examining Rituals of Connection
Using Gottman’s Sound Relationship House Model to understand how positive rituals create strong bonds and connections, this worksheet helps couples move toward a more satisfying, stable, and happy relationship.
The How to Improve Communication in Relationships worksheet contains seven essential skills that are instrumental for improving communication in relationships.
About Your Partner
Knowing your partner is one of the essential elements in preventing unrealistic expectations for marriage. The About Your Partner Worksheet is a fun exercise to do with your partner.
The article Codependency: What Are the Signs & How to Overcome It is a good read for someone struggling in an unhealthy relationship, as the article clarifies what codependency is and provides useful worksheets, books, and assessments.
For an in-depth read on Marriage Psychology and Therapy, this mega-article discusses divorce, successful marriage, books, tips, family therapy, and much more.
A Take-Home Message
Marriage and intimate relationships are critical for emotional health and wellbeing. They provide safety, security, support, stability, companionship, intimacy, connection, and joy. But they are also hard work.
Marriage or couples counseling can provide a wealth of tools for both individuals in the relationship. The couples therapist is more than a referee and can provide insight, a safe space, and an objective viewpoint that allows a relationship to overcome obstacles and reach its full potential.
A committed relationship is like a house. When a lightbulb burns out, you do not buy a new house; you fix the lightbulb.
A good therapist will help a couple see the strength, benefits, and beauty of the house and teach them how to replace a lightbulb.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free.
If you want more, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 370 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.
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- Chapman, G. D. (2010). The 5 love languages: The secret to love that lasts. Christian Large Print.
- Gaspard, T. (2020). The art of sensual communication. The Gottman Institute. Retrieved October 4, 2020 from https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-art-of-sensual-communication/
- Gottman, J. (2020). The Gottman method. The Gottman Institute. Retrieved October 10, 2020, from https://www.gottman.com/about/the-gottman-method/
- Gottman, J., Gottman, J. S., Abrams, D., & Abrams, R. C. (2019). Eight dates: Essential conversations for a lifetime of love. Workman Publishing.
- Gottman, J. M., Gottman, J. S., & DeClaire, J. (2007). Ten lessons to transform your marriage: America’s love lab experts share their strategies for strengthening your relationship. Harmony.
- Holt-Lundstad, J., Birmingham, W., & Jones, B. Q. (2008). Is there something unique about marriage? The relative impact of marital status, relationship quality, and network social support on mental health. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 35(2), 239–244.
- Leeuw, J. (2015). Making marriages work: Common factors of marriage theories. Scholar Works at WMU.
- Legg, T. J. (2019). 10 tips for dealing with a narcissistic personality. Healthline. Retrieved October 10, 2020, from https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-deal-with-a-narcissist
- Mayo Clinic. (2020). Marriage counseling. Retrieved October 4, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/marriage-counseling/about/pac-20385249
- Meyerson, J. (2008). Success with couples therapy: A step-by-step approach. Social Work Today, 8(3), 16–26.
- Nakonezny, P. & Denton, W. H. (2008). Marital relationships: A social exchange theory perspective. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 36, 402–412.
- Perel, E. (2017). Mating in captivity: Unlocking erotic intelligence. Harper Paperbacks.
- Robles, T. F., Slatcher, R. B., Trombello, J. M., & McGinn, M. M. (2014). Marital quality and health: A meta-analysis review. Psychological Bulletin, 140(1), 140–187.
- Tatkin, S., & Hendrix, H. (2012). Wired for love: How understanding your partner’s brain and attachment style can help you defuse conflict and build a secure relationship. New Harbinger Publications.
- Treas, J., & Giesen, D. (2000). Sexual infidelity among married and cohabiting Americans. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62(1), 48–60.
- Uglow, L. (2017). The history of marriage. Retrieved October 31, 2020, from https://www.sagu.edu/thoughthub/the-history-of-marriage
- Weaver, F. (2014). Happy wives club: One woman’s worldwide search for the secrets of a great marriage. Nelson Books.