There are many reasons that lead a couple to seek a marriage counselor. They could be experiencing a lot of prolonged conflict or other problems between them, one or both might have been unfaithful or there could just be silence between them.
But no matter the reason(s), when a couple does finally go to see a couples counselor, they’re often at a stage where it’s their very last hope.
Marriage counseling sessions can help a couple address past traumas and hurts in their relationship and set a foundation to improve the marriage.
And while sometimes, one spouse already knows they want to divorce and they’re bringing the counselor on board to help soften the blow, most go to counseling because they truly want to try to work things out and save the marriage.
But does marriage counseling work? How long should a couple invest in marital counseling?
And what are some signs to indicate that their relationship is getting back on track? Or signs to indicate it might be time to throw in the towel and call it quits?
By the way, I know first-hand that marital counseling shouldn't only be considered successful if the marriage can be repaired. Because it can also be successful if it helps a couple recognize they’re not in a healthy relationship and then gives them the encouragement they need to focus on a respectful divorce using mediation.
I asked a panel of respected therapists how to know if marriage counseling is working. Here’s what they said…
How to Know if Marriage Counseling is Working and The Marriage is Getting Back on Track
Claudia Rosen, LCSW
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
I think that when a couple is in therapy, there should be some very clear goals that have been mutually agreed upon for the therapy process. This helps with maintaining focus, building trust, assessing progress, and avoiding less constructive venting and blaming by a couple.
Again, it depends on what the issues are, but there should be clearly identified problems and goals that the couple is working on.
One of the most common marriage counseling goals, which is often less simple than it may sound, is striving for more understanding. This includes understanding what works well and is appreciated about the relationship and, importantly, understanding differences in view points, feelings, and relationship approaches.
Improved understanding can lay a foundation for more mutual respect about differences and finding ways to work around these differences. This can also include learning how to communicate more calmly and effectively in ways where each person’s feelings and needs get heard in the communication within the couple.
Follow-up question to Claudia:
When you talk about setting the goals with the therapist and agreeing on them, is there any time put on the goals - like we'll evaluate in three months or six months?
Or are there check-ins at any point?
Yes, in couple’s counseling, the agenda always has to be transparent and agreed upon.
I think that checking in probably at least every four to six sessions is key with respect to larger goals. At the same time, I think it’s important to check in on what’s going on in between each session and in each session about goals, but also working on marriage obstacles, problems, strategies, feelings that are coming up, and the sense of trust and confidence that each person has in the process.
So there should be a transparent process of checking in, and mutually evaluating how couple’s therapy is working and progressing.
It takes strength for a couple to begin the process of marriage therapy.
When I am working with couples, one of the first things I usually hear before the couple even sits down on the couch is, “We should’ve begun this a long time ago.”
To me, this is representative of the change process. It takes time for both partners to acknowledge that some issues need the assistance of a marriage counselor and for both to commit to the time and energy needed for couple's counseling to work.
Some are skeptical of couple counseling for a variety of reasons, especially if they had a negative experience in couples or individual counseling in the past.
Embedded in the counseling sessions should be ways to measure the progress of the treatment.
At the heart of a marriage is a partnership and a strong emotional connection. As couples feel more connected to each other, they are more able to work through present day conflict and problems. Moreover, they are able to reframe hurt from the past. Reframing past hurt and resolving current conflict helps the couple to feel more resilient (the ability to bounce back or recover from a stressful event).
The best marriage counselors and skilled therapists will look for non-verbal cues to indicate the marriage is getting back on track. Isopraxism, the mirroring of each other through non-verbal language, helps to aid the therapist draw out connections and steer the couple to be more emotionally expressive with each other.
As couples express connection through their body language, such as holding hands, looking at each other while talking and holding a similar posture, they will also feel this connection themselves.
Resilient couples will be able to acknowledge their progress in treatment and will intentionally point out they are not as encumbered by the issues which once caused conflict. In fact, they will crave more giving and receiving love from their partner.
As a couple reports that they are able to more easily resolve conflict, then this too becomes a measure of success.
Working together helps to create a “we got this” mentality which really means “we got this – together.” That is, both are reporting that they were able to work through conflict easier, or conflict didn’t last a long time/as long as in the past. For example, if an argument on how to discipline their children used to take 2 days to get to resolution and it currently takes a few hours by using new communication tools taught by the counselor, this would be a good way to measure success in the treatment.
The greatest barometer for how to tell if marriage counseling is working is how the partners are feeling both as individuals and as members of a whole.
Can they identify new tools and techniques to communicate their needs effectively? Are they able to hear their partner out without feeling the need to defend or judge? Do they feel greater personal sovereignty and authenticity as a result of the inner work they are doing as a couple?
Oftentimes children are exposed to dysfunction in their parents' marriages and later in their own personal relationships. They enter their marriage without the skills to engage in the relationship in a conscious, just, and open-hearted way.
Counseling is a way to build the foundation they may never have had in the first place.
An important element to progress is the commitment from each partner in terms of the therapy process and relational goals.
By quickly identifying these goals, along with implementing a reasonable timeframe, a marriage counselor is able to measure necessary progress towards relational health. It is important to openly identify and process problems, challenges and unhealthy patterns.
When the focus is supporting a healthy relationship, the couple can work together to make decisions that best support their individual needs, relationship and family as a whole.
When you and your partner can look at each other with love, gratitude and appreciation.
When you can show (and tell) each other how important you are to one another and are spending time together working on your relationship, rebuilding intimacy and your physical connection; doing more things together and enjoying making new memories for your future.
When you remember why you fell in love with each other in the first place; that’s when you know that marriage counseling is working!
Real change when working on a marriage takes time. While couples will often report feeling better after a few weeks of therapy, lasting improvement will take time to solidify.
As a marriage counselor, I am a firm believer in goal/skill-based therapy which intrinsically makes progress easier to see. By establishing goals, the couple jointly knows what to look for in regards to progress.
When a couple comes to me for therapy, two of the first things we establish are their goals and identify how disconnected the couple is. If they say things like, “this is our last hope” or “we were talking about divorce and agreed to try one last time,” I request that they commit to weekly therapy for 3 months. Part of that agreement is the understanding they they will have good weeks as well as setbacks. When they experience the setbacks, they have already agreed to focus on making the necessary changes and the option to end the marriage during the 3 months is off the table.
At the end of the 3 months, we re-assess. Typically, everything isn’t "fixed" by then, but the couple generally has a good idea of if enough progress has occurred to motivated them to keep working. Progress is defined based on the mutual goals they determined at the start of therapy. A few examples of this is increase in connection or positive feelings, decrease in negative interactions, feeling like friends, able to have fun together and quicker recovery times after a conflict.
How Would a Couple Know is Marriage Counseling Successful or Not and When to Get a Divorce?
Amy Beth Acker, LCSW
The decision to end a marriage is intensely personal. One needs to look at the benefits of staying in the marriage and how they compare to the benefits of leaving it.
In which scenario would the person feel more whole, more authentic, more free? Are the issues that are leading them to consider leaving the marriage insurmountable?
Many people enter couple's counseling hoping to change their partner. However, it is crucial for each member of the couple to take an honest look at their role in the conflict and the shame/blame cycle.
In other words, is the marriage still serving you? If not, and it is clear there is no way for it to serve you and fulfill you in the way you need to feel whole in the future, it may be time to shift the conversation to how to step away from the marriage and divorce.
Irene Schreiner, LMFT
If one or both spouses commit to doing the work but don’t follow through from week to week, that is generally a sign we may need to discuss ending the marriage through divorce.
There are also times where despite the couple's best efforts, too much damage has been done. They have applied the new skills/tools, worked to improve themselves and how they interact with each other but it still seems like “too little, too late”.
Ultimately, either they can’t let go of the anger and resentment or don’t want to turn back towards their partner.
Ewelina Beardmore, LCPC
When individuals or couples can’t find compromise, peace in their current situation or a way to let go of resentment, it might be time to work toward the end of the marriage.
In the best case, both parties will agree that they have grown their separate ways and that it’s time to end the relationship and divorce peacefully.
Claudia Rosen, LCSW
I think that if there is a mutual dedication to achieving the goals and one person really is unwilling or unable to work on the same goals it may be time to end and move towards divorce.
Also, if in spite of making some progress on certain goals, there isn’t a renewal of positive regard in the relationship, and notice I don’t say "being in love," because fundamentally over time, a relationship is sustained by good feelings, and not by romantic love in a couple’s relationship. Although that’s a factor, it's usually not the most important factor in having a partnership relationship over time.
So if positive regard can’t return, and good feelings can’t return within the relationship, it’s time to shift into ending the marriage.
During the couple’s therapy, there should be more relief from anger and hurt over time.
Because of changes that occur in the marriage and because through working on better communication, better understanding, more caring activities and responsive if there’s not a healing process of wounds, it’s not going to work. It may be too little too late or just too late, and so I think if that kind of emotional repair can’t happen it’s just probably not going to work.
Justin Tobin, LCSW
Needless to say, the decision to end the marriage is a difficult decision to make.
Effective couple's counseling requires both partners to be engaged in the process with the therapist, put the required effort into making change and be willing to identify and acknowledge each person’s role in the unhealthy behaviors of the marriage.
Although there is usually not one single sign which points to ending the marriage, there are a handful of signs when coupled with a lack of progress in treatment that can demonstrate the shift towards working towards separation or divorce:
When one or both spouses say they no longer want to put in the effort to make marriage work.
When recurring fights are not able to be resolved.
When one partner explains they are no longer in love with the other and they do not wish to return to this love.
When compromise/change is no longer on the table.
When neither is willing to take responsibility for their roles in the conflict.
When one spouse continues to sabotage the progress in treatment and they simply keep blaming the other for the state of the marriage.
In my professional experience, I know of couples where each spouse fully committed to marriage counseling (and each other), and in doing so, have been able to successfully identify and eliminate unhealthy patterns, improve communication skills and establish deeper and more loving relationships.
It didn't happen overnight for these couples, but each partner was willing to put in the time and effort - not just during sessions but every day in between, and they got their marriage back on track and learned new tools to sustain the relationship into the future.
Sadly, that was not the case for my own marriage.
When my now ex-husband and I were having problems in our marriage, I suggested we see a marriage counselor to help us work through them.
I was fully committed to the marriage and willing to do everything I could to improve our relationship and I thought (hoped) he was, too.
My spouse reluctantly agreed to attend the counseling sessions, and in the beginning, we were able to have some honest conversations about the state of our marriage. With the therapist's help, we even had some breakthroughs which led to each of us feeling more connected to the other.
But after a few months, he began arriving late or not at all. And when he did show up, he sat with his arms folded and stared out the window. Barely making eye contact or communicating...
After 5 months of very little sustained progress, it was pretty clear my husband was not willing to put any effort into our relationship. And unfortunately, I knew our marriage was over (or fortunately depending on how you choose to look at things - after all, I'm a life coach and don't believe there are any mistakes in life...).
I continued to see the therapist for a few months on my own and during the course of therapy, she helped me reflect on the marriage and my part in its demise. She also gave me the support and encouragement I needed to make a plan for ending the marriage in a dignified way (I used divorce mediation.)
I personally believe that marital counseling isn't only successful if the marriage is "fixed." In my case, it was successful because it helped me recognize I wasn't in a healthy relationship and was the much-needed catalyst to making some changes that ultimately improved my life.
If you decide to end your marriage, recognize that the choices you make before you start your divorce are critical.
Regardless of how many years you've been married, whether you're the one who wants the divorce, your spouse does or you're both on the same page, the choices you make before you start your divorce will likely set the tone for how the entire process will unfold for you and your children.
And how peaceful, fair, child-focused and cost-effective your divorce will (or won't) be.
But you can only make smart choices if you take the time to get educated and prepare for divorce first.
That's exactly why we created a downloadable kit for smart people like you - to help you do just that!
Equitable Mediation Divorce Coach Cheryl Dillon is passionate about helping couples attain a peaceful, fair and cost-effective divorce while putting their children first. When she’s not supporting her clients through the emotional aspects of this significant life transition, you can find her trying to stick to an exercise program, tending to her garden, watching Cubs baseball, and trying to persuade Joe to adopt 5 or 10 more dogs.