What is Marriage Counseling & Couples Therapy?

“What is marriage counseling?” “What is Couples Therapy?” and even more concerning as a therapist, “Isn’t couples therapy and marriage counseling only for relationships that are broken?” Some variation of these questions is what I hear often from the audience of relational speaking events I give and new clients sitting in my office who are courageous enough to ask them. Although the ladder is an understandable assumption given the way our society and media generally portray relationship counseling and couples therapy, it is an assumption that actually inhibits many people from experiencing the types of relationships they want. Unfortunately this can also become an incorrect belief that prevents individuals and couples from getting the support they need.

Putting Things Into Perspective

When I’m asked variations of the concerning question above by those unfamiliar with marriage counseling and couples therapy, I often respond with a few questions of my own! “When did you learn healthy and effective relational skills? Was there a required class in elementary school, high school or college that specifically taught you how to relate with others? Where did you learn the skills needed to be happily married to one person for the rest of your life?” These questions quickly put things into perspective for most people. The reality is, unless we grew up in a stable and loving family environment that modeled healthy relational interactions, have formal education in a field such as marriage counseling, or have been through the process of effective couples therapy ourselves, we usually don’t possess these skills.

Believe it or not, over 75% of people do not know how to engage the basic skills for cultivating and sustaining healthy relationships. This is a statistic that many people are unfortunately not aware of. It can also be a sobering reality that many of us don’t realize until we have: found ourselves without friends, become distant from family members, lost key business accounts, been let go from several jobs, struggled in our intimate relationships for years or have gone through multiple separations and/or divorces. The good news is relational skills can be easily learned with some effort and practice. The relational skills and experiences learned in couples therapy or relationship counseling are not limited to just intimate relationships. These are skills that can apply to all relationships such as those with family, friends, peers, co-workers and clients.

Relationships Don’t Have to be That Hard

It is true that a majority of people who seek relationship therapy and marriage counseling wait until they have been experiencing distress in their relationship or marriage for many years. This distress and disconnection will occur for five, ten and even sometimes twenty years before people get outside professional support. Those who wait years to get this help typically enter my office highly conflicted, emotionally reactive, sexually distant, questioning their relationship and sense of self, or on the brink of divorce. It is common for me to hear clients say,

  • “I guess we thought our problems would naturally correct themselves, or just go away over time.”
  • “We thought this is what marriage was, you just learned to live with it, compromise and accept.”
  • “Asking for help meant I was weak, or even worse was failing as an individual or at my relationship.”
  • “It didn’t even cross our minds that a set of relational skills existed and they were something we could learn.”

I’m always amazed at the strength and sheer willpower of clients that endure years of relational distress and disconnection before seeking professional support; it’s also disheartening. It’s disheartening because these clients are often those who didn’t experience healthy relationships growing up, were never taught relational skills, don’t know that relational skills and practices are something that can be easily learned and most importantly are suffering. Many individuals also don’t realize that the process of learning how to live more relationally is not limited to just couples. Marriage counseling, couples therapy, relationship counseling and relationship coaching for individual clients are common in my practice and are also very effective.

So where do we learn these relational skills and practices as adults if we were not fortunate enough to have been raised or educated in an environment that allows us to be relationally proficient? Where do we learn the skills to put an end to years of needless tension, frustration and suffering within our personal, professional and intimate relationships?

What is Marriage Counseling & Couples Therapy

Couples therapy and marriage counseling is a complex process, but in a general sense it can be thought of as a simple process that lies on a continuum. At one end of the continuum you can learn how to stop fighting and reduce conflict in your relationship or marriage. At the other end of the continuum you can learn how to strengthen passion, intimacy and sex within your relationship. In between these two points on the continuum lie skills and practices such as improving communication, increasing understanding, rebuilding trust and even working through experiences such as relational traumas.

At its core, marriage counseling and couples therapy is a process that enables you and your partner to learn, as well as experientially engage, specific skills and practices for strengthening communication and connection in your relationship. Whether you want to learn how resolve problems, improve communication, strengthen connection, or achieve specific goals in your relationship or marriage, relationship counseling can move you in the positive direction you want.

The Role of Your Couples Therapist

A specialist in relationship counseling utilizes his or her education, training and clinical experience to ensure that the process of therapy occurs in a safe, supportive and collaborative space, without the presence of blame or judgment upon either partner. You should know that relationship counseling is not about pointing fingers, determining which partner is at fault, or a process in which a therapist makes decisions for you by just telling you what to do. A therapist is best described as a guide, a guide who supports you through the process of working through your struggles and achieving the individual and relational goals you bring to therapy. This can be counterintuitive for some clients.

Some clients think that a couples therapist or marriage counselor’s job is to determine who is wrong in the relationship and to make all the decisions for the couple. Further along in our relationship article series we explain in greater detail how approaching the process of couples therapy and marriage counseling in this way can actually makes things worse for a couple. As a couples therapist and marriage counselor, my focus is to support and empower my clients so they can learn the skills and practices to help themselves. Individuals and couples eventually learn how to work through their struggles and achieve their goals on their own.

Don’t Wait Until it is too Late

The stigma that can come with couples therapy and marriage counseling only being for individuals or relationships that are broken can prevent you from experiencing healthy and happy relationships. Our often unconscious and unspoken societal norms such as, healthy relationships shouldn’t require effort, problems shouldn’t exist if it is true love and you don’t need someone else to be happy, also perpetuate the problem. Relationships do require attention and practice, a practice of specific skills and ways of being that can be easily learned.

Don’t be the statistic of more than 75% of the population that doesn’t know how to engage the basic skills for cultivating and sustaining healthy relationships. Don’t be the statistic of 40-45% of first marriages that end in divorce. And definitely don’t be the parent or parents who knowingly or unknowingly model and pass down dysfunctional relational dynamics that cause unnecessary harm and suffering in their children’s lives. Don’t wait until things have gone from bad to worse before seeking the support of a professional couples therapist or relationship counselor. Your health, happiness and family are too important!