It never fails. Whenever I'm introduced to someone at a dinner party and they learn that I am a marriage counselor, the first question they ask is: "So does marriage counseling actually work?" They usually know someone that didn't have a great experience in couples counseling or they've read an article that talks about how ineffective marriage counseling is. In response to their question, I smile and say, "Yes, marriage counseling is very effective when a skilled couples therapist is involved."
Sometimes I'll get lucky and the other person will ask me about what makes a great marriage counselor. I love to answer this question and I'll tell you more about this in a minute. First, a little back-story.
When I first began my practice, many years ago now, it was actually my goal to save 100% of marriages. Shortly after I began working with couples, and discovering that no matter what, some marriages were not going to be saved, a dear friend (and fellow psychologist) said, "You know, not all marriages should be saved. Some are so dysfunctional that they really should come to an end." It was hard for me to accept this, but she was right. Sometimes we must let go of something unhealthy to make room for something so much better.
Undeterred, I kept working with couples and constantly read the best research reports on what helped couples. I'd test new things, make new observations, revise and refine my approach week by week. I'd go to every couples therapy training event offered by expert in the field. I was having a lot of fun working with couples and finding the work to be very interesting and very rewarding. I would go to professional events and talk with other therapists and was always wanting to hear what they found when they were working with couples. That's when I learned something very upsetting...
Most therapists do not like couples counseling and tend to shy away from it!
In a piece for the New York Times, Elizabeth Weil explored this issue and found: ' “It’s widely acknowledged that couples therapy is the most challenging,” says Richard Simon, the magazine’s editor. “The stakes are high. You’re dealing with volatility. There are often secrets. We were just trying to make explicit something people who’ve done couples therapy already know: You often feel confused, at odds with a least one of your patients, out of control.” Part of the problem is that the kind of person who tends to become a therapist — empathic, sensitive, calm, accepting — is generally not the kind of person who is a good couples therapist. “The traditional, passive uh-huh, uh-huh is useless,” Mr. Real says. “You have to like action. To manage marital combat, a therapist needs to get in there, mix it up with the client, be a ninja. This is intimidating.” “It’s frightening to be faced with the force of two strong individuals as they are colliding,” he says. Peter Pearson and Ellyn Bader, psychologists and founders of the Couples Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., which offers both therapy and training for therapists, describe the experience of counseling high-conflict couples in equally violent if metaphorical terms, as “like piloting a helicopter in a hurricane.” '
This is indeed the case - couples counseling and marriage therapy is hard, intense work. But for those of us that love it, there's nothing better!
For most therapists, marriage counseling is not fun or pleasant. If someone doesn't like to do something, they tend not to do much of it and they tend not to do it well. If you're looking for a marriage counselor for yourself, it's critical that you work with someone who likes to do couples counseling and is an expert at it.
If I were interviewing a potential marriage counselor for myself, I'd ask: (1) how long have you been working with couples? (2) How many couples do you see per week? (3) How long do you typically work with a couple before they have some improvement?
I'd like to see the answers be: that someone has worked with couples for 5 years or more (10 years or more is even better), that they see mostly couples, which would mean 15 sessions or more of couples work per week, and that couples show improvement within a month or so and are markedly better at 3 months and 6 months.
To answer these questions myself: I've been working with couples exclusively for 10 years now, 95% of my clients are couples, I see about 25 per week (which is my maximum capacity), and most of my clients report feeling better within 1-2 sessions, most choose to continue working with me for about 6 months and almost all of them save their marriages. I attribute these results to the fact that I am an expert on couples and that I love this work. I am also very scientific in my approach. I'm constantly reading, testing, evaluating, and tweaking my approach. I want to deliver the very best results to my clients and help them get better as soon as possible.
There are a few other factors that determine whether marriage counseling will work for a couple:
1. The state of the emotional disconnection when the couple comes in for counseling. If the couple is in really bad shape, i.e., one of them has moved out or filed for divorce, it's very difficult for us to change course. I've had clients recover from this state, but in general, the better the shape of the marriage, the more successful counseling will be. Interestingly, most of my couples who are dealing with an affair, do get better. You can read more about why here.
2. The expectations of both partners when they come in for counseling. If one person is expecting the other person to "get fixed" by the counselor, they are likely to be very disappointed. Marriages go south because both people contribute to the deterioration of the relationship. It may not be an equal contribution, but it's never 100% and 0%. Likewise, if someone has the idea that their spouse must be "broken down" or "beaten into submission" or "re-trained", counseling is not likely to be effective. When we love someone, we want them to be the happiest, healthiest versions of themselves. Love does not involve breaking someone down or brain-washing them. I've written a bit on the behaviors that sabotage marriage counseling, you can read more here.
3. The specific methods used by the marriage counselor. Very few methods of couples counseling have been rigorously, scientifically studied. Of those that have been studied, 2 are the best of the best: The Gottman Method and Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. A skilled marriage therapist will be familiar with both and know how/when to use each. I like to use a blend of both, alone with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Positive Psychology. Make sure your couples therapist is familiar with these approaches and after your first session with someone, ask them to give you an idea of how they'll use these approaches to help you. They should be able to give you a rough idea. If the therapist has no idea, I'd look for someone else.
4. The attitude of both members of the couple and the therapist. Have you heard the old adage: whether you think you can, or you think you can't, you're right? This is true in just about every area of life. If you go into marriage counseling thinking that it won't work, you're probably right because you'll be critical and skeptical and will likely sabotage the process. You may not consciously or intentionally do this, but you'll probably do it just the same. You need to be positive, you need to believe it can work and it will work. With this attitude, you'll do the work necessary to heal your relationship, you'll be open to trying new things and taking responsibility for what you did to make things go sideways. Everyone in that counseling room should believe it will work. I wouldn't work with a therapist who didn't think the counseling would work or someone that told me the chances were just so-so. I'd want a therapist who could honestly say, "Yes, we'll fix this, let's get started!"
I hope this reassure you that your marriage can get better with marriage counseling; just be sure to do your homework and choose a counselor with the right experience, knowledge, and desire to help you get things back on track. Best wishes!