What do you need to know before starting marriage counseling? In this post, we’ll answer the common questions that couples have before starting marriage counseling. We’ll also share essential insights that marriage counselors wish their clients knew from the beginning of couples therapy.
It’s normal to feel anxious about couples counseling
In my 20+ years as a therapist who specializes in helping couples, I’ve never met a couple that didn’t feel anxious about getting started with marriage therapy. This is your most important relationship after all, and so much of your happiness and your future depends on it! It’s only natural that you need some reassurance and guidance before starting marriage counseling.
Here’s an outline of the topics we’ll cover in this post:
“A year from now, you’ll wish you had started today.”
– Karen Lamb
Since all relationships face challenges, couples who can benefit from marriage counseling come with a wide variety of concerns and goals.
Feeling Like Roommates. Some couples still feel very committed to their relationship, but they’ve started to feel like roommates. If this describes you, feeling “blah” isn’t how you started your life together. You certainly don’t want to end up feeling like strangers or enemies in your own home. Marriage counseling can help you address important issues, reconnect, and nurture your sense of enjoyment and intimacy. To help you prepare before starting marriage counseling, you can also get a copy of our free e-book, The Roommate Cure for Couples.
More Serious Marital Problems. Some patterns aren’t sustainable if you want a healthy relationship. For example, damaged trust, major life challenges, and feelings of intense dissatisfaction are relationship issues you shouldn’t ignore. Feeling stuck in the same patterns and arguments are a few examples of other issues that bring couples to counseling. To reclaim a happy future together, you need things in your marriage to change.
No matter the size of your difficulties, couples counseling can be the most important investment you make in your relationship. If you care about your relationship and could use some support and guidance, that’s enough to get started.
Setting helpful expectations about marriage counseling
It’s important to have accurate expectations and clear up misconceptions before starting marriage counseling.
Below, we’ll break these expectations into three parts: 1. Expectations about your marriage counselor’s role; 2. Accurate expectations of your role in making marriage counseling successful; and 3. Realistic expectations for the marriage counseling process.
1. Expectations about your marriage counselor’s role
Marriage Counseling Myth #1: Your counselor’s job is to save your marriage.
Accurate Expectation: While good marriage counselors are dedicated to helping you find the best possibilities for your relationship, they cannot “save” your marriage. Saving your marriage will depend on many factors—most importantly, your commitment as a couple to doing the work of healing.
Marriage CounselingMyth #2: Your marriage counselor will tell you whether you should stay together or divorce.
Accurate Expectation: Since it is your life and you are the ones who will have to live with your decisions, marriage therapists respect your right and responsibility to make decisions regarding your relationship. Your counselor will help you explore your options and understand the potential consequences of these choices. Marriage counseling gives you the opportunity to address issues so you can know what’s possible and make decisions that you can best live with.
Marriage CounselingMyth #3: Your marriage counselor will fix your spouse.
Accurate Expectation: As nice as this may sound, this isn’t your marriage counselor’s job! Nor is it yours. While seeking to understand your concerns, your couples therapist will treat both of you with respect and help BOTH of you to explore and understand your contributions to the challenges you face.
Marriage CounselingMyth #4: Your marriage counselor will judge and take sides.
Accurate Expectation: Your marriage counselor’s role is to act as a facilitator and a guide, not a judge—they won’t side against either of you. The only “side” they’ll take is to help you explore the best possibilities for your relationship, within the bounds of your desires and decisions. Good marriage counselors work for you together as a couple. Furthermore, it isnot the role of your couples therapist to make recommendations to the courts regarding parenting rights or custody decisions—courts assign other professionals to make these evaluations.
2. Your role in making marriage counseling successful
Couples who are successful in marriage counseling share some common attributes. It’s important to note that not all couples start with these attributes—they can develop them along the way:
Desire: Maybe it goes without saying, but wanting your marriage to succeed is an important factor in promoting successful couples counseling. At the same time, it’s very common for couples to feel some ambivalence in the beginning. One question you can ask yourself is: “If we could reclaim the love, closeness, and trust that we once knew, would I want our marriage to make it?”
Commitment: Couples who experience the most success in marriage counseling stay committed to finding the best possibilities for their relationship, even when it’s hard. These couples make consistently attending couples therapy a priority. They understand that closeness, connection, and healing require hard work and change. To borrow a phrase from a old Peace Corps slogan, marriage counseling can be the toughest job you’ll ever love.
Shared Intentions: To succeed in reclaiming a satisfying relationship, couples need to work toward creating a shared vision of how they’d like to relate to each other. Successful marriage counseling requires both partners to reach a place of wholeheartedly investing in the process. On the other hand, if one or both partners are coming to marriage counseling just to “check a box,” it makes the process much harder.
Honesty & Vulnerability: Restoring intimacy, trust, and connection asks both partners to take steps to restore safety, let down their walls, and open up more vulnerably with each other. Partners who get the most out of couples counseling grow in their ability and willingness to take some risks, share their softer side, express their longings, and show up more fully in their relationship. Blame without self-reflection isn’t a good recipe for success in couples therapy. Honesty and vulnerability means that each of you need to be willing to look in the mirror to see how you impact your relationship—everyone has room for growth.
Trust the Process: Part of the hesitance that couples feel before starting marriage counseling is not knowing how get to where they want to go. The problems in your relationship might feel overwhelming, and your previous attempts haven’t worked. The good news is that you don’t have to know how to get there—that’s where counseling comes in. Good marriage counselors can help you figure out what’s getting in the way. They’ll help you understand how you get stuck in the same patterns, and will support you in addressing the fundamental needs in your relationship. Couples who get the most out of couples therapy trust the counseling process.
Both partners take ownership: By definition, problems in a marriage involve two people—so both partners need to take ownership for how they impact the relationship and for being part of the solutions as well. You’ll get much more out of marriage counseling if you’re willing to look in the mirror and not lay the burden of change solely on your spouse.
It’s normal to feel a little worse before you start to feel better. It’s common for couples to carry unspoken or unresolved conflict for a long time. Addressing these things more openly can bring up pain that you’ve been trying to keep under wraps. This can actually be a good sign—pain is an indication that the relationship is real and that it matters. If your relationship didn’t matter, you wouldn’t care, and you wouldn’t feel. The goal is to heal from pain together, and that makes reconnection all the more meaningful.
See yourselves as partners facing a commonenemy—disconnection. When couples understand and believe that they both want the same thing—to love and be loved—they find much more success in facing their challenges together. They understand that the “enemies” they face as a couple are the patterns of disconnection that they unwittingly get stuck in. They grow to understand how their patterns of protecting themselves, while understandable, can actually get in the way of love, compassion, and understanding.
3. What to expect about the marriage counseling process: FAQ
Before starting marriage counseling, it can help to know the answers to some common questions about the therapy process:
Will we meet with our marriage counselor together or separately?
Typically, your marriage counselor will meet with you as a couple for 1-2 sessions at the beginning. Following these initial sessions, marriage counselors frequently will schedule one individual session with each partner. These individual sessions help the therapist understand your perspective and your relationship history. After this, you will typically meet together with your counselor for the remainder of your work together.
How often should we attend marriage counseling?
Experience and studies show that most couples benefit from weekly marriage counseling—especially at the beginning. Meeting this frequently can help you find traction sooner and establish hope early in the process. Even though it’s more expensive up front, in the long run it’s usually much more likely to be effective than attending marriage counseling infrequently or inconsistently. Your relationship deserves the best chances for growth and healing—make it a priority and plan to attend consistently.
How long will marriage counseling take?
The answer to how long marriage counseling takes can vary widely. It depends on a variety of factors, such as the following:
The severity of the challenges that you face as a couple.
How much sincere effort you put into the process.
Your honesty with yourself, your partner, and your therapist.
Your openness and efforts to change.
How willingly you look at your own contributions the challenges in your relationship.
Your willingness to create safety and be vulnerable.
Some other situations make it likely that the healing process could take longer. For example, deep betrayals and repeated violations of trust take time—sometimes several years—to heal. This can also be true when one or both partners have a history of significant trauma. We know that this can feel daunting, but take courage.You won’t be doing this alone. Your marriage counselor will be there to support you in working toward a future that you both desire and deserve. Your healing and your relationship is worth the effort.
What is the roadmap for the marriage counseling process? How will we know when marriage counseling should end?
Although the therapy process can vary from one couple to another, successful marriage counseling generally involved three overlapping stages:
1. Safety and Stabilization: The first stage of marriage counseling will help you establish emotional safety by stabilizing your relationship, de-escalating the patterns you’ve been stuck in, and identifying the unmet needs that are at the root of your challenges. This stage of marriage counseling often takes the most time, and it’s worth doing well.
2. Healing and Bonding: As safety becomes more consistent and you’re able to work together to slow things down, you’ll begin work toward even deeper healing together.
If you’ve been emotionally distant or withdrawn, you’ll be supported in reengaging with your partner in authentic, courageous, and vulnerable ways, finding the acceptance and love that you’ve craved.
If you’ve typically pursued connection through pushing to address issues or criticizing, you’ll be supported in softening, showing your vulnerability, and having your partner catch you in ways that they weren’t previously capable of.
In the process of healing, both of you can grow in your capacity to hold two realities—to have empathy for yourself and partner at the same time. This is a pivotal change for couples who had been previously caught up in a blame game. Working through the healing stage creates a solid foundation for you to face the rest of your life together.
3. Growth & Graduation: Even after experiencing significant healing in your relationship, you’ll both still be human, and you’ll face challenges in the future. Yet, by the end of the marriage therapy process, successful couples have earned a consistent feeling of security with each other. Because of repeated healing experiences facilitated during marriage counseling, these couples feel confident that they can turn to each other and work together in hard times. These couples have learned how to ask for, give, and receive the comfort, connection, and reassurance that each person needs. As couples grow in this confidence, they meet less frequently with their therapist, and they thoughtfully make a plan together to bring marriage counseling to a close.
What counts as “successful” marriage counseling?
When most people envision “successful” marriage counseling, it usually involves the healing described above. Who can argue with the value of reclaiming safety, wholeness, and being deeply loved in a marriage?
That being said, successful marriage counseling sometimes takes a different face. There are no guarantees that both partners will want the same outcome or do the work required. Even so, it’s still important to make a wholehearted effort. When you fully engage in therapy, you can find some peace in knowing that you’ve truly given your best. Regardless of the outcome, you won’t be plagued by feelings of regret. You won’t feel the burden of second-guessing whether things could have been different if you had given it your all.
When is marriage counseling not recommended?
I’ve listed below some of the situations where marriage counseling is not the right course of action or where its effectiveness will be severely limited.
Domestic Violence & Abuse: In relationships where abuse is present, the vulnerability required in couples therapy can actually put the abused partner at risk. If you are in a relationship where you are being physically hurt, threatened, screamed and cursed at, and/or forced to do sexual acts that you aren’t comfortable with it is vital that consistent safety be established (likely for many months) before considering pursuing couples therapy. You can find more information and resources at the domestic violence hotline website, the HITS screening tool, and the national coalition against domestic violence. In this situation, you can also seek individual therapy and support. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, safety, and respect. If you have slipped into abusive behaviors toward others, it’s vital that you seek help to address the roots of your behavior from therapists who specialize in this area.
Untreated Addictions: For marriage counseling to have the most impact, it is vital that alcohol or substance use problems be addressed. If the addicted spouse(s) isn’t willing to address these issues through consistent ongoing professional help, the addiction will undermine the couple’s efforts to reestablish trust and safety. Marriage counseling can have positive impact if the addicted spouse is willingly and sincerely engaged in their own treatment.
Consistently Different Agendas for the Relationship: It’s common for couples to begin therapy with some ambivalence about what they want—this is workable in many situations. However, when partners fundamentally and consistently want mutually exclusive outcomes for the relationship, marriage therapy cannot result in an outcome that satisfies both partners.
What about affairs? While few situations are more painful than betrayal within a couples relationship, many couples can heal from affairs through counseling.That being said, if one member of a couple is unwilling to let go of their affair partner, no matter what the cost, merely attending marriage counseling will not heal the relationship. Individual therapy is likely more appropriate in this situation.
How to find a good marriage counselor
What should you look for in a marriage counselor? With something so important, you won’t want to go to just anybody. Here are some guidelines to help you in your search before starting marriage counseling:
Let go of bad advice and pop psychology. Find inspiration and good advice where you will, but opinionated and untrained “influencers” on tiktok or Instagram are unlikely to save your marriage. This also goes for some of the well-intentioned but misguided advice that you can get from friends or family.
Find a therapist who SPECIALIZES in marriage counseling and couples therapy. Excellent marriage counseling requires a unique skill set and specialized training. It isn’t the same as individual counseling, just with more people in the room. Look for a couples therapist who is grounded in a proven approach to helping couples connect and heal. For example, all of our therapists at Colorado Counseling Center are trained in Emotionally Focused Therapy, the most researched and effective approach to helping couples restore bonds of connection and love in their relationships.
Look for a marriage therapist who believes that relationships can work. Since you’ll naturally experience some ups and downs in the process of healing your marriage, you’ll need a couples counselor who can support you through these times. Thus, it’s important that your marriage counselor is hopeful about the possibility of healing in relationships. Surprisingly, some couples counselors (not the good ones) give off a vibe of being embittered and cynical about relationships—avoid them.
Find a marriage counselor who is curious, open, and non-judgmental. Skilled couples counselors won’t have preconceived notions about you—they’ll meet you where you’re at without judgement. From your very first session on, you should feel their openness, their respect, and their sincere care. Excellent marriage counselors will be sensitive to cultural issues and other personal factors that matter to you. The connection and trust that you build with your marriage counselor can have a big impact on the outcome. Good marriage counselors will be responsive to the needs or concerns that you raise with them about the therapy process.
Excellent marriage counselors focus on root causes, not quick fixes. A good marriage counselor will want to work themselves out of a job, helping you to come together in a way that is sustainable even after you finish counseling. Even so, a skillful counselor won’t rush the process—they’ll encourage you to thoroughly address your challenges together. Just like with physical injuries, you don’t want to take shortcuts in the healing process in a misguided effort to “save time.” Rushing through physical therapy or stitching up wounds when they’re still infected rarely ends well, and the same goes for marriage counseling.
Where to find effective marriage counseling
If you’re searching online for a counselor, look for the qualities we’ve mentioned above. Asking for referrals from friends or family can also help before starting marriage counseling.
Even if you don’t know someone who can give you a referral, effective counseling is more available than ever before. Therapists are becoming more aware of proven effective approaches to couples therapy (like Emotionally Focused Therapy). The best couples counselors continually seek additional training. In addition, the availability of online counseling increases your options for finding quality help. This is especially helpful if you have mobility/transportation challenges or live in an area where there are fewer local resources. Just make sure to find a therapist who is licensed in your state. Many therapists offer clients the choice of whether to meet online or in person.
The best places to find effective marriage counseling
Excellent marriage counselors can be found in a variety of settings. In our experience, you’re most likely to find the best marriage counselors in a therapy group practice or a private practice. If I were looking for a marriage counselor for myself or close friends, this is where I’d look. There are several factors that play into this.
Advantages of finding a marriage counselor in a group practice or private practice:
Specialization: Couples therapists in a group practice or private practice are more likely to have chosen relational counseling as a specialty—not just something they dabble in. If you need especially skilled help for your relationship, you’ll want to prioritize finding a therapist who specializes in couples counseling.
Professional Support & Consultation: Good therapy group practices offer a distinct advantage of surrounding their counselors with excellent, easily accessible professional support and consultation. Providing excellent couples therapy requires a lot of your counselor, so you don’t want to meet with someone who feels professionally isolated, with no community of colleagues. You also won’t be best served by a counselor who feels anonymous and unknown in the crowd of other therapists on a large online therapy platform.
Compensation & Manageable Schedules: Well-led group practices and private practices value their counselors’ well-being, so they compensate their employees fairly and help them maintain manageable client schedules. This benefits you, as you need a couples therapist who can bring their full attention to helping you.
Clear Values & Vision: Not all private practices and group practices are created equal. The best couples counselors and practices are guided by clear values and vision. For example, at Colorado Counseling Center, who we are guides how we work and we strive for excellence in all we do. We only hire counselors who are caring to the core, and we focus on taking good care of our counselors so they can take excellent care of you.
The cost of marriage counseling
It’s no secret that good marriage counseling can be expensive. The best approach before starting marriage counseling is to consider your financial situation and invest in the highest quality help that you can afford.
Yet, sometimes finances can be a prohibitive issue for couples who need help. Unfortunately, insurance companies rarely cover the cost of couples therapy—but you still have some options:
For example, some therapy group practices employ well-trained interns and newer therapists who charge lower fees.
Graduate Schools: Some graduate schools with counseling programs often have affordable clinics where you can work with a therapist-in-training.
Employer Assistance Programs: Some employers offer counseling benefits through Employer Assistance Programs (EAPs) for their employees. With EAP programs, there is usually a limit to the number of sessions you can attend. You’ll also be limited to counselors who have a contractual agreement with your employer.
Some online therapy platforms also offer reduced rates for marriage counseling. These online platforms often choose your therapist for you, so finding the right counselor may take some diligence and patience. Research shows that you may need to meet with 3–4 counselors through these platforms before finding the right fit.
Getting started in couples therapy takes courage. We hope that you’ve found this information helpful about what you should know before starting marriage counseling. Having appropriate expectations and knowing what to look for can point you in the right direction. Once you’ve found a good marriage therapist, they’ll support you every step of the way.