Mayo Clinic Health Library

Marriage counseling

Updated: 11-19-2011

Definition

Marriage counseling, also called couples therapy, is a type of psychotherapy. Marriage counseling helps couples of all types recognize and resolve conflicts and improve their relationships. Through marriage counseling, you can make thoughtful decisions about rebuilding your relationship or going your separate ways.

Marriage counseling is often provided by licensed therapists known as marriage and family therapists. These therapists have graduate or postgraduate degrees — and many choose to become credentialed by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT).

Marriage counseling is often short term. Marriage counseling typically includes both partners, but sometimes one partner chooses to work with a therapist alone. The specific treatment plan depends on the situation.

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Why it's done

Marriage counseling can help couples in all types of intimate relationships — heterosexual or homosexual, married or not.

Some couples seek marriage counseling to strengthen their bonds and gain a better understanding of each other. Marriage counseling can also help couples who plan to get married. This pre-marriage counseling can help couples achieve a deeper understanding of each other and iron out differences before marriage.

In other cases, couples seek marriage counseling to improve a troubled relationship. You can use marriage counseling to address many specific issues, including:

  • Communication problems
  • Sexual difficulties
  • Conflicts about child rearing or blended families
  • Substance abuse
  • Financial problems
  • Anger
  • Infidelity
  • Divorce

Marriage counseling might also be helpful in cases of domestic abuse. If violence has escalated to the point that you're afraid, however, counseling alone isn't adequate. Contact the police or a local shelter or crisis center for emergency support.

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How you prepare

The only preparation needed for marriage counseling is to find a therapist. You can ask your primary care doctor for a referral to a therapist. Loved ones and friends might give recommendations based on their experiences. Your health insurer, employee assistance program, clergy, or state or local mental health agencies also might offer recommendations.

Before scheduling sessions with a specific therapist, consider whether the therapist would be a good fit for you and your partner. You might ask questions like these:

  • Education and experience. What is your educational and training background? Are you licensed by the state? Are you credentialed by the AAMFT? What is your experience with my type of issue?
  • Logistics. Where is your office? What are your office hours? Are you available in case of emergency?
  • Treatment plan. How long is each session? How often are sessions scheduled? How many sessions should I expect to have? What is your policy on canceled sessions?
  • Fees and insurance. How much do you charge for each session? Are your services covered by my health insurance plan? Will I need to pay the full fee upfront?
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What you can expect

Marriage counseling typically brings couples or partners together for joint therapy sessions. Working with a therapist, you'll learn skills to solidify your relationship. These skills might include communicating openly, solving problems together and discussing differences rationally. You'll analyze both the good and bad parts of your relationship as you pinpoint and better understand the sources of your conflicts.

Talking about your problems with a marriage counselor might not be easy. Sessions might pass in silence as you and your partner seethe over perceived wrongs — or you might bring your fights with you, perhaps even yelling or arguing during sessions. Both are OK. Your therapist can act as mediator or referee and help you cope with the resulting emotions and turmoil.

If you or your partner is coping with mental illness, substance abuse or other issues, your therapist might work with other health care providers to provide a complete spectrum of treatment.

If your partner refuses to attend marriage counseling sessions, you can go by yourself. It's more challenging to mend a relationship when only one partner is willing to go to therapy, but you can still benefit by learning more about your reactions and behavior in the relationship.

Marriage counseling is often short term. You might need only a few sessions to help you weather a crisis — or you might need marriage counseling for several months, particularly if your relationship has greatly deteriorated. The specific treatment plan will depend on the situation. In some cases, marriage counseling helps couples discover that their differences truly are irreconcilable and that it's best to end the relationship.

Making the decision to go to marriage counseling can be tough. If you have a troubled relationship, however, seeking help is more effective than ignoring your problems or hoping they get better on their own.

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