You and your spouse used to vibe like peanut butter and jelly. But now, you seem to come together like oil and water. You may have different expectations and ideas when it comes to your marriage, parenting styles and finances.
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So, is it time to send for reinforcements — in the form of marriage counseling?
Admitting you need help can be both scary and humbling. But it can also lead you to a happy ending: a healthy relationship built on open communication.
Clinical psychologist Adam Borland, PsyD, shines a light on relationship red flags and answers your marriage counseling questions.
What is marriage counseling?
Marriage counseling is when partners seek outside help in their relationship, typically from a licensed mental health provider.
During a session, you’ll talk about any issues or problems you’re experiencing in your relationship. Marriage counseling can be helpful for any stage — whether you’re in a new relationship or have been in one for years. Some couples even go to pre-marriage counseling or premarital counseling to learn communication skills and how to solve problems that may arise.
And when it comes to couples therapy vs. marriage counseling, Dr. Borland says the terms are often used interchangeably and that the goal of both forms of talk therapy is resolving problems and working on one’s relationship.
To have a healthy relationship, Dr. Borland refers to three important tenets: good communication, honesty and trust. Marriage counseling can help you restore — or even establish — all three.
Marriage counseling can:
- Improve communication so you both feel heard, understood and connected.
- Strengthen the emotional bond between partners.
- Increase cooperation.
- Reduce stress.
And don’t think of marriage counseling as a sign that you’ve failed at your marriage or relationship. In fact, seeking professional help can make your bond stronger.
5 signs you may need marriage counseling
Marriages are like fingerprints — no two are the same. Each partner brings a set of hopes, dreams, personality quirks and family baggage to the relationship. And when you mix those factors together, it can be fireworks, a firestorm or both. That’s why Dr. Borland says there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to figuring out the best time to seek help.
“Earlier is generally better, but it depends on the couple’s relationship dynamic,” he notes. “Finances, therapist availability, and societal and cultural variables can play a role in a couple’s decision to pursue therapy.”
By paying attention to these signs, Dr. Borland says you may be able to pull out of the fire before your house burns down.
You struggle to communicate
Does this sound familiar to you? Your home is either really loud (from all the yelling) or very quiet (silent treatment, anyone?).
If so, it might be helpful to have a trained professional assess the situation and give you and your partner guidance on how to effectively talk to each other and work through issues.
“It’s not uncommon for couples to feel as though they’re having the same argument over and over again,’” says Dr. Borland.
There’s a lack of physical or emotional intimacy
Your relationship used to be filled with passion and lots of love. But if you’ve seen (and felt) the romance fizzle, it could be helpful to have someone recommend strategies that focus on each other like having a dedicated date night.
“I’ve had couples describe feeling more like roommates with minimal intimacy or sexual chemistry, rather than spouses,” he adds.
The trust has been broken
You suspect your partner is lying. Or you know that you definitely are. Perhaps there’s been infidelity. But cheating comes in many forms.
“Infidelity isn’t based solely on sexual behavior,” explains Dr. Borland. “Relationship trust can be broken through online communication or while using social media.”
During marriage counseling, you can work through your trust issues and determine whether that trust can be re-established.
You’ve gone through a major life change
“The birth of a child, the death of a loved one, moving homes, a new job or retirement — these changes have a huge impact on your marriage,” states Dr. Borland.
Being able to navigate changes in your life together is important, and during marriage counseling, you can learn techniques that help you and your partner settle into your new normal.
And if those major life changes affect others in your family like children, it might be a good idea to go to marriage and family counseling so everyone in your home has a chance to express their feelings and learn techniques on how to cope.
One of you has an addiction
This can be a scary situation. “An addiction to drugs, alcohol, gambling, pornography, spending or other problematic behaviors can put a significant strain on a relationship,” says Dr. Borland.
It can be difficult to know how to approach a loved one, as you may feel anger and resentment toward your partner. Or if you’re the one with a substance abuse disorder or addiction, it can be hard to admit that you need help. But working with a marriage counselor can lead to open and honest conversations.
How effective is marriage counseling?
So, does marriage counseling work?
According to the American Psychological Association, marriage counseling works about 75% of the time. Those in abusive relationships and those already actively separating make up a big portion of the remaining 25%.
“There are plenty of couples whose marriages have been strengthened and saved by marriage counseling,” reassures Dr. Borland. “I remember one couple telling me, ‘We’re laughing more. We’re doing things that are fun.’ And who doesn’t want more fun in their life?”
Marriage counseling can be worth it. You’ll not only learn how to communicate better, but you’ll also learn how to handle conflict (because let’s be honest, you’re still going to have an occasional disagreement).
What to do if your partner refuses to go to marriage counseling
It’s not uncommon to have one person in a relationship who refuses or is hesitant about going to marriage counseling.
In that case, it can be tricky to resolve issues, says Dr. Borland. If your partner has never been to therapy, it can be helpful to explain how it works and the benefits you may both receive.
If your partner is worried about how your relationship might change, remind them that the goal is to make your relationship stronger.
And when you do start marriage counseling, you may become frustrated that your partner is refusing to be open about their feelings. Dr. Borland says this is common and that you need to be patient.
“It can take several sessions before someone feels comfortable enough to openly share their feelings,” he says.
If your partner isn’t interested in seeking help, you can also consider going to therapy solo where you can develop strategies that make you an effective communicator and listener.
How to find the best marriage counselor for your relationship
Now that you’ve decided to give marriage counseling a try, you may be wondering how to find a marriage counselor.
Finding the right counselor can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack. Dr. Borland suggests these resources:
- The American Psychological Association website.
- Psychology Today website.
- Your insurance company.
Once you identify the person who will hear your deepest, darkest secrets, Dr. Borland recommends giving it three or four sessions before passing judgment. It’s important that you and your partner both feel comfortable with who you pick. And honestly, it could take talking to a few different professionals before you find the right fit. But it’s worth the effort.