Does Marriage Counseling Work?

Each year, many thousands of couples go to marriage counseling all over the world. But does marriage counseling work?

by Lee Baucom, Ph.D.

That’s the big question, isn’t it? People go, pay for help, and hope they are going to receive it.

For the past quarter of a century, I have been working with couples to save and improve their marriage. I was trained as a marriage therapist. And for the first few years, I worked hard to help couples. But when I looked around, I became disturbed. Marriages were still failing. People were not improving their relationship.

So, I started looking at the research. The research that asked that very question, “does marriage counseling work?”

What Does the Research Say? Does Marriage Counseling Work?

Well, the research found in various journals is pretty clear. In many studies, marriage counseling was found to be one of the least helpful versions of therapy.

Roughly, 50% of couples who went to marriage counseling still ended up divorced. That matches the statistics for marriage, in general. More than that, 25% reported being worse-off after therapy than before. And only 15-18% reported any improvement in their relationship.

So imagine going to a doctor and having the doctor say “You need a procedure. The mortality rate is 50%. There is a 25% chance that you will be worse off after the procedure. And really, there is only a 20% chance that it will help.” Would you be rushing out to have the procedure?

I would not be ready to jump in.

Why Doesn’t Marriage Counseling Work?

The Therapist Issues

To be sure, there are caring and gifted therapists everywhere. In my experience, therapists are really wanting to help. There is no question that almost all therapists are committed to helping. Many, though, do not have the tools or training to help.

More than that, many couples enter marriage counseling when they are absolutely at the end of the relationship. What might have been a slight “course correction” in the early days of the problem, has become major surgery on a near-death victim. Sometimes, too much damage is done.

But the reality is that many therapists have not made the necessary shift in process to be helpful in a marriage. Therapy is an excellent tool for individual growth and development. And in individual therapy, the therapist knows exactly who the client is — which can be a bit more confusing when there are two “clients.”

The therapist is trained to respond to the individual. And without a paradigm shift or specific training, the therapist becomes less clear about the client.

So part of the reason why marriage counseling often doesn’t work is a matter of perspective and training.

Also, many therapists have long bought into the idea that communication is the issue. The goal becomes helping a couple to communicate better. But communication helps very little if there is a great deal of animosity and misperception between the couple. Clearing the misperceptions and creating the connection is much more important.

The Couple Issues

Part of the problem comes from the couple. Here, a number of factors affect the outcome.

First, many times, one person drags the other person into the process. The resistant spouse is reluctant to enter into the process. And with only half of the relationship, at best, joining the process, the potential for healing in therapy drops drastically.

Second, in this culture of experts, we are used to having someone else do the “hard work.” A doctor is responsible to figure out what is wrong with you and give you a treatment. And we seem to prefer a treatment that is easy for us. For example, while exercise is helpful in many health problems, most patients will choose to pop a pill rather than take a walk.

We are used to an expert giving us an easy solution. And when we leave it to the therapist, we remove our own responsibility to take action.

Couples who are waiting for the therapist to fix their problem, whether this is a conscious or unconscious desire, place the burden on a therapist. When this happens, at the end of unsuccessful therapy, the couple says, “Well, we tried marriage counseling and it didn’t help.” They never realize that they failed to take action or responsibility.

The medical model of care is changing. Patients are, more and more, partnering with their doctor. Patients look for information to help understand the problem and treatment. The same proactive approach would benefit couples counseling.

When Does Marriage Counseling Work?

Marriage counseling does work for many people. There are several ways that any couple can increase the likelihood of counseling helping.

First, couples should take the time to find the right fit with a therapist.

If I am having brain surgery, I am simply wanting the best surgeon for that surgery. After all, I will be asleep while the doctor is working. But therapy is based in relationship. When the therapist/client relationship is not good, the couple will simply resist the best efforts of the therapist, even if the advice is in the couple’s best interest.

Second, couples should ask about training.

Is it specialized in marriage counseling? And how does the therapist understand the client? Does the therapist understand that the client is really the relationship? Any other idea misses the point.

Third, couples should take full responsibility for their outcome.

The best therapist cannot help a couple that refuses to take action. And sometimes, the worst therapist can’t stop a motivated couple from getting better.

Couples who work on their relationship, find information that is helpful, and take full responsibility for getting their marriage unstuck are likely to benefit the most from therapy.

Alternatives to Marriage Therapy

There are a number of other options, rather than just marriage counseling. Couples can attend retreats and workshops. Couples may find it helpful to work with a Relationship Coach. Other couples can find help in home study courses, books, and other resources.

If your marriage is in trouble, there is no reason to see marriage counseling as your only option.

Even if you both choose to enter into therapy, be sure that you take responsibility for building something great.

Many couples have found my Save The Marriage System to be an excellent replacement for marriage counseling or an adjunct to therapy.

Let me invite you to grab my program and get started saving your marriage.

Lee Baucom, Ph.D. is a best-selling author, therapist, coach and speaker, and has over a quarter of a century of experience helping couples and individuals learn to thrive in their relationships and their lives. He is the creator of the internet marriage program, Save The Marriage.

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