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Does couples counseling work?


By the time most couples get to a couples therapist’s office they are exhausted, in pain and desperate for a solution. This makes perfect sense if they’ve been arguing for months/years or if there has been a major betrayal (adultery, hidden credit card debt, etc.). Basically they all want to know; is couples therapy going to work?

There are several important factors that play a role in whether couples counseling is effective or not. Here are the top five things that impact the success of couples counseling:


1.) How badly each partner wants to resolve the issues. It is pretty typical that when couples come in at least one, if not both partners report being pretty close to leaving the relationship. Don’t be discouraged if your partner has said he or she is “done” or “over all this fighting.” After being in emotional pain that long, of course you’re both ready to get away from the stress of the relationship and feel better. This means that often one person (or both people) want relief and have gotten so tangled up in their negative cycle of communication that they confuse their partner, rather than the negative communication, for what they need to get away from. Usually it takes at least 4-6 sessions for the negative cycle of communication to become clear. Once it’s clear how far and effective the counseling process is it largely dependent on your level of participation.

2.) If you still argue and get upset. While disagreeing, fighting and even yelling can be damaging ways to express your emotions- they indicate that you are still invested in the relationship. In order the get upset about someone or something it’s necessary that you care, otherwise you would just check out and say “forget it.” When couples come in having heated arguments I see it as a positive sign. I am much more alarmed when couples come in and there appears to be little more that a cold, detached silence between them. This can signify that they emotionally abandoned the relationship awhile back. This doesn’t necessarily mean the relationship is a lost cause, it just means it will be a longer, slower process of re-establishing connection and love.

3.) If you’re separated/living separately and stay that way.  It’s pretty common that if problems in a marriage become severe enough one person will move out. This period of distance can be necessary and helpful way for each person to gain clarity- especially if an affair was involved. However, if the separation persists through marriage counseling for months it can make the idea of reuniting quite a challenge. The work of couples counseling is designed around helping people better express themselves, give and receive support and actively build a life together. These tasks are very difficult, if not impossible to do,  when couples are only seeing each other one hour per week for the counseling session. If separation is required and its too soon to live together again, at least commit to a weekly date night.

4.) How much each partner values the couples counseling process.  I have seen couples counseling save marriages and turn enemies back into best friends and lovers, but this does not always happen. The healing of the relationship has to be a priority in order for it to work; both partners need to be open to it and involved. It’s normal for one person to be the driving force for coming to counseling, but eventually the other must join him/her in valuing it. It usually takes a few weeks or months for this to happen. In the meantime the ways people show that they value the process is: showing for appointments on time, both partners attending sessions together, only cancelling sessions for true emergencies, and continuing to talk to one another outside of sessions about what happened or what they learned in couples counseling sessions.

5.) Finding the right couples counselor. Every counselor is a little bit different. Some specialize in couples counseling and do that exclusively, others work with couples and individuals and some counselors will not do couples counseling at all. Its crucial to find someone that you and your partner feel comfortable with. An effective couples counselor will not take sides, give advice or tell either of you to leave the relationship (this excludes cases of domestic violence). If you don’t feel heard and understood by your therapist it will be hard to be open about your relationship and trust that he/she can help guide you toward martial satisfaction. One way to go about finding the right counselor is to set up initial sessions with 2-4 therapist and see which one is the best fit; its considered a courtesy to let the counselors know that you’re meeting with others and determining goodness of fit (even if you mention it at the end of the session).

Overall, there are many aspects of how effective couples counseling is that are in your (the client’s) hands. Couples counseling is the chance to make things better and improve your relationship, this will largely be within your control.



  1. Hi Amber!
    I don’t know about you, but one of the things that I have experienced is an additional conflict that emerges when a person already has a relationship with the therapist, and then the partner joins. This often encourages the partner to feel at a disadvantage and judged in advance. Anything that you’d like to offer to explore how this might further complicate the therapeutic process? What can be done to diminish such difficulties?

    • L Paul

      I have found sometimes in such situations that having a one on one at the beginning with the partner who joins later helps to bridge the feelings of being at a disadvantage. Hope that helps.

  2. This is just the type of information I was looking for. I am completely done being bitter, but I have always thought if I care enough to get mad I must still care in some way. I want to find out what I care about and this was a great start to the process of finding a counselor and fixing my broken trust and marriage. Thank you for this article and your time.

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