Does Marriage Counseling Help?

Does Marriage Counseling Help

WifeyWednesday175It’s Wifey Wednesday, the day that we always talk marriage! Today I thought I’d address a question I often get when I advice people to find a third party to talk to about their marriage. Does marriage counseling help?

A few years after our son Christopher died, Keith and I relocated to the small town we live in now. We were established in our own home (finally!), Keith started his pediatric practice, and I was home with our two young daughters. We were finally out of student mode and into adult mode.

And perhaps because of that, a lot of “stuff” started surfacing. All the feelings that we hadn’t dealt with when we were always in crisis mode with babies and school and training bubbled up, and I, especially, had a hard time coping.

So for about 6 weeks we went to see a marriage counselor.

It was really very helpful. We managed to talk through a lot of issues, work through a lot of pain, and get some new tools to help us process things, especially the grief we were feeling after our son Christopher died.

For us, marriage counseling helped. We weren’t at any risk of divorce, but we simply had some bumps in the road that needed to be smoothed over.

All couples go through rough patches.

Some of the patches are rougher than others. Sometimes you need to work through a major sin that needs to be forgiven, like a physical or emotional affair, or addiction, or porn use. Sometimes you need to talk about boundaries. Sometimes you just need to figure out how to resolve conflict and make sure you’re truly listening–and hearing–one another.

I think more couples should likely go to counseling, and when I talk to counselors, most of them say, “I just wish this couple had come in three years ago when the problems could be more easily addressed, rather than now when it’s such a big mess!”

And so I want to encourage you today that if you need help, go get it. It doesn’t mean your marriage is failing or at risk of failing; it simply means you want it to be the best it can be.

At the same time, not all marriage counseling is equal. So if you want to get the most out of it, here are 4 things I think you should look for:

1. Marriage Counseling Works Best When It’s Time Limited

Does your counselor want to see you on a weekly basis forever and ever until you announce you’re done? Or does your counselor tend to see people for 6-12 sessions to sort out a specific issue?

Unless you have deep seated psychological issues, I think time-limited counseling is more helpful. It says, “we’re addressing one problem, not everything that could possibly make you sad under the sun.”

When you focus on ways to make things better, you tend to make them better. When you focus on everything that’s wrong, all you’ll see is all the problems.

I’ve written at length on my issue with counseling that doesn’t work well, and this is the heart of it. If the counselor wants to talk through all of your problems and psychological issues, then you’re really just focusing on the bad. It’s better to focus on solutions.

2. Marriage Counseling Helps Most When It’s Solutions-Oriented

And that’s what good marriage counselors do: they find solutions. The key is to modify behavior and thought patterns rather than trying to figure out every single root cause for why you’re insecure and why he’s controlling, or vice versa. Certainly a good counselor will probe this a little bit, but understanding why you’re insecure can only go so far. Ultimately you have to figure out what to do differently in your marriage to make both of you feel accepted and loved.

Ask your counselor, then, if they are solutions-focused rather than therapy focused, and ask for some examples of what kinds of solutions they suggest to their clients. Counselors who give homework and who teach you how to communicate are focused on solutions; counselors who only want to talk about emotions usually aren’t.

Happily, counseling has really changed in the last twenty years, and more counselors are now focused on solutions. And that’s great!

3. Marriage Counselors Should Be Committed to Marriage

Nevertheless, not all marriage counselors are created equally, and not all marriage counselors believe in marriage. Many marriage counselors, especially secular ones, are more focused on words like “happiness, inner peace, identity, strength, fulfillment.” They really don’t like words like guilt, fault, and shame.

A counselor who is focused on helping clients find their fulfillment and happiness may not be committed to helping a struggling marriage survive. They may too quickly decide that fulfillment is best found separately. If you are committed to the marriage, make sure you find a counselor who is as well.

4. Marriage Counselors Should Be Committed to Health and Wholeness

At the same time, don’t get a counselor who veers too much to the other extreme. Yes, I believe in marriage, and yes, I believe that God hates divorce. But do you know what God also hates? God also hates abuse, and He hates people hiding behind their marriage vows to avoid growth or repentance or doing what’s right.

A marriage counselor should have a healthy respect for boundaries, and should not want her clients to violate their boundaries by not holding someone accountable for violence or for controlling behavior, even if the one who is violent or controlling is a spouse. A counselor should not believe that marriage vows mean that if a man refuses to stop using porn, or if a woman refuses to stop her emotional affair, that the spouse should just do the Love Dare and leave it at that. The Love Dare is great–don’t get me wrong. But sometimes people need to be told: you need to stop what you are doing; it’s not acceptable; and just because you’re married doesn’t mean you can treat your spouse like this.

So, yes, a marriage counselor should believe in marriage. But they should not believe in marriage at all costs. They should believe in working towards wholeness and health within the marriage–and sometimes that wholeness and health can’t be found without setting some clear boundaries and even separating for a time (though this is only in extreme circumstances. James Dobson in Love Must Be Tough talks a lot about this, too).

Why don’t more people do marriage counseling? It’s often a combination of fear, embarrassment, lack of funds, and a fear that it won’t actually work. But I’d encourage more couples to try it. Sure, it may cost $1500 or so for your sessions in total , but that’s a lot less money than a divorce lawyer will charge. And if you and your husband will get on good ground, it will likely help you succeed more at your careers, too. It’s really worth it if you need it and have the funds at hand. I know many of you don’t, but if your marriage matters and you need it, plan on putting it in the budget for the coming months, if at all possible.

I was sent this great infographic on how marriage counseling helps couples from a couples counselor in Austin, TX: Louis Laves-Webb. It’s great, and he said I could share it with you. I hope it dispels some myths about whether or not marriage counseling works, and I hope it may encourage some of you to give it a try before issues get too big–and before you give up.

How Marriage Counseling Can Help Your Marriage Infographic


Now let me know: have you ever tried marriage counseling? How did it work for you? Tell us in the comments!


  1. Don’t forget your pastor as a possibility for marriage counseling, especially if finances are an issue. They are trained in counseling and should be able to help, and if not, they should be able to refer you to someone who can help you. I know my pastor does quite a bit of counseling, and many have been blessed both from our church and from the community at large.

  2. Sheila, I’ve loved your perspective on not continuously focusing on the negative. And three cheers also for the “limited time” focus.

    My husband and I have been to counseling three different times (not just three appointments – three different counselors). The first two… well… they billed themselves as “Christian counselors” and yes, they were Christians and they were counselors, but it was just the same old psychobabble with Christian labels. No direction. No progress. No help.

    Then we found a Biblical counselor and the difference was night and day. He listened. He questioned. He advised (specific plan of action – do this before next week). He confronted. He asked for specific responses. He asked for confession and repentance and forgiveness (between the two of us, not towards him). He was AWESOME. And it was productive.

    It was the exact opposite of all the counseling that came before, which was empty of hope. Sure, it’s a lot more uncomfortable to be told that stubbornness is pride, and that’s a sin and you need to repent. Or that you’re being unforgiving and that’s a sin and you need to repent. Etcetera.

    Certainly, not everything in counseling is about confrontation and sin! We worked through a lot of issues that were clearly about preferences rather than sin, and how we need to defer to each other. I don’t mean it has to all be high-intensity, conviction, etc. But it’s worthy of noting that neither of the two psychologist/counselors ever once told either of us that certain behaviors were sinful and needed to be confessed and repented of, much less gave us specific advice for replacing those behaviors or even general strategies. They gave no direction at all!

    Put in the effort to find a truly godly, Biblical counselor. Your marriage is worth it!

    Julie recently posted…Perigee-SyzygyMy Profile

  3. “All couples go through rough patches.” – that is so true. My wife and I did seek marriage counseling during a very rough patch after 12 years of marriage. It did help. I think a big part of making counseling work is for couple to seek it earlier and not wait until separation is considered or actually happens. Then the wounds and the frustration are too great. There is no shame in seeking a little helpful counsel from a trained marriage counselor or from a pastor.
    Larry B of recently posted…food pics from China and a wedding banquet in the USMy Profile

  4. I just want to throw out there that getting a good recommendation for a counselor from someone you trust can make a HUGE difference. In the first few years when my husband and I were having BIG problems, we sought counselor after counselor – christian and non christian alike. There were some real doozies in there that we laugh about now (one “doctor” shared his unsolicited, completely irrelevant and utterly bizarre theory about where the AIDS virus comes from.)

    It wasn’t until we went to a no-nonsense therapist recommended by my husband’s sister that we finally made some progress. Our experiences before that were discouraging, to say the least.
    sarah @ little bus on the prairie recently posted…Yes DayMy Profile

  5. anonomous says:

    My husband had an affair and I found out without him knowing. I kept asking him to go to counseling with me. I was meeting with my priest, but he had no desire to meet with him. He chose a counselor and we went. He lied the entire time and I did not reveal what I knew because I felt I would be heading to see an attorney soon and had no idea what information I would need to protect myself and my kids. The counselor could sense my frustration and suggested we meet with her separately and then meet together again. We ended up each seeing her separately and then not going back, because my husband was just going through the motions and I was already seeing my priest. I still think the counseling was worth every penny. Two things that really struck me were: You have to decide if you can live with the answers to the questions you ask. Don’t ask it unless you can handle knowing the answer forever. Our marriage survived and I am grateful not to have too many details. It is easier for me to get past the thought of wondering if he did that/said that to her because now it really doesn’t matter. It is in the past and we have learned from the mistakes and moved forward. She also told me I had to stop rehashing every thing that happened and reliving it. Once we talked about something and he apologized or explained or just responded in a way that satisfied me, I needed to let it go. If new things came up it was fine to discuss them, but that rehashing old hurts would not help either one of us move forward. I never dreamed I would need marriage counseling for an affair, but my marriage is proof that seeking help together or alone is worth it. Think of how much money we spend on lessons for sports and hobbies. What is more important than working on your marriage communication skills? I advise all young married couples to seek a trusted priest or counselor or to go on a marriage retreat as soon as some time alone together with good communication still leaves them feeling like they aren’t getting closer.

  6. I think it’s very true that many marriage counsellors are not committed to marriage. It would be very disheartening to fight for your marriage, sometimes with feelings of hopelessness, then seek help in your struggles only to be told to give up on the marriage. Sometimes it would be easier to give up but it won’t necessarily solve your problems which all reappear in your next relationship. Everybody, including the counsellor, needs to decide to make the relationship work and do the hard work to make it happen.

  7. Yes, we’ve been to marriage counseling. We had good experiences and bad. And I always tell people that just as you have to shop for your hairstylist, your primary care physician, and a car mechanic, you should be willing to shop for the right counselor. All too often, couples get a counselor who isn’t solutions-focused or biblically grounded or marriage-positive, and then they say counseling doesn’t work. Well, THAT counseling doesn’t work, but quality counseling does

    Your tips here are great, Sheila! Thanks for them.
    J. Parker (@HotHolyHumorous) recently posted…If I Wrote the Sex ScenesMy Profile

  8. Alchemist says:

    The same kind of advice is good for individual counseling. Cognitive behavioral therapy really works.
    I went to a Christian, solutions based counselor for the last 6 months and overall it was a really good experience. She really helped keep the focus on Jesus and developing good coping tools and such. I feel it helped me lot with my issues and it helped me grow spiritually too.

    Good counseling is awesome.

    • That’s great! And I’ve found the same thing, too. Cognitive behavioral therapy is definitely better than the psychoanalysis they used to do all the time.

  9. kellyk(@RNCCRN9706) says:

    My husband and I went to a counselor after I discovered his affair about a month or so later. We went to her 3 or 4 times. She first saw us together and then wanted to see each of us alone. He told me that in his individual session she told him some of the things that she thought I was to blame for him seeking out an affair partner. I never went to my counseling session because at 11am in the morning when you work 3rd shift, it’s just not doable. Then a few weeks later, I received my cancer diagnosis and we’ve never gone back. She was a Christian marriage counselor with her office inside a local church.

    I didn’t like how she told him things that she thought I was at fault because every once in awhile, he’ll throw that in my face. Now we are getting close to putting his 91 year old mother into an assisted living facility, which is where she needs to be. I’ve told him we NEED to go back to see a marriage counselor. It’s gonna be a different one, that’s for sure. Just hard to pick one because there isn’t one that just specializes in relationships. At least not in my area. Sigh……

    • @KellyK, go to ANOTHER counselor. A counselor that will throw you under the bus like that is not someone who should be trusted.

  10. Sometimes counseling is worth it and sometimes you have to know when there is nothing you can do its not worth it.
    A relationship may or may not last and if you go every day through the same “rig-uh-more-ROH” and nothing ever changes, either end it or bite your tongue, put on a fake smile and shut down your emotions inside. I don’t know which one is worse.

  11. Thanks for sharing this advice on marriage counseling. It is nice knowing that counseling can help couples if it is used correctly. Your tip on getting solution-oriented counseling is especially great since there is a specific goal in mind. If you just get counseling without a clear goal, then I can see how it might get frustrating.

  12. I’ve greatly appreciated this article, Sheila. My husband and I are experiencing some problems with our marriage, so I’m trying to figure out if marriage counseling is right for us. My husband and I both have professional careers, so I can understand the benefit—as you’ve listed—of marriage counseling when it’s time limited. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to progress toward a solution!

    Lily de Grey |

  13. Thanks for the tips on counseling. Your personal stories of dealing with grief and seeking help are beneficial for others to hear. Your tip on finding marriage counselors who are committed to marriage is also helpful. Thanks for the article.

  14. Whenever I have thought of counseling, I have thought of it lasting for years and years. It makes total sense to me that the best marriage counseling lasts only six to twelve sessions. I can really see how marriage issues usually boil down to smaller issues that can be worked out in a smaller time frame.

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