Does Couples Therapy Work?
No marriage is perfect. The majority of couples experience their fair share of ups and downs, even when it doesn’t appear that way from the outside looking in. Encountering marital problems doesn’t mean your marriage is doomed or that you and your partner are poorly matched; it just means that you’re human. Sometimes, a couple may find it necessary to seek guidance from a professional—such as a therapist or counselor—to help them navigate a rough patch in their relationship.
It's normal to feel apprehensive about couples counseling. The word "therapy" still carries certain stigmas, even in today's modern world. Despite initial uncertainties, fears, or doubts, the truth is that many couples benefit from couples therapy. If you're willing to take the plunge and commit to working on your relationship with your partner, then marriage counseling may very well work for you.
What Is Couples Counseling?
Couples counseling, also referred to as couples therapy or marriage counseling, is a form of psychotherapy that can help equip two partners with needed tools to improve their relationship. Often, couples counseling is a short-term therapy that couples require for a season or after a significant hardship.
Marriage counseling has been known to aid couples with a wide range of marital issues, including (but not limited to):
- Communication issues
- Recovering from an affair
- Feelings of disconnection or detachment from your spouse
- Healing from infidelity or other hardships
- Anger management
- Overcoming trauma
- Substance abuse
- Managing grief
Why Couples Seek Marriage Counseling
Married couples can seek couples therapy for a variety of reasons. In some cases, working on marital issues in therapy can prevent the relationship from ending in divorce. It all depends on the couple's unique circumstances and their willingness to commit to rebuilding, repairing, and healing.
A couple may decide to pursue marriage counseling if they’re having trouble resolving issues on their own. Consider these common scenarios that often prompt couples to seek marriage counseling:
- Having the same fight over and over again
- Feeling like you never see eye to eye with your partner
- Constantly arguing about a certain topic (such as finances or kids)
- An inability to heal from trauma or infidelity
- Grieving the loss of a child or loved one
- Being diagnosed with a terminal illness
- Struggling to adapt to a major life change (such as relocating, changing careers, or being diagnosed with a chronic health condition)
- Feeling like you’ve lost your sexual or romantic chemistry
- Intimacy issues (such as trouble getting aroused)
- Infertility or difficulty carrying a pregnancy to term
Which Type of Couples Therapy Is Right for You?
If you’re married, you’re probably already aware that there is no "one size fits all" when it comes to love and relationships. Therapy is much the same: what works for one marriage may not work well for another.
Fortunately, there are multiple types of therapy that couples can choose from in today’s modern society. Consider these common types of couples counseling:
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is centered on the concept that our thoughts influence our behaviors. It’s often used to treat people who struggle with depression, anxiety, a mood or eating disorder, or substance abuse. Studies show that CBT can be an effective treatment for couples who have communication difficulties or struggle with conflict resolution.
Through a cognitive-behavioral approach, a couples therapist can help a couple identify disruptive thoughts or beliefs that are negatively impacting the relationship. Bringing these to a couple’s attention can motivate spouses to alter or change their pattern of thought or behavior to build a stronger relationship and overcome obstacles in their path.
The Gottman Method
The Gottman method is a type of therapy created by two married psychologists, John and Julie Gottman, that is based on 40 years of scientific research that evaluated patterns of behavior in couples.
This particular form of couples counseling focuses on certain destructive behaviors known as “the four horsemen”:
The Gottman method concentrates on certain focus areas, including sharing relationship histories, exploring areas of disagreement, identifying various triggers, discovering shared values, and gaining specific tools to help manage conflict.
According to its creators, the Gottman Method Couples Therapy aims to:
- Disarm conflicting verbal communication
- Increase intimacy, respect, and affection
- Remove barriers that create a feeling of stagnancy
- Create a heightened sense of empathy and understanding within the relationship
The Gottman method is especially known for its success in improving intimacy and relationship quality for participating couples.
Discernment counseling dates back to 2008. It was initially designed for relationships in which one couple wants to work on things and the other does not.
This particular form of counseling is a short-term approach that aims to provide clarity to partners whose nonchalance or uncertainty prevents them from being fully present or engaged in the relationship.
A defining characteristic of discernment counseling is the primary goal of helping a couple know and explore all of the options available to them, as this can help equip partners with the needed confidence and clarity to make a well-informed decision about their relationship.
Emotion-focused therapy originated in the 1980s and is still one of the most heavily researched forms of couples therapy today. This form of counseling is twofold:
- Each individual starts by sharing specific problematic events in the relationship.
- The therapist will work with the couple to identify and make sense of underlying emotions that may be contributing to the problematic events shared.
In terms of effectiveness, a 2019 study revealed that emotion-focused therapy often improves marital satisfaction for participating couples.
The Imago Method
Imago relationship therapy (IRT) entails viewing relationship conflict as the product of specific circumstances (as opposed to disharmony between the couple). This form of therapy focuses on the conflict itself to equip couples with the needed tools to achieve conflict resolution.
A primary goal of imago relationship therapy is to help partners uncover “unconscious components” that could be contributing to problems in the relationship. This is what gives the imago method its name. Imago is Latin for “image,” a term in therapy that refers to an unconscious, idealized concept of love that we develop during childhood and retain in adulthood.
Narrative therapy employs the power of externalization to distinguish marital issues as separate from the couple. It challenges the notion that our problems are woven into the fabric of our relational identities by helping couples discern certain conflicts disguised as truths.
Narrative therapy supports the idea that externalizing language can restore each partner’s sense of agency and revive engagement in the relationship. Ideally, this form of counseling can empower a couple to create a new and healthier narrative to restore their bond and strengthen the relationship as a whole.
Solution-focused therapy is a form of counseling that typically works best for couples who are attempting to solve a specific problem (such as an instance of infidelity, an unexpected medical diagnosis, or other significant life event that has deteriorated the relationship).
This particular type of therapy is often credited with reducing “couple burnout" by allowing both spouses to imagine positive changes they wish to achieve. Solution-focused therapy is typically short-term and goal-focused. It invests time into examining potential solutions instead of the relational problems that motivated the couple to seek counseling.
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