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What is couples therapy? How does couples counseling work?

Reviewed by therapist.com team

A couple sitting on a couch together.

What Is Couples Therapy?

Couples therapy is a form of psychotherapy in which a romantically involved couple works through challenges in their relationship with the help of a professional counselor.

Reasons for Couples Counseling

You don’t have to be on the verge of divorce or a breakup to seek couples therapy. In fact, couples counseling is often more effective when a couple is not in an immediate crisis.

Instead of treating couples therapy as an emergency solution, it’s more helpful to think of it as preventive medicine. Couples therapy can help you address problems or weaknesses in your relationship before they become overwhelming or seemingly insurmountable.

Common reasons that couples seek relationship counseling include:

    • Relational transitions (moving in together, getting married, expecting a child)
    • Life transitions (getting a new job, moving to a new city, starting a new degree)
    • Feeling distant or resentful
    • Loss of physical and/or emotional intimacy
    • Struggling with illness or addiction
    • Financial stress
    • Challenges with parenting or infertility
    • Shared grief or loss
    • Feeling “stuck”

Couples Therapy vs. Individual Therapy

In couples counseling, the relationship itself is the client, not the two individuals who make up the relationship. A partner’s mental health problem will typically only be addressed in terms of how it affects the relationship.

For example, let’s say a veteran is suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and is prone to angry outbursts with their partner. A couples therapist can help them work through their anger and develop strategies to communicate with their partner in a healthier way. However, the counselor won’t use the session to dive into the root causes of their PTSD.

If you’re struggling with a mental illness that is affecting your relationship, it may be best to seek individual therapy instead of or in addition to couples counseling.

Who Needs Couples Counseling?

Couples therapy is also known as marriage counseling, but that doesn’t mean couples need to be married to access it. Couples of all kinds can benefit from relationship therapy, including:

    • Couples of all genders and sexual orientations
    • Unmarried partners
    • Premarital/engaged couples
    • Happily married partners
    • Couples contemplating divorce or separation of some kind
    • Parents who may or may not be in a romantic relationship
    • Couples coming from different faith backgrounds
    • Couples with a large age gap

Types of Couples Therapy

There are many relational therapy techniques that your couples counselor may use to help strengthen your bond with your partner. Common types of couples counseling include:

    • Emotionally focused therapy (EFT): Centers on helping the couple meet each other’s attachment needs
    • Gottman method: Teaches couples healthy forms of communication so they can avoid the “four horsemen” of relational apocalypse: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling
    • Imago relationship therapy: Helps couples avoid repeating unhelpful or harmful relationship patterns learned from childhood (often from their families of origin)
    • Relational life therapy (RLT): Encourages couples to abandon traditional roles so they can have more authentic relationships
    • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Used for both individuals and couples to identify and reshape unhelpful patterns of thought

How Does Couples Therapy Work?

First, you’ll want to find a therapist who is a good fit for both you and your partner. This may take time.

Try to identify what’s most important for you about your therapist—if they share the same faith background as you, for example, or if they have experience with LGBTQIA+ couples. Be honest with each other about what you’re looking for. This will help ensure you both feel comfortable once you settle on a therapist.

What to Expect in Couples Therapy

Once you find a therapist, you will have your first session. Your therapist will ask some basic questions to get to know you both individually before asking questions to understand your relationship.

During your first session, your therapist will also likely ask you what you hope to get out of couples therapy. It’s okay to be honest about your expectations.

Some people want to do everything in their power to save their relationship from a terrible crisis. Others just want to strengthen the healthy relationship they already have. Some people are open to a breakup or divorce but want to have a healthier relationship so they can co-parent.

Whatever your goals are, your therapist can help you start on the journey toward achieving them. After your first session, your therapist will likely set up a regular schedule of sessions with both of you, typically weekly at first. They may assign tasks or “homework” for you to do in between sessions.

Couples therapy doesn’t last forever. At a certain point, your therapist will begin to express their belief that you and your partner have gotten the most out of the experience as you can. They may recommend you and/or your partner seek individual therapy to continue working toward a healthier life and healthier relationships.

How to Choose the Right Couples Counselor

Education and Certifications

Ever wondered what all of those letters mean after a therapist’s name? Most therapists have a master’s degree in counseling or a related field, a doctoral degree in psychology, or a medical degree in psychiatry. Some choose to gain specific certifications for certain methods of treatment.

For couples therapy, you’ll want to find a therapist with the right kind of educational background to help you and your partner navigate your relationship. Common degrees and certifications for couples therapists include:

  • LMFT: Licensed marriage and family therapist
  • LMSW: Licensed master social worker
  • LCSW: Licensed clinical social worker
  • LPC: Licensed professional counselor
  • CGT: Certified Gottman therapist

A therapist can have a different degree than those listed above and still be qualified to counsel couples.

Often, therapists will list their specialties on their website or in an online directory. You can look for areas of practice that may be relevant to your needs, like marriage, relationships, couples therapy, sex therapy, parenting, domestic violence, and more.

Method of Treatment

Your couples therapist likely relies on one or more methods of therapy to treat their clients. If you have a preference for a certain therapy, like the Gottman method, feel free to seek out a therapist who uses that specific treatment.

If you don’t have a preference, that’s okay. Find a therapist you like and trust, and ask them about what methods they typically use. You can always voice any difficulties or frustrations you may have during treatment. That way, your therapist can alter their methods to better meet the needs of you and your partner.

Shared Values or Experience

You don’t have to choose a therapist who has any similar life experience to you or your partner. In fact, it can sometimes be nice to have someone who feels like a complete outsider help you with your relationship.

However, some people feel safer with therapists who have similar backgrounds or values to their own. If you are a person of faith, you may want to see a therapist who has a similar faith background. If you are in an interracial relationship, you may want to seek premarital counseling from someone whose spouse is of a different race.

It’s okay to have preferences when it comes to finding a therapist you trust. However, it’s also good to keep an open mind. Secular therapists can help Christian couples find healing, and straight therapists can help LGBTQIA+ couples discover greater intimacy.

Wisdom may come from where you least expect it. What’s most important is that you and your partner trust your therapist, no matter how similar or different their life experience is to yours.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How Much Does Marriage Counseling Cost?

In general, couples therapy typically costs $100 to $250 per session. Your insurance may or may not cover couples therapy. Ask your insurer about your plan, and ask your therapist if they take your insurance. Some therapists may offer discounted prices for couples who struggle to afford their standard rates.

When Should We Get Couples Counseling?

There is no wrong time to get couples counseling. You can get couples therapy before you’re married, after you’re married, or if you never plan to marry at all. What’s important is that both you and your partner are committed to having a healthier relationship.

When Is It Too Late for Marriage Counseling?

It’s never too late for couples therapy. However, couples therapy requires two willing participants. If your partner refuses to agree to couples counseling, you cannot force them to attend.

It’s often more helpful to attend couples counseling before a major problem arises in the relationship instead of after. By approaching marital counseling as a preventive measure, you can strengthen your relationship before times of crisis.

How Often Should You Go to Therapy?

Most couples therapists will recommend starting with weekly sessions.

Does Emergency Marriage Counseling Work?

It’s true that couples therapy can save marriages and relationships on the brink of collapse. However, counseling is generally more effective before a crisis hits, not after.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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