If you’re unsure whether you should stay in your relationship or start divorce proceedings, marriage counseling can help give you clarity. Although couples should begin therapy as a preventative measure to maintain a healthy relationship, it’s not always possible. You and your partner may not realize you’re in need of assistance until one or both of you reach a critical breaking point.
Several reasons couples typically seek help, according to an article published by the nonprofit AARP, include emotional and physical distance, financial stress, cheating, hurtful arguments, sexual difficulties, or thoughts of divorce. Generally, couples who decide to attend marriage counseling have contemplated divorce, clinical associate professor of psychiatry Gail Saltz M.D. explains in the piece. In many instances, one partner wants to split, while the other wishes to save the relationship, so the therapist may employ discernment counseling, which is a type of therapy specifically designed for couples who are uncertain about whether they want to continue their marriage.
Through introspection and communication, couples can clarify whether they want to save their union or separate for good.
What Is Marriage Counseling?
Also known as couples therapy, marriage counseling is a type of psychotherapy used to help “couples of all types recognize and resolve conflicts and improve their relationships'' and “make thoughtful decisions about rebuilding and strengthening your relationship or going your separate ways,” according to the Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit academic medical center.
Typically, marriage counseling is completed with both partners, however, if one refuses to attend, the other can go alone. The treatment is provided by a marriage or family therapist, who holds a graduate or postgraduate degree and is credentialed by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
What Happens During Sessions?
At the first session, your therapist will attempt to get to know you, your partner, and your relationship. They will inquire about your personal history, your relationship history, the past and current state of your marriage, the strengths and weaknesses in the relationship, and the goals you have for counseling, asking questions such as:
- What are the most important issues we should improve?
- Are there any reasons they cannot be improved?
- Are there any unresolved conflicts?
- What are your expectations for one another?
- What are your needs and how can your partner meet them?
- Do you want this marriage to succeed?
Throughout each session, you will discuss intimate aspects of the relationship and learn new skills to effectively communicate. It’s not uncommon for some sessions to pass in silence and others to be argumentative. The therapist is there to give you the necessary tools to overcome these instances. Your counselor may give you homework to practice what you’ve learned during therapy. For instance, they request you go on a dinner date, but leave your phones at home, facilitating more conversation.
What Are the Benefits?
There are multiple benefits to engaging a marriage counselor, whether you want to work on your relationship or not, including:
Get to the Root of Your Problems
If you’re constantly having the same argument with your partner, you may have not discussed the real problem. You could be ignoring the larger issue, choosing instead to focus on and start disagreements about menial things. A couples therapist will work to delve into these deeper, hidden issues, searching for underlying themes in what you share. By unearthing the real obstacle, you can focus your efforts in the right direction.
Develop Goals & a Timeline
After they’ve located the problem, they can work with you to develop goals, which will vary for every couple. Some may want to fall back in love or learn to communicate better, while others may decide they need to end the marriage for the health of both parties. A therapist can teach the necessary skills to improve your intimacy and communication, or provide the tools to amicably end the relationship.
Learn New Skills
Depending on your goals, your counselor will teach you various ways to either renew your love for one another—or separate in a healthy manner. Clients typically glean communication skills, patience and forgiveness, trust and honesty, selflessness, and stress management.
Help Clarify Feelings
Discussing your feelings and emotions with a third party can put them into perspective. The therapist will never steer you in a particular direction, but can share insights and advice, assisting you in either growing your connection, or severing the relationship, if necessary.
Provide a Safe Setting
If arguments get contentious between you and your partner, a counselor provides a safe setting to discuss various topics.
How Does a Counselor Know It’s Time for You to Let Go?
Although couples therapy is meant to improve your ability to communicate and strengthen your relationship, sometimes it becomes clear a couple is no longer compatible. The counselor may realize the marriage is more harmful than helpful. Women’s news and lifestyle site The List documented some of the biggest red flags indicative of a relationship close to the end, according to marriage counselors. A destructive fighting style, grudge holding, broken trust, name-calling, finger-pointing, feelings of hopelessness, the continuation of an affair, and a power discrepancy are signs that a marriage is toxic and may need to end.
When a counselor recognizes this, he or she will not push divorce or separation, but may ask each partner, “Do you want this relationship?” This will typically prompt an honest response. Psychotherapist and author of Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage, Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. told Women’s Health Magazine clients will bring their spouses into therapy to break up with them because they fear the response or are afraid to hurt feelings. They look to the therapist for safety.
The therapist is not there to make your decisions, but to simply support you in whatever decision you make.
How Do They Know You Should Stay?
Typically, if a couple is making progress with therapy, learning, and implementing new skills they’ve acquired, the marriage counselor may conclude they can make it long term. These relationships are characterized by honesty, faithfulness, and the ability to compromise, forgive, listen, and communicate. In such instances, relationships are able to move on from the rough patch in a healthy way that allows for growth, relearning, and appreciation.
If you’re interested in engaging a marriage counselor, check out DivorceForcePRO, DivorceForce’s resource for all divorce-related needs. From financial assistance to mental health counseling, you can find local experts in your area. Just input “marriage counselor” in the search bar and enter your location to connect with professionals near you!
Gregory C. Frank is the CEO and Founder of DivorceForce.