For Better or For Worse: Is Marriage Counseling Worth It?

Making a lifelong commitment through marriage is a key goal for many of us; around half of the American population is married. However, wedded bliss can be short-lived, with initial interest and passion waning over the years: enter the marriage counselor.

Many couples will go down the route of marriage counseling in an attempt to save their partnership – after all, a healthy marriage has a number of benefits both physically and mentally, according to the American Psychological Association. However, the results of marriage therapy can vary – and the divorce rate across the USA remains at a constant 40 to 50 percent.

While the number of divorces has declined somewhat in recent years, around half of people marrying for the first time still end up officially split from their spouse, and many will have made efforts to work things through before deciding, finally, to call it quits.

The question, then, is whether marriage counseling is worth it.

Marriage counseling: facts and figures

Research has revealed that after marriage counseling, a quarter of couples find themselves worse off than when they started out. Approximately four years after having counseling, more than a third of married couples were divorced. According to these statistics, it would seem that marriage counseling is doomed to failure.

Other figures have surfaced, however, suggesting the contrary: statistics from the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy show that after receiving therapy sessions, almost 90 percent of individuals reported an improvement in their emotional health, and three-quarters of couples said their relationship had improved.

So, what gives? Well, when the facts are seemingly in contradiction, there’s no easy answer to the question – especially considering the many variables that may affect the success of marriage counseling attempts.

Cause and effect

When it comes to marriage counseling, the variables at play are potentially so great that neither a positive nor a negative outcome can be guaranteed.

One partner may be less committed to saving the relationship, or too set on placing blame to allow the necessary internal changes to take place, for example.

There may be other issues having an effect on the marriage, too, such as substance abuse, a difficult relationship with stepchildren, or lack of time in a busy day-to-day schedule. Meanwhile, the counselor delivering the therapy may be too passive or inexperienced to help the couple achieve the outcome they had hoped for.

Traditional techniques such as teaching a couple to listen and communicate better may be effective in the short run but have been shown by social scientists to fall short over the longer term when conflict arises again. Finding a solution may lie in adopting a more integrative approach that builds on traditional marriage counseling methods but that also utilizes a combined focus on both behavior and emotion.

Rebuilding bridges

There are ways to improve the chances of success in marriage counseling. Reports suggest that a variety of newer and non-traditional coaching techniques hold promise in achieving longer-lasting benefits for people in struggling relationships.

Taking an integrated approach in therapy with the aim of helping each partner accept their differences is one such approach, based on findings that relationships are more often destroyed by how couples fight rather than whether they fight. Statistics show that this newer style of marriage coaching achieves longer-term results, with 67 percent of couples saying that their relationship improved over the following two years.

In the same vein, modern techniques that promote insight and understanding into negative behavior and defensiveness, or that challenges couples to examine destructive emotional cycles and adopt a solutions-focused approach, have also achieved an impressive level of success – the New York Times reports that the rate of participants achieving recovery in their relationships after emotionally focused therapy is between 70 and 73 percent.

Is marriage counseling right for me?

In some cases, marriages cannot or should not be saved – an abusive relationship, for example. However, if both parties are committed to saving their marriage and willing to take the time and effort necessary, there are various routes to consider. Self-reflection, spending quality time together, and taking ownership of mistakes rather than placing the blame are a few ways to get started.

Often, it helps to have an external perspective, which is why marriage counseling can be so successful – a therapist takes an impartial stance, identifying problems and deep-rooted issues that partners may not be aware of, or not know how to address. Choose a counselor with care, though – the best marriage counselors are experienced and well qualified, taking an active, solutions-based role in tailoring sessions to their clients’ needs, rather than following a prescribed approach.


Dr. Kevin Fleming
Dr. Kevin Fleming
Dr. Kevin Fleming is a three-time University of Notre Dame grad and Founder of a global neurotechnology-based firm, Grey Matters International, Inc., that concentrates on providing true sustainable behavior change solutions for distinctive clientele seeking to go beyond mere self-help, coaching, and therapy. His work has been featured in top media outlets including The New York Times, CNN, Forbes, Fortune, Christian Science Monitor and has been endorsed by faculty members in both Harvard Medical and Business Schools, given the crossover illusions of success and happiness that confuse high performing brains of our modern day. This innovative neuroleadership research and practice of his prompted an invite to speak for top Middle Eastern leaders in 2008, which had cabinet members for the King of Jordan in attendance. He received a feature chapter on his behavior change work in a book that hit the tops of both Wall Street and NY Times bestseller charts, ALL IN by Adrian Gostick. With the growth of Grey Matters International his offering of cutting edge neurotechnology options for creating breakthroughs in mental health, he was asked to be an expert aftercare resource for the CBS hit show "Face the Truth", created by the producers of The Doctors and Dr. Phil. In addition to being considered as one of the top personal & executive coaches globally (published in interviews and anthologies with the great Marshall Goldsmith, the late Stephen Covey, and Deepak Chopra), he is the U.S. Ambassador for the International Regulatory Body of Coaching and Mentoring. He is also on the Advisory Board for the DeNicola Center for Ethics & Culture at the University of Notre Dame. He resides in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Tulsa, OK and enjoys singing/songwriting and recording as a semi-professional recording artist and studio drummer, having recorded projects with the producer/bandmate affiliated with Carole King and Dan Fogelberg.

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