When should you seek marriage counseling?


Nobody wants to go to marriage counseling, even if their relationship is in dire need of it. In fact, Dr. John Gottman, one of the foremost experts on marriage and relationships, says that on average, couples will endure six years of an unsatisfying marriage before seeking couples therapy. I agree with this because that is exactly what I see in my counseling office with almost all couples who come in. Every one of these couples waits anywhere from six up to 15 or more years before they come in for help. Many times it’s either too late, or their problems have become so complex that it requires a lot of time and hard work to recover and repair their marriage. I often talk about not waiting long in order to address any challenges in your marriage. The earlier you get help, the easier and better it is. Please don’t wait long. Many times a spouse tells himself/herself that by the passing of time “things will change.” This is a myth, and it never works.

I’m constantly contacted by couples looking for help with their relationship; I’m no stranger to questions like “How do I know if I should continue my marriage” or “Do you think my relationship is worth saving?” Obviously, everybody’s situation is unique to them, and there are certainly no easy answers to questions like this, but I like to stay optimistic. Marriage counseling is no easy task (and is not guaranteed to work). However, it all depends on each spouse, how motivated and committed they are to save or repair their marriage, whether it’s communication or recovering from betrayal. It is always worth it; you should never give up on a relationship without trying to improve it. Also, you must know, a happy marriage produces happy kids. 

This willingness to work on your relationship is the best indicator of success for your marriage. If you aren’t willing to put in the time to figure out where your relationship went wrong and how to fix it, odds are couples therapy will not be effective. If you have already given up on your relationship when you arrive at counseling, you may as well get divorced. 

This happens fairly often- one or both partners may use marriage counseling as a way to announce their decision to end the relationship. That willingness to fix your relationship also requires you to be open with your therapist; if you aren’t openly sharing your problems, counseling will not work. Sometimes the issues in a relationship simply run too deep to be fixed with ordinary counseling. 

You should also be careful when choosing your therapist. Firstly, you will want someone with experience- this almost goes without saying. Your therapist should also be someone that you and your partner are both comfortable with and trust completely. If you both aren’t on board with your therapist, it will be difficult for you both to be fully open with them, making counseling pointless. Ask your therapist during the first session important questions such as; What percentage of his/her practice is with couples? What are the issues that the therapist has had extensive experience and training? What about his/her comfort level working with all issues or certain issues? Also, pay attention to how you both feel in their office environment, etc. Don’t make your decision until you’ve met a few times with a seasoned therapist who can help you.

Timing is also crucial to the effectiveness of marriage counseling. As Dr. John Gottman notes, most couples simply wait too long before seeking help- normally around six years. Can you imagine? Six years is a long time, and a lot of resentment can build up in that time. That alone will make marriage counseling difficult. 

Let’s imagine an example that will help explain what I mean:

Jeff and Rachel came in one day and told me about their never-ending argument about finance. Rachel wanted to go back to school to be a teacher because she was unhappy at her current job, but Jeff will not let her start a career change, because he is worried about their finances.

Jeff points out that they have a brand new house and two children to think about, and that it would be irresponsible for Rachel to go back to school right now. He notes that he helped when she was seeking her first degree and that she also isn’t sure if being a teacher is really what she wants to do either.

This is certainly a difficult situation, but there are steps that Rachel and Jeff can take. First, they should figure out what the real problem is, and then take responsibility for their own roles in that problem. Once they do that, they can start to really communicate with one another and work towards their goals. However, they should both acknowledge that it can be hard to do this when they both have children and careers.

Couples should understand that conflict is a part of every relationship. Once you are fully committed to someone, it is inevitable that you will butt heads every now and then. Despite this, many couples tend to avoid conflict because of either past relationships or their observations of their parent’s marriage. 

But this often backfires, as Michele Weiner Davis points out in her book, The Divorce Remedy. She argues that if you keep all your grievances to yourself in order to avoid conflict, your partner will never know that something is bothering you, and so will never change their behavior. But, she points out that it is important to pick your battles; it isn’t worth starting a fight over a petty problem. The key is to understand the difference between petty problems and serious ones when you are in couples therapy.  

John M. Gottman’s book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, contains many useful ideas about keeping your marriage or relationship healthy. He says the best relationships are the ones that “are so good at handling conflict that they make marital squabbles look like fun.” Elsewhere, he lays out the identifiable differences between couples in happy marriages and couples whose relationship ends in divorce.  In The Relationship Cure, Gottman argues that good couples don’t avoid conflict. Rather, he says that when they butt heads, they make sure to communicate and engage with one another, instead of pointing fingers and acting defensively. 


7 ways to navigate differences with your partner during couples therapy


  • Work to create an environment where you feel comfortable being vulnerable with them, and make sure to spend time with one another regularly to cultivate this atmosphere
  • Never let your own personal hobbies, goals, or interests fall by the wayside for the sake of the relationship. Doing so will only make you resent your partner in the long run.
  • On the flip side, make sure to support your partner’s hobbies and passions. You won’t always have the same interests, but you can always support them in their passions and give them the space to pursue them. 
  • Practice conflict resolution- don’t tuck away resentments and avoid conflict; it will only breed further problems and put your relationship in jeopardy
  • Make sure to communicate openly. Listen to your partner carefully and ask questions if you don’t understand. Never say anything you will regret. 
  • Don’t play the blame game. Acknowledge your flaws and the role you may play in your relationship-problems.
  • Keep your expectations realistic. While couples’ counseling will help your relationship if you are invested in it, it will take time for things to change. With a good therapist, it takes about two to four years of weekly therapy sessions.

It could be useful to remember Dr. Gottman’s rule of positive experiences. For every negative experience or interaction, you undergo with your partner, make sure to add at least five positive ones. Try to look at differences as a way to keep passion and spark in your relationship, and never take your relationship for granted. Adopting this mindset will certainly help your relationship from going stale.

Gottman also introduces a useful phrase- “Turning toward” This is a way to describe the way that couples can acknowledge their partner’s needs and desires, rather than turning away from them. This will help to build communication with your partner as well as preventing resentments from the building. 


How could couples therapy help your relationship?


  • If you and your partner can define and agree on the problem, you can start the real work of fixing your relationship.
  • If you are invested in the process, it will grant you a new perspective on your relationship and help you learn new conflict resolution strategies.
  • You can start to rebuild communication skills and improve trust with your partner if those aspects of your relationship have deteriorated over time.
  • A good couples therapist will act as a neutral conduit for you and your partner to work through your issues.
  • You will come out on the other side more committed to your relationship, or you may discover you need to end the relationship- either option is healthier than festering in a bad relationship.

At the end of the day, Dr. Gottman points out that being friends with your partner first can help to hold a marriage together. If you know your partner like the back of your hand, good and bad, if you “know each other intimately,” chances are your relationship will be built to last.