Does Marriage Counseling Work?
By Daniel H. Moss, Attorney
Except in cases of ongoing substance abuse, spousal abuse or adultery, I most always recommend that couples with marital problems try some marriage counseling. The emphasis here is on “some.”
I have worked with clients who have been in marriage counseling for long periods of time and in different periods of their marriage who finally see me to get divorced. Although they gave it a try, therapy didn’t work to resolve their marital issues.
I have also had clients come to me seeking a divorce who reconciled within a few weeks of my referring them to competent therapists.
How can you tell if therapy will help save your marriage?
One of the most important factors in determining whether marriage counseling will be successful is the marriage counselor. The training and experience of the marriage counselor plays a large role in the likelihood of success. “Psychologist” is a label used by many counselors of varying levels of education, licensing, practices and experience. State-licensed psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health counselors and social workers can all offer sessions for couples, as may marriage and family therapists.
Therapists are required to get at least a master’s degree in the discipline and a passing score on a national licensing exam, followed by a set number of client hours under the supervision of another fully licensed practitioner. Pretty much anyone can hang out a shingle as a marriage coach, relationship adviser or other uniquely labeled provider of “alternative marriage counseling” — they just can’t call the services “therapy.” The risk for consumers is that it’s so easy to pick a provider who doesn’t have the education or skills to solve their problems.
State-licensed psychologists (PhD), psychiatrists (MD), mental health counselors and social workers (MSW) can all offer sessions for couples, as can licensed marriage and family therapists.
I have found that that even with less education, there are some really good social workers who perform excellent marriage counseling, and there are some highly educated PhD psychologists who are not as good. In either case, experience is an important factor.
A really good psychologist can usually predict within minutes of meeting a couple whether they will eventually divorce. Good counselors can tell right away if one of the spouses has “checked out” of the relationship. However, they won’t say so at that point, because there is still a small chance that therapy might work. In a few instances, behaviors might change.
My advice on marriage counseling in most instances is to try it. Get several recommendations on an experienced, state licensed mental health professional. Visit each one until you and your spouse find someone you trust and who seems competent. Then attend at least several weeks of counseling.
If, after several weeks of counseling, you start to see some signs of progress, by all means continue counseling. If not, perhaps it’s time to move on.
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