Success from marriage counselling?

My wife and I have been married for 20 years and have two pre-teen kids. But during the last few years we have grown further and further apart and we are having a really hard time communicating. Neither of us is happy and my wife has recently suggested couples counselling. Normally I would be open to this idea, but is my impression that counselling doesn’t work very often, and I fear that if we try it and fail, that might be final straw. So I am dragging my feet.

Anyway, the question I have is, has anyone had even moderate success with marriage counselling, and if so, what advice would they give to get the most out of the process?

A marriage counselor won’t ‘fix’ your marriage: they’re just there to give you a forum in which to openly discuss issues that you are otherwise not addressing, and to give you methods to facilitate communication. You and your wife have to collectively agree to take action to repair your relationship, or alternatively, agree that it cannot continue as a marriage and find some way to to maintain a continuity for your children (“co-parenting” in the modern parlance) and whatever other entanglements you have. If you both aren’t committed to do that goal, counseling is just a waste of time and energy.


Depends on how you define “success”. As Stranger already noted, the counselor isn’t there to fix your relationship. But counselling sure can facilitate either a healthy reconciliation OR separation plan. IF you are both on board. Beats living in limbo until something breaks.

Very similar place. Married for 17 years, three kids. Started marriage counseling about a month ago and its been reasonably helpful. The therapist has shown us some things that we typically fight about are really more about having different approaches to how we communicate, and cycles we have gotten into that cause problems without even realizing it. On a more basic level, its been good to have a time where we specifically think about the marriage, whats working and not working, instead of just hoping that it will eventually get better trying the same things over and over again. Its only been a little time, so who knows, maybe it won’t have a long term impact, but I think its definitely worth a shot.

I’m sure you’ve considered this, but part of the reason counseling may have a lower success rate is that people resist it until things have gotten really bad.

I have not done marriage counseling, but I did resist going to therapy for myself for many years, and when I finally did go it resulted in some very positive changes.

It is hard to overcome fears and focus on something you know is a problem, but problems don’t go away on their own. I wish you and your wife the best.

One thing to beware of in marriage counseling is that oftentimes, one person is going into counseling with the aim of secretly enlisting the counselor as an ally against their spouse so as to create a 2-vs-1 situation and say “See, I’m right!”

They are not going into counseling with good faith (which requires being openminded and considering that maybe oneself is wrong,) but rather to force a certain favorable outcome so that they win.

Odd, I’ve just been discussing this very subject with one of my exes, and with a marriage counselor we both happen to know. I maintained, based on my personal experience, that most marriage counseling is futile. By the time it’s needed, it’s probably too late, and a lot of the time one partner is just trying to find the exit door, and the sessions are there for him (or her) to justify him/herself with no real intention of working anything out.

My ex (whom I get along very well with ) maintained that most counseling is useful but when I told her I was having dinner with the professional marriage counselor (who uses the Gottman Technique, a behavioral therapy kind of thing) she asked me to quiz him. He guessed the success rate was about 75% of couples but added that he leaves the picture before they reach a final decision, so it’s just his guess. Also, I suggested that maybe he’s a little optimistic since it would suit him to see his own work as useful.

I had a few such sessions that turned out utterly fruitless and pretty much a waste of everyone’s time.

The operative words here are “most” and “probably”. If you are both sincere, then you have at least a reasonable chance of accomplishing something positive. Good luck!

I don’t disagree. Problem is, I doubt that both parties are committed to staying together by the time marriage counseling comes into the picture.

Which makes sense. Up until the point that it’s too late, both parties are (optimistically but sensibly) thinking something like “Every marriage has its ups and downs, just go with the flow, this stuff will work itself out” etc.

Or he was just shining you on:

Although there is a technique virtually guaranteed to work:


I did not have a good experience with my counselor.

My ex was over the top jealous. She was constantly accusing me of “checking out other women” when I wasn’t. She once had a tantrum bc I watched Charlie’s Angels (the movie) with her kids. Her 16 yo kid is the one that rented it from Blockbuster.

I expected my counselor to tell my ex these behaviors are not healthy for a relationship. But she did not. It was just a constant stream of: “How does that make you feel”.

I went in there knowing I myself was not perfect. I was willing to listen and learn. But the counselor we had was just useless.

I knew a woman who considered her marriage counseling a success…and she got divorced right after it. She felt that the counselor helped put her concerns into a language her husband (a businessman) could understand. I don’t know that language really—receivables, depreciation, all that—but by labeling events in the marriage with those terms, the counselor helped the guy see that his actions prevented the “business” of the marriage from succeeding. The guy declined to do anything to change that (I guess he didn’t think it worth the payoff). The woman realized that she could stay 100 years and it wasn’t going to improve. So she felt that counseling clarified her choice and she knew she wouldn’t look back and wonder ‘what if?’ It was therefore worthwhile.

My assumption has been that if two people care about each other and want the other to be happy, they open up and talk about things calmly and lovingly and reach a solution that’s honorable because each of them believes in the other—something like that. Rewind that statement…

if two people
care about each other (maybe that stopped for one)
and want the other to be happy (maybe one is never satisfied)
they open up (already tried that and got laughed at or shushed?)
and talk about things calmly and lovingly (some people don’t know how to argue)
and reach a solution that’s honorable (some are more selfish than others)
because each of them believes in the other (at least they did when they married decades ago?)

Marriage counseling often means people can’t simply talk out their problems and move on. Then they go into denial—divorce couldn’t happen to us. But eventually a referee of some sort is needed. By then some damaging, hurtful things have complicated things even more.

My ex and I went to couples’ counseling toward the end of our relationship, when we both pretty much knew the relationship was ending. The counselor helped us understand all the issues, and separate as friends. It was worth it.

Not doing marriage counseling is a sure sign the marriage is broken and done. Not sure marriage counseling is of any value, but saying it’s complete shit and I will never take part is not a good sign.

Voice of experience.

By “success,” I’m guessing you mean that the couple stayed together? If so, then yes. I went to marriage counseling with my husband, but by that point, he had checked out of the marriage and had no desire to even put forth the effort to work on the marriage. However, I can think of four couples I know (three married and one unmarried) who went to couples counseling and decided they wanted to put forth the effort to make their relationship work.

In the second counseling session I went to with my husband, the counselor asked us to table the idea of divorce for the next six months. My husband was not willing to do that, and that was the final counseling session we had. From conversations with couples who have had better success, that right there is the key difference.

If both of you go to the counselor with the attitude of “I want to work this out, can you help me?”, it can be successful. If either one of you goes to the counselor with the attitude of “I’m done with this marriage and just want out,” then you really shouldn’t bother because the counselor isn’t going to be able to talk you out of your desire to leave.

Yes, this lines up with what I came here to say. Even if it doesn’t save the marriage, good therapy can help you realize things about yourself and your own patterns. You can then use that to exit and make different choices in future relationships. Really, it’s best to approach it as working on yourself, which may end up as a benefit to the marriage, rather than thinking of it as something to ‘fix’ the other person and/or behaviors.

That sounds like EFT (emotionally focused therapy). The therapist gets you to say how a thing makes you feel. If it’s a bad feeling you work together to get less of it. If it’s good feeling, figure out how to get more of it.

And sometimes unfortunately the conclusion is “I’m not changing anything because I care about my feelings a lot more than I care about yours.” And that sucks, but if that’s the situation, there’s benefit in discovering that that’s what’s going on.

EFT, and couples counseling in general, is hard when one party is looking for an argument-referee to validate that they’re being treated unfairly and they want it to change. Few therapists will do it because that’s a hard judgment call to make, and moreover people mostly tend to just tune out when told that they’re wrong. And it sucks when one partner is obviously and manifestly wrong, but that’s just the nature of the beast.

I am currently going through a break-up with my now ex-wife.

We are in a weird situation where we have to share an apartment and stay legally married until she can support herself and get her own independent VISA.

I’m quite neutral on counseling. I’ve seen it work miracles with some people, but I’ve tried it three separate times myself and it hasn’t really helped me personally.

Not too long ago we did do some counseling, essentially to try to figure out how to get along better while we still need to live together, and the counseling was helpful. Mainly it helped see things from each others view point and how to communicate better.

I myself have no direct exprerience with marriage counseling, but what I’ve seen of life in general and marriage counseling in particular leads me to think the following:

I suspect that marriage counseling can sometimes be very counterproductive, in that it increases frustration with the marriage problems to the extent that they’re not resolved.

IME, many times in life (not just marriage) it’s best to deal with intractible problems by just sucking it up and accepting that life is imprefect and that you’re going to have problems whatever you do, and perhaps the problems you’re currently dealing with are just part of this imperfect world and perhaps not any worse than what you’d be dealing with if you made whatever radical change you might be contemplating in order to be rid of them.

But the thing is that once you set as your goal the resolution of these problems, then that itself makes them a bigger focus of your life, and if they don’t get resolved, then it’s much harder to accept them as part of the situation, perhaps offset by other aspects of the situation. At that point, if you can’t resolve the issues, then you are really really bothered by them, and are more ready to make radical changes to be rid of them.

As applied to marriage counseling, if you’re already at the point where the problems bother you to the extent that “if these don’t get resolved then I’m outta here”, then you can try marriage counseling as a last resort (though marriage counseling may be less effective in such cases, as other posters have noted). But if you’re at the point where the problems are at a livable level, and are just looking to improve your marriage and satisfaction via marraige counseling, then that can be a risky dangerous move IMO. If the marriage counseling works, then great, but if it doesn’t then those problems are going to be much bigger for not having been solved, and you may have killed your marriage.

I agree with this.

But even besides for this, there’s an inherent dynamic in marriage counseling which is tilted “in favor” of whoever it is who is most dissatisfied in the marriage (and driving the counseling).

Because the marriage counselor can only do what he or she is hired to do. If the couple walks in and says the reason they’re there is because Spouse A is bothered by something about Spuse B, then the focus of the marriage counseling will inevitably be tilted to changing this aspect of Spouse B. This, in turn, puts the main onus on Spouse B, and to the extent that he or she fails to resolve this to the satisfaction of Spouse A, then they are “at fault” for the relationship breakdown in the eyes of the counselor, since they’ve failed to take the necessary steps to solve the problem.

Somewhat related to this, I once saw a marriage counselor quoted as saying when he first started in the business he saw as his main goal to find out who was “right” and who was “wrong” and make the one who was wrong change the error of their ways. But as he got more experienced, he realized that that was not a practical approach. Now his main goal is to see who is more flexible and who is more inflexible, and to make the flexible person change in the direction of the inflexible person. Sounds morally wrong, but apparently it works for him as a practical matter, and I suspect that many marriage counselors work that way.

It’s my experience that often when couples come to relationship counseling, one is already too angry or too disconnected to want to “make the relationship work” and is there by request of the other person or a lawyer.

The goal of relationship counseling is not to preserve the relationship. It’s to help people do whatever they do next with more rationality and consideration of the consequences of their next actions, whether that’s continuing the relationship or something else.

My recommendation is to find a Gottman Institute-trained therapist or a family systems trained one. They’re more likely to focus on your interactions than on a particular outcome.