Does Couple Counseling Work For Unhappy Couples?

By Marie Miguel

Updated March 07, 2019

Does couples' counseling really work for unhappy couples, or is it just a romantic notion? The idea is that the two of you want to work it out…if only a wise, professional, third-party could get involved to set down some rules, and provide some great guidance! While this may be a really great idea, it is definitely not a 'magic bullet,' so to speak.


The third party is not an authority figure that can "make" one partner understand the problem. Rather, the third party counselor acts as a mediator, one who helps the couple learn better communication. As for whether couple counseling really works, it depends on only one factor:

Just how dedicated both partners are to keeping the marriage alive rather than trying to escape it. The motivation has to be there.

What Statistics Indicate

Statistically speaking, some organizations, not to mention many couples, have found great success. According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, 97.1% of surveyed clients claimed they received the help they needed and 98.1 percent claimed the services were either good or excellent. Upwards of 80 percent claimed that couples counseling had a positive impact.

On the other hand, some sources such as the New York Times, claim that 25 percent of couples that tried couples therapy state that within two years they were worse off than before, and within four years, 38 percent were divorced


This illustrates the simple idea that no relationship is going to survive simply because couples therapy is tried as a last resort. In fact, the problem may very well be that couples are asking "Does couple counseling work?" far too late into the relationship when both partners have lost respect for each other or no longer prioritize the marriage.

A Few Things to Keep in Mind

First, Humans are pretty resistant to change. We tend to be most comfortable with the status quo, regardless of how painful, or dysfunctional, that current reality happens to be. This is not because we like pain; but because what is familiar also tends to be most comfortable, and requires the least amount of effort. So, counseling can quite easily be impeded by this one factor, even when the client is only a single individual. As might be anticipated, such resistance only increases as more persons are added to the counseling process. So, it is helpful to be aware of our natural tendency to resist even those changes we choose and sincerely desire.

Second, you have control over only yourself. Yes, of course, you can impact others, especially those with whom you are in a close relationship; but you cannot choose, nor dictate, change for anyone outside yourself. So even in couples' counseling, you will be best served to be willing to focus on yourself - your thoughts, your attitudes, your intentions, and your actions; hoping that your partner will assume reciprocal responsibility for him- or herself as well. This is a pretty simple, yet powerful strategy, to maximize the effectiveness of the counseling process.

Third, not everyone who enters couples' counseling is genuinely open to it helping. This may seem silly, or difficult to believe. And while it is pretty rare for an individual to seek counseling if he or she does not sincerely wish to make changes; this is not, necessarily, a safe assumption when more than one person is involved in the therapy. Some partners know they are already so far gone, they really are not open to the counseling process (which is certainly necessary for it to produce the intended, positive, results). It is not uncommon for a person to agree to couples' counseling in order to be able to assert that he or she really tried to save the relationship, pointing to participation in counseling as evidence. Others, knowing they fully intend to leave the relationship, may attend counseling to help gain comfort that their soon-to-be-ex partner is connected with a trustworthy support person. While it is possible for such persons to end up gaining more than they expected by such 'casual' participation, meaningful change most often requires sincere commitment, intentionality, and effort on the part of the client.

Tips That Work

What most therapists agree on is that focusing on these specific points will help the therapy to work.

  1. Couples therapy works better BEFORE your last resort. By the time you desperately seek couples' counseling as a last-ditch effort to avoid ending your relationship, it will most likely be too late. It seems to be a very sad reality that the majority of us simply postpone counseling far longer than is ideal. This is sad because many committed relationships might experience a much more effective result had they only sought professional counseling sooner, before the additive effects of distress, conflict, miscommunication, misunderstanding, and various other hurts and disappointments wore away at the partner's hope, patience, commitment and resolve.

    On a related note, about seeking healthy support in a timely fashion - studies showing long-term marriage success in couples that received pre-marital counseling have been promising. One of the best recommendations is to complete pre-marital counseling, to help you set the healthiest foundation for your marriage. Most couples spend months, and tens of thousands of dollars, planning for their wedding day. Imagine what could result if even a fraction of time, attention, and effort was spent establishing productive communication, conflict resolution, aligning goals, processing through major differences, etc?! Often, pre-marital counseling involves a relatively standard set of 5 - 7 sessions. These include some focus on each partner's background, a family of origin, traditions, and expectations since we are all certainly impacted by our pasts. In addition, there will usually be a session on each of the most common sources of conflict in marriage: physical intimacy, finances, and child-rearing practices. Other sessions will vary based upon the specific counselor, or organization providing the counseling. To gain the greatest benefit from pre-marital counseling, plan to complete it at least 6 months prior to the date of your wedding. This allows time for more meaningful issues to be addressed, should they be revealed during the standard discussions. And, in some cases, completing your pre-marital sessions early enough provides a more reasonable opportunity to postpone, or even cancel, the wedding should serious enough issues be uncovered.

  2. Just because a therapist offers help and may be hyper-educated does not necessarily mean he/she is right for you. Some you meet are general therapists and not specialized to work with couples. Others may be super-educated but may not communicate well with you or your partner. If the therapist appears standoffish to one or both partners, or they don't put you at ease, then the therapy is not going to work. There's nothing wrong with having one session, not liking the dynamic, and then looking for someone that "clicks" better.

Don't think of couples' counseling as "divorce counseling," or as some kind of punishment your partner must endure proving his or her love for you.

Effective couples' counseling should help the two of you better understand your relationship, and assist you in increasing skills which support healthy relationships. These are likely to include effective communication, and conflict resolution, skills, with a strong emphasis on listening; increasing the harmony and positive aspects of your relationship; while addressing other issues which might be more individual, but which impact your relationship.


One final note of encouragement is that there is often great room for change and improvement in your relationship, which you may be able to impact all by yourself! Changes made by one person will automatically produce a change in the other. This is not precise, nor ideal. It is always preferable for both partners to choose to commit and work, together for the betterment of their relationship. Couples' counseling is an excellent resource, to which you may turn, for effective support, encouragement, understanding, and training in tools you can begin to implement right away.

The good news is that because you are wondering "Does couple counseling work?" and actually seeking answers rather than just wanting to end the relationship, you are showing clear signs that you are open to your relationship improving. That's an important place to begin. A couples' therapist may be able to help you and now it's easier than ever before to start a dialog, with online marital counseling. Try it once, as a couple or individual, and see if it's right for you.

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