Does Couple Counseling Work For Unhappy Couples?

By Marie Miguel

Updated September 02, 2019

Reviewer Aaron Horn

Does couples' counseling really work for unhappy couples, or is it just a romantic notion? The idea is that the two of you meet with a wise, professional, third-party to set down some rules, and provide some great guidance!


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

Just how motivated are 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 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 increases as more people 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 only have control over 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 are 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 simple, yet powerful strategy, to maximize the effectiveness of the counseling process.

Third, not everyone who enters couples' counseling is genuinely open to being helped. Some partners feel like they are already too far gone, and 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

Most therapists agree 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.

  2. Just because a therapist offers help and may be educated does not necessarily mean he/she is right for you. The personality and relational connection is one of the most important aspects of the therapeutic relationship. Some you meet are general therapists and not specialized to work with couples. Others may be 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 might not 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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