What Can A Relationship Therapist Do For A Marriage?
Updated May 28, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC
Many folks think that a marriage therapist is the last resort for a couple, that they've tried everything they could do to save their marriage and failed miserably, but this is not the case. A marriage therapist can be invaluable in a relationship where everything is hunky-dory. A marriage counselor's job is to talk to the couple, pick out exactly what their issues are, and help them come up with a plan to solve any problems they may be having.
Arguably, the biggest threat to a relationship is the lack of communication. If you can't talk to each other, then the situation is primed for breeding feelings of hurt, doubt, and a lack of trust. This can become dangerous when one or both parties feel the need to seek what they lack from parties outside of the marriage, i.e., an affair.
What Does A Marriage Therapist Do?
A marriage therapist sees both individual people and married couples together in the same room. The reason for seeing individuals is because sometimes, one spouse will be seeking advice about the other spouse without the other spouse overhearing the conversations.
Maybe you just need to vent about how it seems like all your husband does nap when you could use a little help with the kids. Maybe it's not your wife that's the problem, but her overbearing mother-in-law. Getting an outsider's perspective can be incredibly helpful in dealing with issues like these.
When couples decide to see a marriage therapist together, it could be because they have some issues that they don't wish to ask their friends and family about, but could benefit from an outsider's perspective, such as their sex life. In sadder times, a couple may decide that the marriage is over, but they may still want to see a marriage therapist understand what exactly led to the break-up, so they do not repeat their mistakes with future partners. This can also help them return to treating each other with the respect they once had for each other.
When an individual or couple comes to a marriage therapist, it is the therapist's job to listen to what they are saying, but then try to read between the lines to see what's going on. Maybe the wife is complaining about things that seem like no big deal at first - her husband leaving the toilet seat up, or leaving empty wrappers around the kitchen - but she may be irritated by these minor things because deep down, she has been unhappy with him for a while and she's looking for something to nitpick to drive him away so that he leaves her.
When the couple wants to save the marriage, the therapist's job is to mediate and help them agree to each other's rules and boundaries to remember their love and respect for each other so they can get back to having a happy marriage. However, if the couple has decided the marriage is over, the therapist can coach them on the actions and behaviors they should leave behind going forward, so as not to see future relationships meet the same unfortunate end.
A marriage therapist is responsible for, and - if licensed - is highly skilled in the ways of ensuring that each person fights fairly and is open to discussion. The therapist is there as a liaison to ensure that one person isn't steering the conversation and that no one is being bullied. The therapist is also skilled at helping the couple feel and cope with emotions like betrayal or frustration that can come out during a session.
What A Marriage Therapist Can't-Do
It is important to remember that a marriage therapist is not a psychiatrist. He or she cannot diagnose, let alone treat, a mental illness that may be contributing to a couple's marital strife. What the therapist can do, however, is observe the situation and make suggestions based on those observations. For instance, if one party admits to a history of drug abuse, depression, or a traumatic life event, the therapist recognizes that such issues can certainly contribute to stress within the marriage.
If the therapist is made aware of issues such as these, then it is up to him or her to refer that party to a medical doctor who specializes in treating such a condition. This is, of course, up to the discretion of the therapist and is not always a step in saving a marriage. If the therapist decides to refer the person to a doctor and he or she begins a treatment program, then the therapist can continue with the counseling as normal insofar as coming up with ways to save the marriage.
Suggestions, Not Orders
Even if a marriage therapist believes that a couple would be better off separated than together, it is not a good idea for the therapist to tell the couple if s/he feels the couple would be better off getting a divorce and, as a rule, most therapists refrain from doing so. Instead, the therapist works to help the couple talk with each other openly in such a way as to not infuriate the other person.
For instance, the therapist may suggest that the wife not slam the cabinets in frustration while washing the dishes after asking her husband to do them when she still has to get the kids ready for school and then go to work. In place of this passive-aggressive behavior, the therapist may suggest that instead, the wife tell the husband something along the lines of: "Please respect my time in the morning and wash your breakfast dishes when you're done with them." In addition to teaching a couple how to better talk to each other, a therapist also teaches them how to listen.
Being The Voice Of Reason
It can be difficult to work on marriage in the face of everyday responsibilities. You tend to put each other last when you're focusing on the children, and when you do take the time out for anyone other than the kids, you may want to focus on achieving a personal goal of yours that is not on par with anything your spouse wants to do. A therapist can remind couples of the mutual goals they once set with each other, and offer hope that not only are those goals not lost, but that there are still ways for the couple to reach them together.
The therapist is responsible for reminding couples of how considerate and thoughtful they once were of each other while they were still dating by reminding them of the unwritten "rules of marriage" that are so easy to forget amid the daily hustle-and-bustle. First and foremost, it is important for the couple to remember they are both parts of a team, and that they both suffer if one person isn't pulling his or her weight. It is crucial to remember how your behavior can affect the other person, and that you keep up positive greetings and good manners.
Life tends to boil down to the little things, and the same goes for marriages. It can be the little things that make a relationship, and it can be the little things that break it. Molehills can become mountains in no time, and it's up to the therapist to remind the couple to focus on what's important and let everything else fall by the wayside.
Finding The Right Marriage Therapist For You
It can be taxing trying to find the right marriage therapist. Who do you trust with your most personal and private issues? How do you know the therapist you choose is going to have your best interests at heart, both individually and as a couple? It is important to screen a marriage therapist before scheduling a couples' therapy session. You can do this by scheduling an "interview" with the therapist before committing to receiving help from him or her.
For one thing, is the therapist certified and qualified to offer couples counseling? Is he or she experienced in dealing with the kinds of issues that you want to bring to his or her attention? Does the therapist show compassion for both of you and remain impartial? Does the therapist allow both parties to speak openly and equally without allowing the other to interrupt or control the conversation? Is the therapist in control of the session? Does he or she work with you and your spouse to develop a therapy plan that works best for both of you?
It is worth establishing whether the therapist offers affordable fees or takes your insurance, as well as whether the therapist is easily accessible if one of or both of you require a last-minute session for any reason. Something else to look for is whether the therapist is encouraging you to tell him or her early on if you are comfortable with the services being offered. This shows genuine compassion on the therapist's part, rather than he or she just getting paid for time spent.
If, however, you have seen a marriage therapist, and things just don't seem to be working out, or if you feel like your relationship is taking a toll on your mental health because your spouse is abusive or otherwise neglectful or dismissive, please consider reaching out to one of our BetterHelp counselors for assistance. We're available 24/7 to listen and assist you in becoming the best possible version of you.