The short answer is, “yes, it works,” most of the time. Research indicates that about 3 out of every 4 couples finds marital therapy or couples counseling effective. The longer answer is, “it depends.” It depends on numerous factors. The first of which is getting started.
Consider Getting Started
Skepticism of couples therapy, or what some refer to as couples counseling, is expected, what with the divorce rate being touted at 50%, with many of us knowing couples who have had negative experiences in couples therapy, and with the fact that many couples do not start therapy until is it “too late.” The average couple reports experiencing distress in their relationship for six years before trying couples therapy. This can result in a six-year buildup of ineffective and potentially damaging patterns of communication and resolution strategies. Waiting to get started can also result in the germination of resentment.
Many people hold the perspective that therapy is for “sick people”. Of course, just as early intervention can help with physical or mental health concerns, so can early intervention with relationship concerns. Starting therapy when there isn’t a significant problem, just to make informed improvements and practice growth, is just as valid a reason to start therapy as being in the midst of a crisis. So, whether you are seeking to strengthen an already good relationship or resolve a crisis in your relationship, get started. Whether you find it an effective or enjoyable experience will become clear with time. Although, as Wayne Gretzky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” In other words, if you don’t get started in couples therapy, it won’t even have the chance to be effective.
Consider Your Goals
Effective couples therapy has clearly defined goals. The therapy process might be different if the goal is to successfully navigate a crisis than if the goal is to effectively identify a plan to separate and co-parent. Some couples come to therapy with all parties happily starting the process and willing to do the work, while other couples involve one person almost dragging the other through the door. In addition, if there is abuse occurring in the relationship, this must be addressed first! So, be honest about where you are, where your partner is, and what you hope to accomplish through therapy.
If you don’t have well-thought-out or clearly defined goals, that is okay. A good therapist can help you identify and operationalize those goals so that you, your partner, and your therapist are on the same page. It is difficult to achieve your goals if you are all working toward something different. Be patient in the early stage of therapy so that clear and effective goals can be identified.
Consider Your Choice of Therapists
As with almost any therapy, the importance of finding a therapist who you trust and feel comfortable with is extremely important. To paraphrase the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Recognition of the Effectiveness of Psychotherapy, outcomes in therapy are influenced more by characteristics of the client, clinician, and context than by specific diagnoses, treatment approach, or severity. In other words, it isn’t necessarily the issues or the specific type of treatment that is the most important factor in determining outcome. The fit between you and your therapist might be more important.
Partnerships are more effective and enjoyable when you choose a trustworthy and competent team. And, when it comes to therapy, this goes beyond the letters the therapist has after their name. Many therapists offer a short, complimentary phone or video call so you have a chance to talk directly with them and get a sense of who they are. The therapist can also ask relevant questions to determine if your needs and goals are a good fit for them. And, if you realize there is something off between you and your therapist, don’t hesitate to discuss your concerns with your therapist or seek out a therapist who might be a better fit for you. If you find yourself in this situation, it isn’t all for naught. Just as we learn from other experiences, we can learn what we want, and don’t want, in a therapist or therapy and potentially select a better fit moving forward.
Consider Your Willingness
Couples often ask me if their relationship can be “saved” or if they should stay together. In my experience, anyone can experience positive change and improved relationships if they possess two characteristics: willingness and capability. Therapy is not easy. Effective therapy takes hard work. This is because while your therapist can help you understand the causes or contributors to your issues, teach you helpful strategies and exercises, and help you feel validated and supported, the work to create actual change in your relationship is up to you and your partner.
Are you willing to put in the work, both in and out of sessions, to create positive change? Do you have the capability to listen more effectively, see your partner as another (fallible) human being, and practice expressing yourself without hostility, sarcasm, or passive-aggression? If you answered “yes” to these questions, call and make that first appointment today. If you answered “no” or “I don’t know” to these questions, maybe scheduling that free consultation call or scheduling that first appointment with the intention of being completely forthright with the therapist about your hesitance or uncertainty is a good first step.
Consider The Cost
I’m not talking about the actual fees or rates that various therapists charge, after all, there is something to be said about the old adage, “you get what you pay for.” I’m talking about the cost of not giving couples therapy a try. Most of us spend our hard-earned money to make home improvements, run diagnostics on our cars when we hear a funny noise, or go on shopping trips to update our wardrobes. Why wouldn’t we pay to improve our relationships? If we don’t take the time and money to work on our relationship, what is at stake? A study published in summer 2021 concluded that being married was associated with better mental well-being, including less depression and higher self-esteem, compared to being single or divorced/widowed. In addition, higher reported relationship quality also had a bit of a protective effect on self-esteem and depression. While there were variations across age groups and relationship status, these findings echo historical findings related to the effects of relationship status and relationship quality on happiness and well-being.
It Works If You Work It
There are other factors to consider, which will be discussed in a later blog, although for the sake of this discussion, the conclusion is that couples therapy works…if you work it. Carefully review and reflect on the considerations above, and then don’t hesitate to get started. Be prepared to push yourself to approach the therapeutic process with a sense of curiosity and openness. Be prepared to sit with discomfort as you make your way through the journey. And be prepared to practice, practice, practice. Learning new skills, strategies, and patterns to overcome what might be years of ‘practicing’ ineffective patterns takes time and effort. Of course, all of it depends on your decision to take the first step and get started. Your relationship health and mental well-being may depend on it.
– Dr. Mike Ghali, PhD
Dr. Mike Ghali, owner of Individual and Couples Therapy, has been practicing therapy for over 20 years. He is licensed as a psychologist in Colorado and Florida. While physically located in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where he holds in-person sessions, you can also schedule telehealth sessions with Dr. Mike from anywhere in Colorado or Florida.
If you’d like to schedule a free 15-minute consultation call with Dr. Mike at Individual and Couples Therapy, please visit www.inctherapy.org/contact-5, click on Schedule, and choose the available time that works best for you and your partner. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact Dr. Mike at email@example.com. Please do not include sensitive clinical information in emails.