What Is Couples Counseling?

Marriage Counseling

Couples counseling, also known as marriage counseling, is a type of counseling for intimate partners. It involves exploration of any conflicts between the partners, is often short term, and focuses on specific problems. Other goals of couples counseling are to improve communication and interactions and to strengthen relationships.

Couples counseling is sometimes referred to as couples therapy or marriage therapy, but the terms "therapy" and "counseling," actually, are different.

What Is Couples Therapy?

Couples therapy is treatment by the same therapist for two people in a committed relationship dealing with problems that affect the relationship.

couples counseling marriage therapy

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Couples Counseling vs. Couples Therapy

“Counseling” and “therapy” are terms that are sometimes used interchangeably, but there are differences in meaning between the two.

Therapy (also known as psychotherapy or talk therapy) is used to treat mental health conditions or patterns of behavior, thoughts, or emotions that are dysfunctional. In couples therapy, the process may address a condition such as anxiety or depression of one or both partners and how that condition impacts the relationship. Couples counseling, on the other hand, is generally more focused on relationship challenges like balances of responsibilities and future expectations.

Both couples therapy and couples counseling can help to improve communication and interactions between partners and to strengthen the relationship.

Key Differences

Couples counseling tends to be short term, while therapy can be longer term. Counseling is generally focused more on the present and making adjustments to overcome current problems while looking into the future, and therapy may explore more of the past to make adjustments to benefit the present and future.

Despite the differences, there is a lot of overlap between the two and professionals all work differently. For example, some mental health professionals provide both counseling and therapy.

What Couples Counseling Addresses

Couples counseling can address a wide variety of issues relating to relationships of intimate partners. This may be specific relationship challenges, such as arguing or having different plans for the future, or problems of one partner that affect the relationship as a whole, such as unemployment. Additionally, couples counseling is an option for couples who don't have any specific problems to address but want to strengthen their relationship.

What Couples Counseling Addresses

Couples counseling may address one or more of the following:

  • Addiction or substance abuse
  • Adoption or blended family challenges
  • Anger management
  • Anxiety and stress
  • Arguments, disagreements, or fighting
  • Communication issues
  • Depression
  • Different expectations or wants for the future
  • Future planning
  • Infidelity or loyalty issues
  • Infertility or decisions about having children
  • Life transitions
  • Mental health challenges
  • Parenting conflicts
  • Relationship building and bonging
  • Responsibility disagreements
  • Sexual difficulties
  • Unemployment or financial challenges

Process

Couples counseling involves conversations between romantic partners and a professional who provides counseling. They will generally discuss a specific problem or issue that is the reason for seeking counseling, as well as goals for working together. The process then involves strategies and learning skills to improve the relationship, such as communication skills, problem-solving skills, and strategies for discussing differences and overcoming problems together.

Is Couples Counseling Always Done Together?

Each partner may talk with the counseling professional individually before meeting together. Depending on the situation, counseling and talk therapy may both be undertaken together.

Professionals Who Practice It

Couples counseling can be provided by licensed professional counselors and other mental health professionals, including psychiatrists, psychologists, and clinical social workers. It is also provided by religious and spiritual leaders, including pastors, ministers, priests, rabbis, and chaplains.

Requirements for counselors and other mental health professionals vary by state. This means the services mental health professionals provide, including counseling and therapy, may be different depending on state education and licensing requirements.

Types

There are different approaches to couples counseling. The approach used may depend on the couple, their challenges and goals, and the training of the provider. Additionally, multiple approaches may be used with the same couple or in the same session.

Types of Couples Counseling

  • A behavioral approach to counseling considers the environment and how it reinforces or impacts thoughts and behaviors to guide changes that benefit the couple.
  • A humanistic approach to couples counseling focuses on bringing awareness to the uniqueness of the individuals to achieve goals.
  • An integrative approach to couples counseling uses multiple methods to serve the needs of the couple and situation.
  • A psychodynamic approach to couples counseling considers influences from the past to bring increased awareness to dynamics that are impacting the couple in the present in order to facilitate change.

How to Prepare

To prepare for couples counseling, the first step is to find a mental health professional. Primary care physicians, family practitioners, insurance providers, and friends and family may be able to provide referrals or recommendations. It is a good idea to ask questions at the time you schedule your first appointment.

Questions to Ask Before the First Appointment

  • What can I expect at the first appointment?
  • Is the first session for both partners or one individual?
  • What should I/we bring?
  • Are there any forms to fill out before the first appointment?

If you plan to use your insurance to pay for some or all of your counseling, consult with your insurance provider to see what types of services are covered and what providers are in your network.

Outcomes

While couples counseling is not a guarantee that the relationship will last, many couples find benefits that help them resolve issues and strengthen relationships. Intimate partners can establish or grow better communication, honesty, and trust, which are the foundations of healthy relationships.

Additionally, couples counseling can help to improve feelings of security in the relationship, increase positive feelings the partners have toward each other, enable couples to cooperate with one another, decrease stress, and provide the couple with tools to overcome future challenges together.

A Word From Verywell

Relationships can be challenging, even when both partners are fully committed and have the best of intentions. If you and your partner are going through a phase with increased problems or struggles, or even if you just want to strengthen your relationship with one another, you may benefit from couples counseling.

Reach out to a mental health professional specializing in couples counseling to find out if they provide support for the specific challenges you and your partner are facing. If your partner is not open to seeking help, you can get relationship support on your own.

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9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. Couples counseling.

  2. American Psychological Association. Couples therapy.

  3. American Psychological Association. Psychotherapy. Updated 2020.

  4. Mayo Clinic. Marriage counseling. Updated November 2, 2019.

  5. Michigan Counseling Centers. Counselor vs therapist: What's the difference and which is best for you? Updated January 28, 2020.

  6. William and Mary School of Education. Counseling theories and approaches. Updated July 29, 2021.

  7. Association for Humanistic Counseling. About AHC. Updated 2020.

  8. Counselling Directory. Integrative counselling.

  9. Cleveland Clinic. 5 signs you may need marriage counseling. Updated July 12, 2019.