Does Marriage Counseling Work? Yes, But…
“My marriage is hurting, but I’m not ready to give up. I’ll try anything, but I want to know it will get results. Does marriage counseling work?”
The short answer is yes, marriage counseling does work… But not for everybody.
How do you know if counseling will help your marriage? Keep reading for stats plus a 3-question quiz to find out.
Here's what you'll learn:
- Marriage counseling's success rate scientific studies.
- Quiz to tell you if couples counseling will work for your marriage.
- Find out when marriage counseling actually makes things worse.
- A marriage counseling success story and a failure story from my own life.
- Three good alternatives to marriage counseling if you decide it’s not for you.
Let’s start by looking at the stats, then we’ll figure out if marriage counseling will work for you.
I’ll tell you right up front that after extensive research and experience, the first and by far most important factor for marriage counseling success is the commitment of the couple. The second factor is the quality of the counselor.
After reading through about 10 different studies evaluating the effectiveness of couples counseling, here are the six most important things I learned:
- Roughly 50% of distressed couples will have an improved, more satisfying marriage for 4+ years after counseling. An additional 10% to 20% will stay together even though they remain unhappy.
- Divorce rates after marriage counseling vary. The lowest I found was 26.9% of couples getting divorced or separated within 4 years after a full year of counseling. Most studies show a roughly 40% post-counseling divorce rate.
- What’s the baseline recovery rate for couples without counseling? The only study I found showed that only 30% of troubled marriages will recover without any help.
- Every study with a control group has shown that more couples stay together after marriage counseling than those who get no help.
- The study with the highest success rate had couples attend 26 sessions of counseling over one year… The average real-world couple does 11.5 counseling sessions. More sessions seems to correlate with more improvement.
RELATED:An In-Depth Look At Marriage Counseling Statistics (coming soon!)
Perhaps the most powerful thing I learned from this research is what kinds of couples get the most counseling.
Turns out, there are clear differences between the couples that benefit from marriage counseling and the ones that don’t.
The research findings here reinforce my own experience as someone who’s worked with about 1,600 men going through separation in the past 5 years.
How do you know your marriage is one that a counselor can help?
Easy. Answer these three questions:
- Do you and your spouse BOTH want to try marriage counseling?
- Do you and your spouse BOTH want the marriage to work? (this means neither spouse has made up their mind about divorce)
Can you and your spouse BOTH go into counseling expecting to change?
If you answered Yes to all three question, good news! With enough time, an experienced marriage counselor is virtually guaranteed to help you improve your marriage.
Not just marriage counseling — ANY marriage saving effort is exponentially more ly to save the marriage when both spouses want it to work.
If you answered No to any of the three questions above, then the odds of counseling helping your marriage go down quite a bit.
… Especially when it’s done alongside individual counseling for both spouses.
Do you or your wife struggle with any of the following?
- Childhood trauma
- Uncontrolled anger
… Or any other mental/emotional disorder?
If one spouse is afflicted with any kind of mental or emotional disorder, then the right counselor will be a game changer. A counselor with specific experience with that disorder will be able to help the non-afflicted spouse to empathize in couples counseling, while individually helping the afflicted spouse find new tools to cope and function.
My experience combined with my research gives me a few predictors of marriage counseling failure.
Marriage counseling's success rate drops significantly when…
Marriage counseling is intended to heal marriages, not bring them back from the dead.
- There are already serious or long-term problems in the marriage, such as separation, infidelity or abuse.
- The couple has a mixed agenda… One spouse either doesn’t want to save the marriage, or only agreed to counseling as a token last effort before throwing in the towel.
- One spouse does not want to attend counseling, or they don’t believe it can help them.
- Both spouses are emotionally unstable. These couples often resist behavioral change, and aren’t able to use what they learn in counseling to improve their marriage. Marriage counseling becomes fight club.
- You get a bad counselor. I hate to say it, but it does happen… It happened to my own parents. Their first counselor called my mom a word that I won’t repeat in a private session with my dad. Ouch.
RELATED:?How to find a good marriage counselor (coming soon!)
The big one here is that marriage counseling DOES NOT WORK when only one spouse wants to save the marriage.
If you’re the only one who wants to save the marriage, then couples counseling will ly turn into divorce counseling.
The flip side is that if your wife asks you to go to marriage counseling, you should ALWAYS say yes!
When your wife asks you to go to counseling, you have already bypassed the #1 barrier to counseling effectiveness, since you and your wife will both go into it wanting to save the marriage.
Bill Doherty, a renowned marriage expert and professor at University of Minnesota, approximates that in about 30% of couples who go to counseling, one spouse or the other has already decided on divorce. That’s why he created a practice called “discernment counseling” which basically helps couples decide whether the marriage is worth saving.
When a relationship is already broken, marriage counseling often serves to ease the separation process, not actually reverse it.
When a relationship is already broken, marriage counseling often becomes divorce counseling.
Not every counselor is devoted to saving every marriage. And really, this is how it should be. Couples with recurring infidelity or abuse may truly be better off apart.
Counselors don’t have magic powers. Their purpose is to help you understand and accept what’s happening in your life.
A counselor is tasked with understanding what is best for the couple. If they believe divorce is actually a healthier choice than reconciliation, they will give you the tools to divorce peacefully.
Long story short…
If your wife doesn’t want to do marriage counseling, or if she’s only going because you’re forcing her to, then you may as well save your money. In this case, counseling will either be used to validate your wife’s decision to leave, or to make you spend more time “working on” the problems that have no real solution.
I will admit, I was very biased against marriage counseling for a very long time. It’s a big part of the reason I started this site in the first place, to help fix the marriages that counseling can’t.
The reason I held so much resentment against the marriage counseling industry as a whole was because it so completely FAILED my parents.
My mom and dad should have been ideal candidates for marriage counseling success:
My parents should have been ideal candidates for marriage counseling success… Yet their problems only ever got worse through counseling
- They were both willing to try marriage counseling…
- They both truly wanted a better, happier marriage…
- They were both willing to put in the work over time…
And yet, their problems only ever got worse through counseling. I believe they saw 4 or 5 counselors over the course of 10ish years before finally getting divorced.
They got unlucky with their first counselor. He was a rotten apple, and actually had the gall to tell my dad that my mom was a b-word in one of their individual sessions.
Suffice to say that was the end of their first attempt at counseling.
Fast forward a few more years and a couple more counselors…
The nail in the coffin came when their last counselor recommended sleeping in separate bedrooms to remove the pressure of intimacy. The plan was for my mom move back into the master bedroom when the marriage felt fixed.
They never slept in the same bed again, and divorced a few years later.
By the end, they needed a deeper change than counseling could provide.
In my parents’ marriage, there was one very big miscommunication that kept happening over and over and over. No counselor was ever able to show them a way that pattern.
They had the desire to save the marriage and they were willing to put in work, but they weren’t able to change their habits and no counselor was able to show them how.
I believe the reason marriage counseling wasn’t able to save my parents’ relationship was a combination of poor counseling and the problems being rooted too deep by the time they got help.
By the end, they needed a deeper change than counseling could provide.
My wife and I did 4 or 5 sessions with a marriage counselor last year. I’ll admit, I was a bit skeptical even though I knew that we needed the help.
My wife was struggling with postpartum depression and anxiety, and we had a foster child that was removed from our home for being too violent. These things together put an enormous strain on our marriage and family.
Kalee found a counselor who had experience helping women with postpartum depression and also had experience with foster care. She was a perfect fit for our exact circumstances.
Kalee went to a few sessions individually first, and I went to a couple by myself too. Then we went to a few sessions together. Kalee has continued seeing her since, tapering off from weekly to bi-weekly, and now continues to see her once a month.
In our case, individual counseling alongside couples’ counseling was an incredible tool that fast-tracked our recovery and gave us the tools to navigate Kalee’s struggle with postpartum depression together.
What was the difference between my wife and I’s experience with counseling compared to my parents’?
For one, Kalee and I’s problems were young. We had very little built up resentment or distrust in our marriage. There was some, but a tiny fraction of what my parents had.
We also both went into counseling WANTING to make changes… We just didn’t know exactly what changes to make. Counseling helped us decide – together – what needed to give in our relationship to get us through a very difficult time.
My wife and I left every session feeling better than when we went in. Every session was productive.
The approach my wife and I took to do individual therapy first, then couples therapy second worked very well for us. I don’t know whether my parents started out with individual counseling, although I know they did eventually do both individual and couples.
Finally, my wife has been very diligent about continuing to seek individual counseling. I can’t praise her enough for this. She knows that counseling helped her a ton with her anxiety and emotions.
My wife and I left every counseling session feeling better than when we went in. Every session was productive. This mirrors the study findings that show the couples who make consistent progress DURING therapy are the ones most ly to continue that progress afterward.
Marriage counseling is definitely worth it if it saves your marriage, but it’s a waste of about $1,000 to $2,000 if it doesn’t.
Let’s look at the numbers.
- The average cost of marriage counseling is in the low four-figure range. Definitely not cheap. Expect to pay at least $1,000 for a full couples counseling treatment of 12 sessions.
- The average cost of divorce is about $20,000.
- Therefore, marriage counseling pays for itself 20x over if it prevents divorce. The worst-case scenario is that it adds an extra 10% to your divorce bill.
If you think your odds of marriage counseling success are low, or if money is tight, there are plenty of marriage counseling alternatives that could give you better bang for your buck.
For example, I’ve had many men tell me that their counselors ended up giving them the same advice that they’d already learned in Manly Marriage Revival. Counseling was still helpful for these men, but it was good that they started with a course MMR.
IF you and your wife both want to save the marriage, and IF you get a good counselor, then the answer is a big YES! Marriage counseling is very ly to do great things for you, and you owe it to your marriage to at least give therapy a chance.
If either you or your wife don’t want to do marriage counseling, or if you get an inexperienced or untrained counselor, then the odds of marriage recovery go down a lot.
If you’re the only one trying to save the marriage, or if your marriage problems have been around a very long time, you might want to consider one of the alternatives listed in this report:
Either way, I wish you the best of luck and I hope this article has brought you one step closer to a happier marriage and more confident self.
Much manly love,
I'm Stephen, the guy behind Husband Help Haven. I'm not a marriage counselor or a lawyer, I'm just a guy on the Internet who has talked to a loooooot of men going through separation… Over 2,000 in the past 5 years. My goal is to give men the tools they need to save their marriage from separation. Read more here