Thinking about marriage counseling? Here’s the most important thing you should know.
The largest predictor of marital outcomes is how you treat emotional calls.
Emotional calls are the thousands of tiny attempts to connect with each other. They can be attempts to get attention, affirmation, affection, or any other emotional need. Decades of research show that partners in happy marriages engage with a majority (86%) of each other’s emotional calls, while partners in unhappy marriages (heading for divorce) engage with a minority (33%) of them.
What a startling fact.
That’s why the main purpose of marriage counseling is to help both partners understand each other’s emotional worlds and develop empathy for the other. That’s how the Lasting app was designed.
That’s also why all couples should try marriage counseling: because all couples can get better at responding to emotional calls. Some couples may need more help than others (and we address different approaches below, especially for distressed couples), but all couples need help engaging in one another’s emotional worlds. It’s very hard to express your own emotional needs, let alone respond in an empathetic way to your partner’s. Even healthy couples miss 14% of one another’s emotional needs.
Read on for all you need to know about when and how to seek out counseling.
How happy is your marriage?
Before you answer that, remind yourself that every marriage evolves over time. All relationships have ups and downs, happy seasons and difficult seasons, and agreements and disagreements. No relationship exists in a vacuum, and individual needs are in constant flux.
The first step in relationship health is clarifying your own emotional needs in the relationship. To do this, the experts at Lasting suggest starting with the following reflection question:
Currently, on a 1-10 scale, how satisfied are you with your relationship?
After you’ve assigned yourself a number, the next step is explaining to yourself why you chose that number, starting with, “I chose that number because I feel…”.
This small process will help you clarify how you feel about the relationship.
After you do that, the next step is moving towards a counseling experience. The rest of this article is divided into three groups:
The “Repair” group (those who chose 1-4)
The “Things Can Improve” group (those who chose 5-7)
The “Feeling Good” group (those who chose 8-10)
Couples therapy is valuable and relevant for all three groups, but for different reasons.
You can also take our relationship assessment for free in the Lasting app.
1. Marriage Counseling When You Need Relationship Repair
If you’re reading this section, then you’re dissatisfied with your relationship currently (as evidenced by putting a 1, 2, 3, or 4). According to Lasting, this describes approximately 35% of America’s couples.
More importantly, why are you dissatisfied?
It’s likely that this dissatisfaction stems from what Dr. Sue Johnson has termed an “attachment injury.” Similar to an injury to your physical body, an attachment injury is a wound in your relationship caused by your partner’s abandonment, rejection, or betrayal during a crucial moment of need. Maybe it was something big and obvious, such as being abandoned by your partner during a miscarriage, or maybe it was something small and subtle, such as finding another person’s phone number in your partner’s wallet or not being included in an important family photo with their extended family.
According to Liz Colizza, a seasoned psychotherapist and Head of Research for Lasting, “Regardless of how big or small, when an attachment injury takes place, the emotional bond is damaged and the relationship begins to feel unsafe, insecure, or unreliable—because basic trust has been broken.”
Moving forward, the relationship suffers in various ways. In general, couples interact with increasing negativity, are less productive at problem-solving, and become predictable in their patterns of relating to one another. Colizza adds, “This is especially true of conflicts, where partners feel stuck and unable to move past certain events. For example, disagreements about how to load the dishwasher can turn into fights over who’s to blame for financial debt.”
And instead of finding a resolution or compromise, both partners resort to destructive behaviors like criticism, defensiveness, and withdrawal.
If this describes you, then you should seek out counseling immediately. Advice on how to do this can be found below.
2. Marriage Counseling When You Think Things Can Improve
If you’re reading this section, then you don’t think your relationship is on the brink of failure, but you’re not highly satisfied with your marriage either (as evidenced by the fact that you didn’t put an 8, 9, or 10). According to Lasting, this describes approximately 40% of America’s couples.
If that describes you, the first thing you should know is this: on average, most couples don’t seek counseling for 6 years after noticing an issue. And by then, there’s oftentimes lots of resentment built up, putting you in the “Repair” group.
Why don’t couples seek marriage counseling for 6 years after this point? We wrote an entire article dedicated to this (which includes how to introduce the idea to your partner), but in a nutshell, it’s because they don’t think any issues are that big enough to merit counseling—or there’s a fear that it’ll make a particular issue more real.
It’s a human tendency to fix something only when it breaks. But that’s an incorrect framing of marriage. Relationships require consistent, small efforts, not a single, large effort.
You may dread having the conversation with your partner. After all, you don’t want to nag or have the situation blow up in your face.
But instead of letting something bother you—whether it’s trivial or a serious issue—it’s far better to be up front and discuss it, and it’s best to seek out counseling for this scenario. Advice on how to do this is below.
3. Marriage Counseling When You Feel Good About Your Relationship
If you’re reading this section, then you’re satisfied with your relationship (as evidenced by the fact that you put an 8, 9, or 10). According to Lasting, this describes approximately 25% of America’s couples. For this group, here’s what marriage counseling can do:
Help you understand each other’s emotional worlds
Prepare you for different seasons of life (parenthood, emotional distress)
Provide frameworks for working through issues
To illustrate the value of these, let’s walk through a visualization together. Imagine your life is in a boat on the water. You’re out at sea, being rocked back and forth by the waves, and you’re sailing your way into the sunset.
In your life, there will only be a few major, life-changing waves that send you on a new trajectory, such as marriage, parenthood, and retirement.
The truth is that most of life consists of thousands of small waves that happen every day, like what you’re eating for dinner tonight, what to spend money on tomorrow, and what you’re planning for the weekend ahead.
In addition, as you know, life has a tendency to send you many waves out of the blue, some of which are storms and totally out of your control.
In this way, life is like a series of waves, both predictable and unpredictable, and you, in a boat, are trying to stay on the course of your choice.
Now, here’s where we apply this to your marriage.
One of the choices that you and your partner need to make is how to ride the waves of life.
There are only two options. You can either unintentionally ride the waves and hope for the best, or you can intentionally work together to develop structures that guide your boat, regardless of the waves that may come.
That’s what marriage counseling can do for you.
How To Seek Out Counseling
1. The Lasting couples counseling app
Simply download the Lasting app and subscribe to unlock your entire research-backed couples counseling program, which consists of assessments, exercises and audios. Subscribing costs just $12 per month (for two people) or $80 per year. For those in the Repair group, we recommend the following series: Repair, followed by Forgiveness, then Conflict and Communication. For those in the “Things Can Improve” group, we recommend starting with the Emotional Connection series. For those in the “Feeling Good” group, we recommend taking the relationship assessment for free and checking out what Lasting recommends for your specific situation.
2. In-person couples therapy
After finding a qualified, licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), reach out to them to schedule a couples counseling appointment. At Lasting, we highly recommend Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). EFT is evidence-based couples therapy that typically consists of 8 to 20 hour-long couple’s therapy sessions, at $100 to $250 per session. Remarkably, 70% to 73% of couples of participated in this type of couple's therapy reported recovery from relationship distress, with 86% reporting significant improvement over the control group. That makes it the most successful couples counseling method in history. We believe that’s because it deals directly with your underlying attachment injuries.
Find an EFT therapist here.
Marriage can be deeply fulfilling, but it takes work.
Team Lasting is moving mountains to bring accessible, affordable counseling to your doorstep. Together, we can learn how to love a little better.
Driver, J.L. & Gottman, J.M. (2004). Daily marital interactions and positive affect during marital conflict among newlywed couples. Family process, 43 (3), 301-314.
Johnson, S. M. and Greenman, P. S. (2006), The path to a secure bond: Emotionally focused couple therapy. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62: 597–609.