Couples Counseling & Marriage Therapy

Your relationship isn’t where you want it to be. Communication is off, you are struggling with in-laws, finances, sex, friendship, social lives, parenting or something else that you just can’t get past. Perhaps you have thought of doing couples counseling in the past or even tried it before and have failed but you’ve come here most likely because you know that you need help.

My personal thoughts about couples counseling

It’s as much about who you see as it is what you want to get out of it 

Couples counseling is my foremost specialty. At certain times in my practice over 20% of my caseload have been other therapists struggling in their own relationships. While there are different models or methods and approaches to couples counseling that exist, more important than the clinical background is the person delivering the counseling. Counseling is not an exact science and therefore it is more of an art at times and making sure you are working with someone you can grow a relationship with or who has the talent to help you work through your problems is a primary consideration. 

Why is guidance so important?

Couples counseling, sometimes interchangeably referred to as marriage therapy or relationship therapy, can be the silver bullet that a couple needs to get themselves onto the right path in order to thrive as a unit. It’s amazing how often we take for granted the power of speech to direct us. 

Imagine driving to a far away destination and only having a vague idea of what the building you’re going to looks like but no clear set of guidelines of when to turn left, or right, or what freeway to take. Having a good couples counselor is like turning on the navigation system in your car. You suddenly know what you need to do to get where you want to be.

What does couples counseling do?

While I can’t speak for every marriage therapist under the sun, my goal is to get you to be self-sufficient in your marriage. While there are always outliers who come into my practice and stay for a long time (even years), my goal is to get you in and out as quickly as possible learning the tools you need to be the best possible partners for each other. 

Learning Tools and Recognizing Patterns

You might be asking yourself what kind of tools I’m talking about. From my experience learning through several different types of disciplines and approaches to couples counseling it always boils down to two different skills: building intimacy and resolving conflict. You’re either a couple who can’t seem to agree and fight in a volatile way or you feel more like roommates than lovers – or very often both. Building intimacy and resolving conflict are very different skills that need to be learned but they are very much interdependent. 

Building intimacy without learning to resolve conflict can lead to volatile fights. Resolving conflict without building intimacy makes a relationship feel hollow and transactional.

And what about those patterns I mentioned earlier? Patterns are the typical places where you make mistakes. Some people have more patience than others, some have a thicker skin, some are better at household work, others are better at being a parent. We all have our strengths and weaknesses in a relationship – it’s what makes relationships exciting! But learning what your tendency is when you feel insecure about the relationship and knowing how to break through those destructive patterns can mean the difference between a week long stand off of awkward silence and being able to fix things in a matter of minutes. 

What kind of relationships benefit from marriage therapy?

Really any relationship that is in trouble or can use some enhancement can benefit from seeing a skilled couples counselor. I’ve had people come into my care who have already filed for divorce and some couples who are generally happy but feel the slightest slipping and want to stay ahead of a problem. 

One of the first things any good therapist or counselor will do with you is get a better understanding of your goals for therapy. Much like a physician would ask what hurts, or why you came in to see the doctor, a counselor will ask you what’s bothering you or what would you like to see improved in your relationship.

Creating a plan just for you

Depending on your answers, the approach will change. If parenting is your main issue, there might be some education that needs to happen. If problems in the bedroom are a struggle, a different approach entirely will start to unfold. 

The beauty of counseling is that it is unique by definition. We talk about what’s going on in your relationship specifically. What are the hurdles, yes but even more importantly what are the dreams. What does your dream relationship look like to you? Once we know that we can build a road to get you there and hold your hand along the way. 

What kind of therapy is best for couples

What kind of therapy is best for couples?

The best kind of therapy or counseling for couples quite simply is the one that works. Like any field there are going to be people great at one type of therapy and some people who are so bad that you never want to try therapy ever again. Over ten years ago my wife (who is a therapist) and I were struggling in our marriage and we went to six different therapists in a short span of a few months and never found the right fit. It can be that challenging!

What’s more important than anything is making sure you feel comfortable and confident that the person you are working with has the ability to connect with both of you and has some wisdom to share. That being said, there are models of couples counseling that are worth noting if you are the type who likes to read into these kinds of things. Some of the most common include:

The Gottman Method

Developed by Drs. John and Julie Gottman, the Gottman Method is based on the extensive research of thousands of couples and identifies the elements it considers essential for healthy relationships. It emphasizes enhancing love maps, nurturing fondness and admiration, turning towards instead of away, maintaining a positive perspective, managing conflict, making life dreams come true, creating shared meaning, and using the Gottman Repair Checklist. The method is known for its practical, research-based interventions and strategies to improve relational dynamics.

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)

Developed by Drs. Sue Johnson and Les Greenberg, Emotionally Focused Therapy is rooted in attachment theory and focuses on the emotional bond between partners. EFT aims to create and strengthen secure, resilient relationships through the identification and transformation of negative interaction patterns into positive ones. It emphasizes the importance of emotions in organizing attachment behaviors and seeks to restructure the emotional responses that maintain relational distress. The therapy involves exploring and reprocessing emotions to foster a stronger bond and secure attachment.

Relational Life Therapy (RLT)

Created by Terry Real, Relational Life Therapy focuses on fostering genuine connection and addressing power dynamics within the relationship. RLT is distinct in its approach to directly confront dysfunctional behaviors, including traditional gender roles and power imbalances, and it promotes living in harmony with oneself and one’s partner. It combines skill-building to improve communication with therapy to address deeper issues, emphasizing personal accountability, relationship equity, and intimacy.

Imago Relationship Therapy

Developed by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., and Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D., Imago Relationship Therapy focuses on transforming conflict into opportunities for healing and growth. The term “Imago” is Latin for “image” and refers to the unconscious image of familiar love. This therapy helps couples understand how their childhood experiences shape their expectations of relationships and guides them in communicating effectively and compassionately. Techniques include structured dialogues to deepen understanding and empathy, facilitating healing, and fostering a positive, growth-oriented connection.

Here’s a short summary of the different models mentioned

  • Gottman Method: Focuses on behaviors that predict success in relationships, with practical strategies to enhance connection.
  • Emotionally Focused Therapy: Centers on emotional attachment, aiming to strengthen the bond between partners through emotional responsiveness and attachment-oriented interventions.
  • Relational Life Therapy: Addresses power dynamics and promotes authenticity, confrontation, and personal accountability within relationships.
  • Imago Relationship Therapy: Utilizes structured dialogues to explore how past experiences influence present relationships and to foster mutual understanding and empathy.

Each of the four methods mentioned above offers different approaches to building a quality relationship. They have their own tools, their own theories and philosophies, and in my humble opinion none of them is perfect. My personal favorite is the Gottman method for it’s direct, practical approach, but I think it lacks in pointing out patterns effectively so I often will draw from Emotional Focused Therapy or attachment theory to explain patterns and I also find Imago incredibly helpful when processing pain and resentment in relationships (more so than any other method). 

How effective is couples counseling?

I’m going to give you some statistics here but before I do I want to issue a bit of a warning when it comes to therapy or counseling in general. It’s very easy to look at a percentage and make a snap judgment as to whether or not that feels promising. The sad truth is that each case has its own unique set of challenges that makes it not quite fit into a statistical model perfectly. The most significant one to remember is that all therapy that is not dependent on medication relies on the person having the willpower and discipline to put into practice the knowledge they learn. 

The general number you might read in a Forbes or Cosmo article typically claims that 70% of couples who go to counseling say it helped. 

Now the term “helped” is relative and isn’t quite well defined, but if you’re looking for a hard and fast number that’s the one you’ll bump into on the internet.

If you want to do a deeper dive the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has a brief of one of the most in-depth studies on couples counseling efficacy that examines depression, relationship commitment, relationship satisfaction and other factors both over short and long term for people who underwent counseling. 

You might be wondering if I have my own rule of thumb for how effective my personal counseling is since you’re on this page. For couples who follow the treatment plan I prescribe and actually do the homework my success rate is over 90%. Are there couples who don’t do homework or stop coming to counseling prematurely – absolutely. In fact, it’s notorious in the therapy world that consistency is the achilles heel in couples therapy because in addition to the logistics of scheduling you also have to have both people motivated enough to actually come each time to a session…which brings us to the next question many people have

How long does couples therapy take?

This is going to vary wildly from practitioner to practitioner. Some models of therapy, like Relationship Life Therapy are longer by nature, while others are shorter by nature. You also have to factor in the counselor’s personal adherence to the given model and if they stick to a standard protocol or if they evaluate each couple session by session. 

It’s not uncommon when I’m talking to a couple where one or both of the partners are therapists or psychologists that they assume having any kind of significant change in their relationship is going to take 6 months. When I hear that I smile when I tell them that if it really took that long I would have been out of business a long time ago. 

My personal timeline for most couples

While I mentioned earlier that you always have outliers in this field, the general rule I give to people is that it takes about 3 months to completely transform your relationship from the inside out if both people are ready to do the work and are consistent about coming. 

If you and your partner are ready, willing and able to commit to 10-12 weekly sessions over the span of 3-4 months then you are ready to work with someone like me. I have never had a couple who did the work and came that long that didn’t completely change the very fabric of their relationship permanently in over a decade. 

Does that mean that it will turn your marriage into a fairytale, no. In some cases after 3 months it becomes clear that they can’t work as a couple – but to be honest that is very rare. We want to connect as people. As humans we long for sharing our life with someone in the most intimate of ways where we can feel like we can be ourselves and to end a relationship is much harder, believe it or not, than fixing one. So for people who come in and are willing to do the work over a few months, success is the most likely option, believe it or not. 

Can a marriage survive without counseling?

Of course it can! When my wife and I went through half a dozen therapists and didn’t find the kind of help we were looking for I went on a quest to find people who had legendary marriages that anyone could be proud of and find out what their secret was. 

I went to old age homes and found couples married for forty, fifty and even sixty years together. While I got varied advice that left me scratching my head, one thing became clear. Some couples figure it out on their own. While my wife and I both have our own personal therapists we see from time to time, we never did find a couples therapist we liked and even in my own marriage, it took me learning and mastering the art of relationships in order to fix my own. 

Some of that I attribute to us both being in the field and the notorious expression of doctors being the worst patients probably holds some truth, but some of it was just bad luck in not finding the right fit. We could have very easily ended up divorced too if we didn’t have the discipline to work through it. 

An analogy that might be helpful

I think a good analogy here is if you were an alcoholic and decided to stop drinking. Could you do it without going to a twelve step program, getting a sponsor, going to therapy, having a support system? Of course. Sometimes people have the willpower to do anything and if that’s you I applaud your ability and wish you nothing but the best. 

For me, personally, I always seek out mentorship and guidance. I figure that success leaves clues and if someone can help me get to where I want to go faster I’m signing up for that every time. And while I never found a perfect therapist for my wife and I, I did find countless books by the Gottmans, Sue Johnson, John Bawbly and others who were my virtual mentors speaking to me with their philosophies, studies, and exercises that they put on paper for the masses.

Can couples counseling be done virtually?

Yes, couples counseling can be done virtually. The way I practice I can service anyone from around the world thanks to zoom. I’ve had couples in Hawaii, New York, France, Israel, New Zealand and more. You know what I’ve learned? Love is love. Problems are problems. Whether you are worth ten dollars or a hundred million dollars (and I’ve worked with both) the problems aren’t that much different. 

I read body language pretty aggressively during my sessions so I do find that working with a camera provides a tremendous amount of advantages so I can continuously check in with my couples, but as long as there is a strong internet connection, zoom is just as effective and a whole heck of a lot more convenient for nearly everyone. 

That being said, I love seeing people in person in my offices either in Calabasas or Sherman Oaks to break up the day. It’s nice to get visitors and not see a screen and I try to bribe my patients with chocolate to come in but it’s really more beneficial to me than to you. If you’re local and you’re willing to drive, I’d love to see you in person, but it is by no means necessary or really even advantageous if we’re being candid with each other.

What if we already tried couples counseling before

What if we already tried couples counseling before?

It’s not uncommon for me to be a couples second, third, or even fourth couples counselor. If you’ve made it this far down on the page you’ll realize how much I reiterate that finding the right match is crucial. You have to have that balance of someone who has the clinical tools, empathy, boundaries, assertiveness, and warmth to make it all work. 

Even if I’m the fourth therapist, I’m usually honored when my clients tell me I’m their last. The bottom line is whether you see me or not, if you’ve had a bad experience with a therapist in the past, don’t give up on therapy – just give up on that therapist. There are as many ways to practice therapy as there are therapists and to throw in the towel on therapy would be akin to saying talking never helps anything and I think we can all agree that simply isn’t true. 

Can I go to relationship counseling on my own?

Yes, of course. Sometimes in relationships we aren’t able to convince our partner to come with us to counseling. Sometimes, we don’t want our partner with us either! If there are things you need to say without fear of offending your partner it’s often better to go alone. That way you don’t have to wonder what questions to ask in therapy…it’s just a more open conversation.

Another reason to go by yourself is to understand what you can do and what your role is in the relationship. Some of the most beneficial things that have ever been said to me would have not been nearly as effective if my wife was around to hear it. Sometimes the clarity and transparency you can speak with one to one is invaluable. 

Should a therapist or a counselor see a husband and wife separately?

Some people disagree with me on this but I think it’s essential at some point (preferably early on in the counseling relationship) to see each partner separately. I can often assess personal history better, process through some trauma if necessary, and understand patterns in a different way one on one than I can if both partners are present. I find it incredibly helpful for both me and the couple as a personal relationship with your counselor forms when you’re able to spend some one on one time that makes the work we do in couples counseling more effective. 

Do therapists talk about their clients with their spouse?

They should not, unless permission is given. One of the things that makes therapy work at all is the assumption of privacy. In addition to regulations that prevent us from sharing your information, it’s just common human decency that what is told in confidence stays in confidence. Now there are exceptions and they usually involve the possibility of physical harm whether self-inflicted or as an act of violence, but in general things shared are private and not disclosed to your partner no matter how uncomfortable it might make your couples counselor. 

I’ve had a handful of clients disclose to me the affairs they’ve had, for example, during one on one sessions and I cannot disclose that to the partner even though it will inevitably make my work more complicated.

Is there a difference between therapists and counselors when it comes to marriage therapy or couples counseling?

Yes. There are MFTs, PhD, PsyDs, LPCs, and even spiritual leaders who all can refer to themselves as marriage counselors. You also have life coaches these days who specialize in relationships. In my own experience I’ve never found any great ones who take insurance anyways and that’s the only big difference from your perspective as a client. For me, making sure you like and trust the person and that they have the tools to help are the most important qualifications that you can look for in a counselor. Are they trained differently, yup, does it matter – not really. 

For example, to get my PhD I didn’t have to take any courses on couples work at all. I decided to get certifications and study in this field and opted to make it part of my dissertation because it was a field that fascinated me but there are people I attended school with who still call me to this day for advice in their marriages. 

Bottom line – unless you are a couples counselor yourself, chances are you are not qualified to make a judgment based on someone’s degree or education. You need to speak to the person and make a gut instinct decision and if you discover you were wrong, don’t hesitate in firing them and hiring someone new.