Relationships come and go, but marriage presumes longevity. Marriage counseling is just one way a couple can give their relationship the best possible chance of success. After all, the stakes are high. The institution of marriage weaves itself into the very fabric of western society. By age 50, around 90 percent of us have chosen to tie the knot.

A healthy marriage provides financial stability and quality of life improvements. It can increase life expectancy and offers numerous benefits to mental health. It may also serve as a bulwark against those inevitable crises that pop up from time to time over the course of one’s life. Children of married parents perform better at school, and severe social, mental, and, physical issues occur with less frequency. It’s a shame then that around half of all marriages in the U.S. fail.

Breaking Badly​

Marriage might well be a tonic to the soul, but if so, divorce is more of an emetic. In a 2002 study by Linda J Waite from the University of Chicago, she found that divorce had a detrimental effect on happiness. With the obvious exception of those escaping abusive relationships divorce failed to deliver promises of a better life.

Five years on from divorce the once unhappily married individuals were no happier, saw no improvements in self-esteem or life mastery and demonstrated increased alcohol consumption. In contrast, those spouses who chose to remain in a struggling partnership managed to discover an equilibrium with that led to increased happiness.

Beyond the fail

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The message then is clear. It is better to work on a failing marriage than it is to focus on removing yourself from it all together. For those facing the reality of marriage as opposed to the fairy-tale depictions of domestic bliss portrayed by Hollywood, the challenges can be overwhelming. Attempting to fix something that appears broken requires the kind of professional help that can only be provided by marriage counseling. Seeking such help is just the first step.

Success for less

The choice to seek out and engage in couples’ therapy in no way guarantees success. The process can be both long and tiring. It requires a concerted effort from both parties and a willingness to not only remain engaged but to face certain uncomfortable truths about oneself. Even in those cases where both spouses manage to complete therapy, some 38 percent get divorced within 4 years.

Obstacles fill the path to a harmonious marriage. Few routes lead to even a close approximation of the marital bliss often experienced in the early days of a relationship. The goal is not to reinvent perfection but rather, to identify dysfunction. In doing so, it arms both partners with the tools they need to work as a more effective team.

Marriage Counseling Yourself Short

Couples therapy works best when both parties are committed to the task at hand. During marriage counseling, it is often apparent that one or both parties have already made up their mind about the eventual fate of their marriage. In such cases, sessions might transform into surrogate pre-divorce hearings, and the airing of grievances becomes the sole purpose of attendance.

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At times the actual decision to divorce is announced mid-session. Homework assignments crucial to address negative patterns of behavior remain unfinished. Missed appointments are often exacerbated by related issues better tackled elsewhere. Problems stemming from addiction, anger management, or mental health are all worthy of professional help. Such guidance, however, presents challenges outside the purview of traditional marriage counseling.

The neutral territory of a counseling session helps to set aside emotional baggage but learning new ways of communication requires effort. Both parties need to demonstrate a genuine commitment to take responsibility for their role in the problems. Identified faults are rarely a one-way street. Spouses need to take ownership of their failures to make progress. The emphasis here is on the plural. Dual commitment to the process is a crucial part of marriage counseling efficacy.

The Importance of Being Honest

Dishonesty is not always the same thing as deception. Where deception requires a desire to hide the truth, a general lack of truthfulness might stem from elsewhere. A misremembered detail, a lack of self-analysis; what seems like a lie might stem from a simple misunderstanding. During a counseling session, situational conflict can be unpacked and laid bare within a new context. Overused words such as "always," and "never," can be put to one side.

The temptation to exaggerate the failings of another is all too common. By approaching therapy with an open mind, couples can adopt new ways of managing conflict. Truth in a philosophical sense is absolute. Within the context of a relationship, it becomes more subjective. How one person sees the world is necessarily different from how another might approach an identical situation.

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Thus, a spouse claiming that their partner is distant is describing a feeling engendered by a given situation. Engaging with somebody else’s point of view without resorting to defensiveness is never easy. Regardless, compromise lies at the heart of all good relationships. During counseling, spouses can explore each other’s feelings. In this way, they are better able to appreciate how an action that seems benign to one can be deeply hurtful to another.

The presence of a third party provides a neutral perspective. From such a viewpoint, a couple can construct a more detailed overview of their entire relationship. To do so, however, both parties must speak honestly with one another and with their counselor. Agreeing with a novel perspective on a situation is far less important than is a willingness to engage with it.

The Tried and the tested

Few of us have ever received any formal training when it comes to relationships. Despite a wealth of self-help books, blogs, vlogs, websites, and online tutorials couples, for the most part, learn how to operate via a nearly endless series of field trips. This does not mean that expertise is beyond our reach. Access to marriage counseling is relatively easy. Experienced counselors can pass on a variety of tried and tested techniques that can help struggling couples to manage better what might at times seem like an overwhelming number of variables.

For example, an expression of negativity, such as a verbal criticism, requires no fewer than five positives to return a person to a neutral state. In unhappy marriages, communication focuses on petty irritations pockmarked with rising intensity during moments of crisis management.

During counseling, the therapist can teach couples about an emotional freedom technique that seeks to redress such negativity imbalance at the point of occurrence. Methods such as these provide couples with the tools they need to address what might otherwise seem like insurmountable problems. It is essential that couples find ways to put such new ideas into practice.

Relationship Tune-Up

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For many, the decision to undergo marriage counseling comes at a point of crisis. Dissatisfaction with the relationship from one or both parties often leads to a last-ditch effort to save the marriage. For others, counseling is a way to shore up cracks in an otherwise sound relationship. Regular tune-ups are an effective way of tackling petty grievances and addressing them before they escalate into more pressing issues. Working through underlying annoyances signifies a commitment to keeping your marriage healthy.

Organizations such as the British charity Relate offer online quizzes that help identify whether or not it might be a good idea to seek some kind of counseling. By exploring relationship priorities, couples can avoid the make or break scenario of seeking help only when the relationship is in tatters.

A light touch

The goal of marriage counseling is always the same; to address issues that threaten or may one day endanger the relationship’s health. Marriage counselors are no different. Matters relating to sexual dysfunction or infidelity require a delicate touch Left to their own devices couples might unintentionally hurt their partner's feelings thus closing off all future discussion. Matters relating to blended families, for example, are beset with unique difficulties.

Expertise in how to avoid a clash of parenting styles allows couples to focus on what’s really important. The establishment of a new and harmonious family identity is a challenge in itself. According to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, patient satisfaction with the process is high. Some 98 percent of surveyed individuals defined their therapy as either good or excellent.

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Furthermore, 93 percent indicated that therapy helped them develop practical tools for dealing with problems. Lastly, patients noted general improvements in health and improved functionality at work. That the process itself seems to provide positive benefits would be reason enough to consider taking the plunge. Still, exploring one last question surrounding the efficacy of counseling seems prudent. Does marriage guidance save marriages?

What Works for You

Perhaps surprisingly, given the relatively high divorce rates, marriage counseling has become a common activity for couples. Approximately 44 percent of couples who get married today go to marriage counseling before the wedding itself. Those who undertake such measures are liable to see a 30 percent increase in marital success rates than those who do not.

For couples that engage in therapy after the emergence of serious issues, clear results are harder to find. Fewer than 10 percent of couples that engage with therapy note any improvement in their relationship. Around half of all attendees divorce anyway.

All of which highlights the importance of timing. Effective marriage counseling improves communication by pre-emptively addressing issues that arise. For those who leave it too late, counseling might exacerbate rather than heal. The limitations of social science mean it can't always provide definitive answers. Still, those who engage in therapy in an honest and timely fashion are giving their marriage the best possible chance of success. That at least is something of a given.

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