Before we can address the question, “does marriage counseling work?” it is necessary to understand how marriage counseling, as it is currently practiced, became the therapeutic practice it is today. Modern marriage family therapy programs gained a foothold at the tail end of 1960s and early 70s when divorce rates drastically increased. The didactic methodology employed before that time period by marriage “therapists,” who were usually either clergy members, medical doctors, or social workers, involved working with one spouse at a time to whom concrete direction and rules for self betterment were imparted. In regards to this old school didactic sort of marriage therapy, the answer to the question, “how does marriage counselling work?” is not very well.
In determining, “how does marriage counselling work” pertaining to post 1960s couples therapy, the answer becomes more ambiguous. The new marriage counseling techniques of the 60s and 70s were an offshoot from the family therapies model which concerned itself with relationships as a system, therefore requiring that both spouses be present at appointments and treated simultaneously by the marriage therapist. At the time, there had not yet been any family therapy research conducted on the question, “how does marriage counselling work when spouses attend family and marriage therapy sessions jointly?”
Many psychologists were incredulous at first. They were, in fact, openly hostile to the marriage counseling as family systems model, also known as conjoint therapy. Academic psychology journals at the time were filled with critical pieces on the new marriage counseling written by researchers bemoaning the lack of evidence for its efficacy. Practitioners of the new counseling marriage and family therapy defended their work, backing up their responses to the question, “how does marriage counselling work?” with evidence plucked from two distinct abstract models, psychoanalysis and the human potential movement.
Psychoanalysis considers the troubled marriage within a framework of neurotic interaction influenced by the pathologies of one or both spouses. In psychoanalytical terms, the question, “how does marriage counseling work” is based on whether buried traumas can be brought to light. On the other end of the spectrum, the human potential movement presented a goal oriented model of couples therapy. It was an attempt at guiding each spouse to develop a greater sense of his and her own personal agency. According to the human potential movement, the answer to the inquiry, “how does marriage counselling work” does not revolve around whether the couple stays married or not. Answering the question, “how does marriage counselling work?” according to the human potential movement is dependent upon the trajectory towards self actualization of the individuals in the marriage.
even now there is still some disagreement regarding answers to the question, “how does marriage counselling work?” the evidence suggests that spouses for whom the marriage counselor draws on attachment theory are more likely to have long term positive outcomes. Attachment theory is concerned with building engaged and emotionally responsive relationships. So too is there data suggesting that when a therapist provides concrete behavioral instruction to help spouses become more accepting of one another, marriages become more stable. Sadly, though these techniques have been shown help, the answer to the question, “how does marriage counselling work?” is not necessarily a hard “Very well!” The reason for this is systemic. The average couple first goes into therapy after having already been unhappy for six years, at which point the question, “how does marriage counselling work?” may be moot because too much damage has already been done. More can be found here.