Couples counseling can help you navigate urgent concerns, address ongoing issues, or learn general relationship skills.
People choose to see a couples counselor for many reasons. The catalyst could be a pressing, urgent issue that you're not currently equipped to handle, or it could be a subtly simmering issue that you want to tackle before one of you snaps. Still other couples choose to go to a therapist simply to build relationship skills or grow closer as a couple. The exact focus of your treatment will depend on the particulars of your relationship, and your therapist’s approach.
The average couple waits six years to address an ongoing issue through couples counseling. If you're experiencing issues in your relationship, consider seeking couples counseling early on! Here's a breakdown of what you need to know about this type of therapy.
What couples counseling can help with
Here are a few areas that couples counseling can help you with:
- Infidelity – whether that's a physical affair or emotional cheating. In the wake of an affair, a therapist can work with you to see past the hurt and repair the relationship. Some couples actually come away stronger after seeing a therapist for infidelity issues.
- Life crises that are out of your control. A therapist can help you navigate the aftermath of a crisis together. That may include a situation like a medical illness, substance use relapse, job loss, or the death of a loved one.
- Difficulty communicating with each other. Whether you've always had a different fighting style, or you've recently hit a rut after welcoming a baby into your life, a therapist can help you understand where your partner is coming from, and create space for you to reconnect.
- Financial issues and money concerns. Money can be a heated, stressful subject. Discussing the "F" word (finance!) with the guidance of a seasoned pro can help cool matters.
- Challenges related to sex and intimacy. Maybe you're not having sex, or maybe you're having sex but not feeling intimate, or maybe it just feels like you've lost touch with each other altogether. A couples counselor can help you reconnect, especially regarding intimacy issues. You can also work with a specially certified sex therapist who sees couples as part of their work.
- Issues with friends or other family members. Issues related to friends and family can be tricky. It could be that you've never felt respected by your in-laws and wish your partner had your back more when they're around, or perhaps you resent all the time your partner spends with their friends.Working with a therapist can help you find a middle ground where you both feel comfortable and respected.
- Getting ready for marriage. Some couples decide to attend premarital counseling before they tie the knot. This type of therapy is a highly specialized one that helps couples prepare for all aspects of marriage, from raising children and visiting in-laws, to how much sex they want to have, to handling conflict and sharing finances. Premarital counseling can be religious (and some religions require, or strongly urge, couples to attend, as with Pre-Cana in Catholicism), or it can be secular.
- General relationship skills and strengthening. You don't have to have a particularly acute problem in order to seek couples counseling. In fact, many couples who seek counseling are simply looking for an additional resource to strengthen their bond and make their relationship even happier!
Who couples counseling is for
Couples counseling is for any couple – married, non-married, monogamous, polyamorous, or even an individual working on a partnered relationship.
This form of therapy can be helpful for couples of any kind – whether you're in a long-term relationship, long-distance, or an open relationship (or considering entering one). And you don’t need to be married (or monogamous) to seek couples counseling.
If you’re interested in working on a partnered relationship but your partner is unwilling to attend sessions, you can even begin couples counseling by starting to attend on your own.
Effectiveness of couples counseling
Research shows couples counseling is highly effective at improving relationships and emotional health.
Studies indicate that counseling can be an effective treatment on both an individual and a shared level for couples who are facing issues in their relationships:
- One report shows counseling was associated with improved relationship outcomes for 70% of surveyed couples. 
- Over 98% of clients who saw a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) said that their emotional health had improved 
Approaches in couples counseling
Couples counseling isn't a single, unified approach to therapy. In fact, within the field of couples counseling, there are different schools of thought, such as:
Your couples counselor may specialize in one particular approach, or they may integrate several different modalities into treatment.
Regardless of methodology, the aim of couples counseling is to provide a safe, non-judgmental space for you and your partner to reconnect and tackle whatever issues or concerns you're facing in your relationship.
Length and duration of couples counseling
As with any therapy, the number of sessions you have with a couples counselor can vary; but generally speaking, couples counseling tends to be shorter-term than individual counseling.
Depending on your goals and challenge, you might see a counselor for only a few sessions, or you might continue for several weeks or months; the average number of sessions with a marriage and family therapist typically 12. 
What to expect in couples counseling sessions
While the exact structure of your treatment will depend on your specific needs and your therapists' approach, here is the general structure of what you can expect from couples counseling:
- When you first meet, you'll discuss your shared goals and any concerns you have to set a treatment plan. You’ll often begin with an open-ended discussion of your concerns and goals around couples counseling, both as individuals and as partners. Together, you’ll work with your therapist to establish a treatment plan and shared goals in your early sessions.
- You may meet individually with your therapist before continuing treatment as a couple. Either before or after your first couples session, many therapists recommend starting with one or more individual sessions. This way, the therapist can get to know you and your partner as individuals, and get a balanced perspective on your work as a couple.
- Your therapist will recommend discussions and activities after they've gotten to know you. Once you've gotten to know your therapist better (and they you!), later sessions will include a mixture of discussion and activities. These activities might include role-playing, communication exercises, mindfulness practices, and conflict resolution techniques, among others.
- There's a good chance you'll have "homework" between sessions. If your counselor assigns homework between sessions – and many do – then your sessions will also include a review of that homework and how it may have affected your relationship outside of sessions. Homework might include trying out new communication strategies, scheduling time to spend together, or observing your typical interaction patterns.
What to look for in a couples counselor
- Prioritize someone who has experience working with similar clients, and whom both you and your partner feel comfortable with. Since every couples therapist is different, both you and your partner should be comfortable opening up in sessions. You may also prefer to work with someone who has experience working with clients who either had similar backgrounds, were facing similar challenges, or both.
- Look for someone who has experience working with clients who are similar to you. You might prefer to look for a counselor who has experience with couples who share some aspect of your identity, such as LGBTQ+ or interracial couples. Also, if you're facing a specific issue that is relatively niche – such as co-parenting through adoption, or entering an open relationship – don't be afraid to ask the therapist if they have experience working with similar clients.
- Remember that couples counselors should remain neutral – if you feel your therapist is taking sides, don't be afraid to look for a new therapist. Couples therapists will never take sides in any disputes. The therapist is there to work with both parties equally and will do their best to balance each partner’s goals and concerns. If you don't feel like that's the case with your therapist, consider looking for a new fit.
New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.
1: The average couple waits six years to address an ongoing issue with couples counseling. – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4115001/#R43