Couples Therapy vs. Marriage Counseling: What’s the Difference?

couples therapy vs marriage coun

If you and your partner are experiencing trouble in paradise, professional help could be a truly constructive way to get your relationship back on track and continue to grow and learn as a couple. But what kind of help exactly? What’s the difference between couples therapy vs. marriage counseling anyway? We spoke to clinical psychologist Dr. Bethany Cook to better understand these two treatment options.

What is couples therapy?

According to Dr. Cook, this type of therapy is designed for couples who love each other, but have reached an impasse, typically because they “struggle being vulnerable and lack basic communication skills.” (Yep, a large percentage of the population falls into that category.) As such, a therapist will work with the couple to identify the root cause of these issues—a process that involves both parties taking a hard look at their own family communication history and patterns of unhelpful behavior. (For instance, if your wife is an “asker” and you’re a “guesser,” you may have been communicating wrong this whole time.) In other words, per Dr. Cook, the role of the therapist is to help each person unpack their own issues and understand themselves better within the context of the “couple”—namely so that they can better support one another’s personal growth and ultimately enjoy a more harmonious relationship dynamic. Couples typically pursue this type of therapy after they have been together for at least one year, often longer—you know, when the honeymoon phase is in the rearview and tension (not the sexy type) starts to creep in. 

What is marriage counseling?

Marriage counseling, as the name suggests, is intended for couples who are soon to be, or already are, married. You can think of this kind of counseling as something of a prophylactic measure, in that treatment tends to focus on the here and now and is typically “more generic and skill based as opposed to being focused on processing emotions and understanding one another’s perspective,” says Dr. Cook. In fact, marriage counseling sometimes involves formal classes, complete with prescribed lesson plans designed to teach both communication skills and the basics of conflict resolution. Basically, it’s like prep work for married couples who have anticipated the (inevitable) struggles ahead and wish to ride the highs and lows of the relationship successfully.

Couples therapy vs. marriage counseling: What’s the difference?

Now that you know the gist, you’ve probably surmised that both types of treatment do indeed cater to different needs. For an even clearer picture, we’ve broken down the key differences, including some we haven’t yet touched on, between couples therapy and marriage counseling.

1. Starting point

Couples therapy is typically pursued when the couple is experiencing problems, big or small, in their relationship and wants to understand the “why.” Marriage counseling, on the other hand, is often attended by newlyweds and sometimes even required of couples before getting married. Couples who opt for marriage counseling don’t necessarily have significant relationship issues (though they can) but choose to participate in counseling nevertheless as a means of preparing for any challenges they might encounter as a married unit.

2. Experience

In couples therapy, participants will take a deep dive into the issues at hand and treatment will be tailored to the specific needs of the couple. Marriage counseling is a less personal form of treatment, and the process doesn’t involve quite as much digging; it consists primarily of identifying potential issues and learning the skills necessary to resolve conflict and find compromises.

3. Benefits

The benefits of couples therapy include a better understanding of triggers and coping skills, an improvement in feelings of happiness within the context of the couple, and increased empathy toward both self and partner. Marriage counseling provides education and support so that couples can learn the general communication skills required to build a strong foundation for their marriage.

4. Timeline

Couples therapy is generally a bigger commitment, consisting of as few as eight or more than twenty sessions, depending on the level of distress in the relationship. Marriage counseling is a shorter-term engagement involving fewer sessions, though the exact number depends on the outline of the course and the specific objectives set.

5. Cost

The expertise of the professional, where you live, and whether or not sliding scale rates are on offer are just a few of the many factors that can influence the cost of both couples therapy and marriage counseling. That said, couples therapy is generally slightly more expensive than marriage counseling, with costs ranging from $70 to $200 a session and $45 to $200 a session, respectively. Finally, although we mentioned that health insurance can have an impact on the cost, it’s worth noting that most health insurance plans do not cover either type of treatment, since relationship problems do not qualify as a medical issue.

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