People often assume that couples therapy and marriage counseling are the same, but the terms refer to different treatments. Couples therapy is for people who are having problems in their relationship, whereas all kinds of people go to marriage counseling to strengthen a relationship and get coping tools to deal with future challenges in a healthy way.
Read on to learn more about marriage counseling vs couples therapy and learn how to find the right type of help for your relationship.
Couples therapy is for couples who have unhealthy patterns of behavior. With treatment, both parties work with a therapist to identify factors contributing to conflict. Research shows that couples therapy can help rebuild trust and offer healthier ways for couples to relate to each other.
Couples therapy can:
Tackle the root of issues
Help identify specific areas of a relationship that might need attention
Look at past history, arguments, and conflicts in the relationship
Address the whys first, then might focus on the hows
Focus on both personal and individual issues
Answer why you have the obstacles you do
Deal with conflict resolution
Help you both learn how to communicate in a relationship
Be beneficial if you have substance abuse, infidelity, or parenting issues
Marriage counseling might be a bit less formal and more short-term than couples therapy, and it isn’t just for couples with problems — think: premarital counseling.
While it can help couples work through issues, marriage counseling can also help prepare a relationship for future challenges. Again, it’s about education and support and can help with communication and conflict-resolution skills.
Marriage counseling can:
Help couples face struggles together
Get a relationship on track
Focus on the present
Be an opportunity to talk through differences before they cause major conflict
Allow you to build a happy, strong foundation
Mend trust or rekindle a flame
Basis for seeking help
When you compare couples therapy vs marriage counseling, one of the most significant differences stems from the reasons a couple is seeking help in the first place. Marriage counseling can benefit a wide range of couples. That said, it may not help if you’re looking for a solution to a very specific problem. For example, some couples might choose to go through counseling before getting married to build a strong foundation as they start their united life together.
In contrast, couples therapy can treat specific problems in a marriage. For example, one of the many couples therapy techniques, behavioral couples therapy, can help couples struggling with substance abuse in the relationship. Couples may also seek help after a breach of trust, such as infidelity.
“Couples therapy is the blanket statement approach where partners are seeking help for problems whereas marriage counseling is reserved for either the premarital or early post-marital phase of the relationship.”
Couples therapy tends to be more intense and might require a more significant commitment from both parties. During therapy, couples will look closely at the issues they’ve had over their relationship. While both parties are usually present during sessions, a therapist may ask to meet with each person for individual counseling.
Marriage counseling is usually a short-term treatment program with a specific end date. The average couple engages in 12 therapy sessions. Sessions typically focus on finding solutions to marriage problems and helping couples build the skills they need for a healthy relationship.
“Early on in couples therapy, it is to be expected that the routine and structure of the relationship is the main focus — figuring out the why behind the issues. Later, there’s a focus on the how. For example, how information is communicated, what kind of tone, emotional expression, and receptivity become the focus.”
– Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC
Professional qualifications can be another major difference between a marriage counselor vs a therapist. Some marriage counselors aren’t fully licensed to diagnose mental health conditions. A church leader who offers premarital counseling is an example of a counselor who’s not a trained mental health professional. You should always check a professional’s qualifications before starting treatment.
Costs can vary for both marriage counseling and couples therapy. On average, marriage counseling costs between $75 and $150 an hour. However, depending on a professional’s experience, training, and location, the full range can be much broader — from $50 per hour to $200 or more. Couples therapy has similar rates, but because it usually requires more sessions, it can be more expensive in the long run.
Mental health services in general are an essential benefit under the Affordable Care Act (meaning they must be covered). Unfortunately though, in most cases, insurance companies aren’t required to provide coverage for couples therapy or marriage counseling. This means many couples must cover expenses out of pocket. However, coverage may be available to couples seeking treatment due to a medical or specific diagnosed mental health condition.
Should you seek marriage counseling, or is couples therapy a better fit for your needs? If you’re struggling to decide between marriage counseling vs couples therapy, thinking about the types of services each technique offers can usually help.
Take the time to consider why you and your partner need or want help. If there’s a specific issue you want to address — say someone has cheated, and trust has become a problem in the relationship — couples therapy can be a good place to start. If you’re starting a family and want to work on communication before the baby is born though, a short-term solution like marriage counseling could be the perfect solution.
Regardless of the route you decide on, you want to be confident that the treatment you seek is the right choice for you and your partner.
“Relationships do better with professional help. The amount of time needed varies per relationship. The demand for professional help, though, becomes more of a non-negotiable if communication has stopped, or if the communication has become abusive (as perceived by either party).”
– Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice, PsyD, LPC
When to seek marriage counseling
Marriage counseling is an excellent option for couples wanting to discover tools they can use to build a healthy marriage or relationship. It can be a great way to bring the spark back to a relationship, but it can also help newlyweds and couples who haven’t gotten married yet.
When you learn how to find a good marriage counselor and start counseling, you can learn how to deal with problems before they cause severe damage to the relationship. You can find more effective ways to communicate and better understand what your partner needs. In marriage counseling, both people can learn how to be better partners for one another.
When to seek couples therapy
If you have serious relationship problems, couples therapy can help you tackle your issues. With the help of a therapist, couples can get to the root causes of problems that have caused strife in their relationship. Therapy can help people deal with specific issues, like learning how to get over infidelity or substance abuse. In short, couples therapy can aim to identify and break unhealthy patterns in a relationship.
Any couple can benefit from marriage counseling, while couples therapy is more for relationships needing more intensive help. A lot of couples try therapy as a last resort before separating. Maintaining a relationship isn’t easy — it takes constant dedication and work. A couples therapist can help people work through deep-seated problems and build healthy, strong, mutually beneficial, supportive partnerships.
Marriages can be incredibly rewarding, but poor communication and unresolved problems can interfere with the ability to have a healthy relationship. If you’re comparing couples therapy vs marriage counseling to find your best option, Talkspace offers online marriage counseling and couples therapy.
With Talkspace, you and your partner can identify issues you want to work on and move through conflicts with the guidance of an experienced professional. Relationship problems aren’t easy to overcome, but Talkspace offers the support you need to forge a new path in your connection with your partner.
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Fals-Stewart W, O’Farrell TJ, Birchler GR. Behavioral couples therapy for substance abuse: Rationale, methods, and findings. Science & Practice Perspectives. 2004;2(2):30-41. doi:10.1151/spp042230. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2851021/. Accessed October 18, 2022.
(DCD) DCD. Does the Affordable Care Act cover individuals with mental health problems? HHS.gov. https://www.hhs.gov/answers/health-insurance-reform/does-the-aca-cover-individuals-with-mental-health-problems/index.html. Published October 29, 2021. Accessed October 18, 2022.