How To Know If You Need Marriage Counseling

Maintaining any relationship takes work. Friendships that were once effortless can require some soul searching, dynamics with in-laws and parents can require boundaries, and the bond you share with your spouse — arguably the most important relationship in your life — will demand time, care, and attention. Nothing worth having in life comes effortlessly, and it's important to remember that there is nothing wrong if your relationships require honest communication, boundaries, and an inventory of sorts — after all, it's only through being open and vulnerable that important bonds can carry on.

Still, it's hard to acknowledge problems within your marriage when they're happening — what if your spouse simply does not want to admit that there are shortcomings? What if there's infidelity, emotional cheating, or cultural differences that you cannot overcome? There are so many factors in play when a long-term relationship comes into focus that it can seem like a better idea to sweep the issues under the rug, put a smile on, and carry on.

But anyone who has tried this approach will tell you that the issues that seemed small at one point almost always turn into much bigger problems, and it's a better idea to address these bumps in the road as they happen rather than waiting for your marriage to break down. This is where marriage counseling can come in. There are signs you can look for that could determine if it's the right approach for you and your spouse.

First and foremost, what is marriage counseling?

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, we should determine what marriage counseling really is. Though our society is evolving in its acceptance of therapy and mental health conversations, resources still aren't as prevalent as many mental health professionals would like. So, with that said, what is marriage counseling? As defined by therapy provider Talkspace, marriage counseling — otherwise referred to as couples therapy — is a specific sect of therapy that narrows in on marriage and relationship dynamics. The therapist or counselor in question is usually a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) and has likely spent years of schooling and experience cultivating a specific approach to their work. LMFT therapists are "trained to help couples diagnose their problems," and their office could exist as a safe space for mediation in an otherwise difficult marital environment.

Talkspace points out that one of the biggest issues facing couples manifests in communication problems, and this is where a marriage counselor could really help. Treat their office — and their skills of mediation, for that matter — as neutral ground, where the outside world melts away and you and your spouse can really hone in on the issues that are plaguing your marriage. By dedicating yourselves to marriage counseling — whether you're far into a relationship-altering issue or simply want to iron out the kinks — engaging in this kind of therapy practice is a great place to start.

Nothing has to be going wrong in your marriage to seek couples therapy

One of the biggest misconceptions about marriage counseling is the idea that your relationship has to be on the brink of ruin to seek a therapist. As noted by Couples Institute, married people should be encouraged to seek out therapy even if — in their perspective — nothing is "wrong" in their relationship.

One of the greatest strengths of couples therapy is its emphasis on communication. Life gets busy, and with jobs, kids, and hectic schedules, it can be easy for spouses to put each other on the back burner and cease communicating when it really matters. Furthermore, Couples Institute writes, "Couples usually wait until their situation has reached the breaking point before seeking couples therapy, often putting themselves through months or years of unnecessary disappointment, distress, and destructive behavior." Couples can avoid the rush and start prioritizing relationships now. That dedicated hour to you and your spouse could be a game-changer.

Katrina Waller says in Couples Institute that, as a couples psychotherapist, she's seen pain in relationships that "could have been avoided with early intervention," as the relationships in question were simply not prioritized when they should've been. Couples therapy is like going to the gym — consistency and early intervention can go a long way. Waller said that the more awareness a couple goes into their relationship with, the better off they are in the long run.

Are you having the same fight over and over again? Seek counseling

Though we've established that nothing has to be "wrong" in your marriage to seek couples counseling, there are some telltale signs that you should get help. One of the biggest tells that you and your spouse could benefit from a therapist is if you're having the same fight over and over. That tiff with your partner could be as simple as them not closing cabinets, or as serious as them not establishing healthy boundaries with their overbearing parents. Whatever the issue is, having the same argument will keep you and your spouse in this cyclical torture — seeking couples therapy is a good way to find common ground.

According to Psychology Today, there are a few reasons why you and your spouse are stuck in this argument purgatory. You and/or your spouse's parents did not display that resolving conflict was a meaningful approach, you throw a temper tantrum to protect your own vulnerability, or there are belief differences that are "simply not resolvable." Hopefully, the last option is not the case for you and your significant other, but if you fall into one of the first two categories, talking it out in marriage counseling and addressing the issue that is truly at the core of your arguments is a great place to start. If you and your spouse do fall into that last category, a more serious conversation about your future together will need to take place.

If you and your spouse have consistent conflict over lifestyle choices, therapy is a good place to turn

Human beings are creatures of habit, and it can be difficult to break some of the oldest cycles in your life. Maybe you've always put the toilet paper on the roll so it rolls from the underside — a big no-no in some households — or perhaps leaving bread on the counter rather than putting it in the fridge is the hill that you would die on. Whatever the case, these lifestyle choices can actually become a big deal in a relationship, especially when you and your significant other decide to move in together. This is where couples therapy can be a life-changer.

As noted by Verywell Mind, conflict is going to be an aspect of any relationship. We wouldn't be human if we agreed on everything, and a healthy amount of discourse and independence is good in any dynamic. But if you and your spouse cannot get on the same page when it comes to lifestyle choices — whether it has something to do with hygiene or cleanliness around the house, or permeates mental health elements of their life — it could be a sign that there are some "underlying [feelings] of discomfort." These points of stress can act like a fault line — just one shift can cause an earthquake, so it's important to deal with these unresolved points of difference head-on rather than ignoring them until it's too late.

A complete lack of physical intimacy is a clear sign that counseling is needed

Though the frequency may slow down a bit over time, physical intimacy within your marriage is an important aspect that should not be put on the back burner. The closeness shared with your significant other in those moments of intimacy separates your relationship from that of any other in your life — or at least it should, if monogamy is your thing — and maintaining that level of comfort, love, and stability is key in any healthy union. If you're noticing a diminished level of physical intimacy — or a complete lack of it within your marriage — it may be a symptom of a bigger issue.

Sex therapist Jessa Zimmerman notes in Mind Body Green that when a couple is going through points of conflict, resentment, or tension, that "will often show up in the bedroom." Though some partners are okay with maintaining the physical element of their marriage even if there is some unresolved strife in the relationship, a lot of people will use sex and intimacy as a holdout. This can get complicated quickly.

"As life gets more complicated and more difficult, it can be more of a struggle to feel desire for sex. Men, just like women, can get stuck in their heads, finding it hard to let everything go and get in the mood," Zimmerman writes. "For many people, stress and worry shut down the systems that would create sexual desire."

If you disagree on parenting techniques, seeking counseling is a good idea

Deciding to spend your life with someone is a huge decision, and it can be difficult to predict all the ways in which your value system could be altered during your relationship. So many of us bend a bit for our partners, and while some of those differences are healthy and maintain a level of independence in a marriage, there are some aspects on which you really need to agree. Parenting, of course, is one of them. A disagreement in styles could definitely land you in a couples therapy session. According to Parents, a clash in parenting styles can create significant stress. Whether it's as simple as one parent wanting to be seen as the "fun one" to the other's "strict parent," or your disagreements are as severe as gentle parenting versus authoritarian parenting, such stark perspective contrasts can distance even the closest of spouses.

"The parents I work with may have been raised in one style and want to adapt," expert Elaine Taylor-Klaus told Parents. "Children today need parents who will communicate more consciously and collaboratively."

With that in mind, it's important to nip your parenting differences in the bud before they turn into full-fledged arguments in front of your kids. Children are intuitive and can often pick up on cues, so take the time to make sure that you and your spouse are on the same page — a marriage counselor could help with this process.

Experiencing a shared loss or traumatic event can lead to distance therapy helps heal

Shared experiences fortify relationships, making them even more durable to weather any storm. However, sharing a traumatic experience with your spouse can actually increase the likelihood of separation, stress, and general turmoil. A couples therapist can be crucial in this period and will likely help you determine if you and your spouse can get through it — or need to go your separate ways.

One experience a number of couples have struggled to get through is the loss of a child. A 2010 study published in Pediatrics found that after experiencing a miscarriage, couples were much more likely to split compared to couples who carried a child to term. When looking at couples who suffered a stillbirth, the breakup rate was even higher, at about 40%. When dissecting these results, Healthline further notes that while trauma can bring some people together, experiencing such a level of pain and grief can complicate a marriage, create resentment, and distance couples who may have otherwise been attached at the hip. When experiencing such a profound loss, some spouses may choose to "isolate themselves" to process their grief, and others may throw themselves into work to try and distract and numb — whatever the case may be and however you react to it, going through trauma can seriously upend a marriage. Therapy, however, could help you and your spouse get through to the other side in one piece.

Having a spouse who is emotionally unavailable could land you in couples therapy

There is nothing more frustrating than trying to communicate with someone who is completely closed off. Trying to get through to a spouse who will not let you in can be life-altering and painful. If you find yourself constantly feeling as if your spouse is not hearing you, you should vet the idea of seeing a marriage counselor. Being emotionally unavailable in a marriage can manifest as one spouse simply not responding, avoiding confrontation or difficult conversations, and/or shying away from more meaningful connections (per While these tendencies can be helpful in some cases — as certain issues and people don't warrant a response — your spouse should not fall into this category.

There are a few reasons why you or your spouse are emotionally unavailable. Oftentimes, our sense of connection and stability stems from childhood, and if you or your spouse had a difficult upbringing and were not supported when sharing their feelings at an early age, they may not have the tools to be open and vulnerable. If there is a history of cheating, betrayal, or a breaking of trust between you and your spouse that hasn't been resolved, being emotionally unavailable can be a symptom of a bigger issue. If you or your spouse is experiencing extreme levels of stress — perhaps due to work or another external force — being emotionally closed off can happen. Therapy can help work through the problem.

Disagreements about finances could be mediated in therapy

A number of the topics we've discussed have been a bit fluid, like emotional availability and lifestyle choices — these are all a tad vague and vary from couple to couple. But one key element of a shared life with someone else that is guaranteed to come up is finances, and a lot of spouses struggle with finding common ground. Seeking a marriage counselor could help resolve financial disagreements before they become serious. And given the stats, we recommend seeking a professional sooner rather than later. Kansas State University researchers found that of all the disagreements that permeate a marriage, conflicting ideas about money were the number-one "predictor of divorce" (via USA Today). Unlike conflict about cleanliness or parenting styles that are more adaptable, disagreements about money "lasted longer, involved harsher language, and took longer for couples to recover from than arguments about other matters."

Yet another study from the University of California-San Diego found that of 5,300 couples — observed between 2004 and 2017 — conflict about money was once again the most commonly cited reason for divorce. Marta Serra-Garcia, the study's author, determined that financial conflict could be boiled down to "differences in risk attitudes."

"Risk attitudes determine investment decisions, such as housing for the family. If spouses have different risk preferences, they will often disagree on common and very important investments in the marriage," Serra-Garcia said.

If gender roles are concerning to you, counseling is a smart move

Falling in love, getting married, starting a family, buying a house, getting a pet — it all seems to follow a script. The nuclear family of the husband, wife, two kids, and a dog is a story that many of us are familiar with. However, with divorce rates skyrocketing, something about the movie-perfect screenplay is falling short. We can look to gender dynamics and the changing world of expectations and opportunity as a contributor.

According to Psychology Today, the above script plays into a rather dated idea of gender dynamics. The husband was the breadwinner, the wife stayed at home with the kids. Because women were largely seen as existing in the private world of the family rather than the public world of the workplace, they often sat quietly and put up with unhappy marriages that would've otherwise ended if they had financial independence, opportunity, and more. These dynamics are changing, and Psychology Today notes that if a couple is disagreeing over gendered roles, conflict will happen. Intervention needs to happen quickly.

"There are lots of reasons why marriages can fail today, and one has to do with how gender roles have changed. Historically, men typically 'wore the pants,' or at least that's what men believed," the article explains. The authors later write, "The reality is couples who hold onto traditional gender roles are not as satisfied with their marriages as those who accept more contemporary roles."

If your spouse has a substance abuse issue, therapy is one resource that should be utilized

When you and your spouse make a vow that you will be there for one another, it can seem like the most romantic gesture. When it comes to really getting through the hard times, however, romance is the last thing on the priority list. A dark time in a marriage can manifest as substance abuse issues, and if you are married to a person that is struggling with usage, therapy should absolutely be just one of the tools in your belt utilized.

As noted by American Addiction Centers, being in a relationship with an addict can "become a source of chaos, negativity, emotional upheaval, and even violence." Substance abuse can ultimately result in broken trust, weakened faith in the other person, parenting conflicts, child neglect, and more. Therapy, intervention, and trying to maintain a supportive position while also not enabling the addict in your life is a delicate balance, and professionals can help. Not only will they be able to assist the addict in your life, but they will also help you identify what behaviors and patterns may have enabled your spouse to carry on without much consequence. According to American Addiction Centers, enabling can look like allowing abuse, making excuses for the addict, and prioritizing the addict's needs over your own. Therapy can provide help.

Therapy is the first place to start if you or your spouse cheated

Perhaps one of the worst fears in a marriage or committed relationship is the idea of the affair. Cheating — whether it be physical or emotional or both — is a blow that can feel impossible to come back from, and many couples don't. If you or your partner do cheat, and the two of you still want to try to make your marriage work, therapy is absolutely crucial. Therapy is also crucial if you or your spouse cheats and you don't want to stay together. Therapy for all is the overarching theme.

As detailed by Andrea Bonior for Psychology Today, the default reaction a lot of spouses have to being cheated on is to get out, and get out quickly. But "having a less black-and-white perspective may be worth it in some situations," Bonior says. Seeking the help of a marriage counselor is the ideal way to identify and work through these gray areas.

"Whatever you do, make sure it is an autonomous choice, and that you are not being goaded into talking — or not talking — out of pressure," Bonior says. "Do you want to sit down and have a conversation about it once you are feeling calmer? Do you want to talk it over in a therapist's office?" These are crucial questions to ask yourself, and only you can answer them.