How Long Should Marriage Counseling Take?

Next to “What does it cost?” and “Does it work?” one of the top considerations of marriage counseling in many people’s mind is, “How long will it take?”

This is a natural question. After all, even if the outcome of therapy is positive and fulfilling, the process can be anywhere from awkward or expensive to downright emotionally painful. Therapy forces individuals outside their comfort zones. Clients may be encouraged to address difficult pasts or confront treasured – but destructive – habits.

“The idea of counseling is often pretty frightening to people, and the idea of doing those sessions with another person can be downright terrifying,” according to Thorin Klosowski in a blog on LifeHacker.com.

Marriage Counseling: Does it WorkIn all cases, the whole point of marriage counseling is changing communication patterns, reactions, expectations, habits or outlooks. Many people are averse to change so the prospect of marriage therapy can be uncomfortable. There have been countless studies showing that humans are better able to tolerate discomfort when we know there’s an end point and when at least some of the remedy is within our control.

So, it’s not only for the sake of our over-filled 21st century calendars and constrained budgets that we ask the question, “How Long Should Marriage Counseling Take?”

The following Yoda-like riddle answer is the only one that fits all situations: It will take as long as you are willing to give it.

It’s impossible for an outsider to assess all the factors and give you an accurate estimate before beginning. There are so many individual factors in any marriage-counseling scenario: the length of the marriage and entrenchment of the marital troubles; the presence of mental illness or addiction; levels of motivation, trust and effort; goals; competency of the provider; finances; and dozens of other factors. Without a personal assessment of all these factors, a therapist can’t be expected to give a concrete time estimate.

Of these factors, the one that is most within the clients’ control is motivation. The cliché goes, “You get out of it what you put into it.” This is true of couples’ therapy. The therapist is a motivator, coach, teacher, moderator and referee. He or she can give advice and get spouses talking and thinking constructively, but the real work of repairing the marriage is up to the couple themselves. Couples that do their homework and show effort, motivation and initiative, naturally see change more quickly. “Its important to remember that the marriage counselor is not going to solve the problems in your relationship. Just showing up for sessions is not going to move the needle,” according to the GrowingSelf marriage counseling blog.

Commitment to consistency is another helpful factor. The Growing Self blog compares progress in therapy to getting in shape at a gym. Each session builds on the last. Sporadic attendance means more valuable session-time spent rehashing.

It will take a session or two for the therapist to become familiar with your dedication to the process. It will also take some time for the therapist to get to the bottom of some issues. It’s a bit like when you take a car into the body shop after an accident and you’re given a repair “range.” It’s not until they start peeling back the exterior that they can see the full-extent of the damage underneath. And so it goes with therapy.

Besides the individual factors of therapy, for even the most honest and well-meaning counselor, it’s not in their best interests to guarantee a time-frame before starting. In other words, as Kelli B. Grant writes in the Market Watch article, “10 Things Your Marriage Counselor Won’t Say,” “I’ll keep seeing you as long as you keep showing up,”

With this in mind, be wary of the therapist that offers a finite treatment period before even meeting. He or she may be appealing to our human nature to define an end-point. Although it may be realistic for some situations, for most others, it’s probably bait-and-switch. He or she may be trying to get couples in the door, knowing that once they begin therapy, they’re not going to quit just because the arbitrary deadline arrives.

Exceptions would be programs such as Discernment Counseling. “The discernment counselor helps individuals and couples decide whether to try to restore their marriage to health, move towards divorce, or take a time out and decide later,” according to the University of Minnesota website, “Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project.” The University of Minnesota webpage describes the discernment counseling process as involving “a maximum of five counseling sessions. The first session is usually 2 hours, and subsequent sessions are 1.5 to 2 hours.” In this case the five-session maximum is not the time frame for fixing the marital problems, but rather an assessment period for deciding whether or not to proceed with efforts to fix the relationship.

Another program with a defined time-period is the 8-20-session Emotionally-Focused Therapy series. In this case, the system teaches couples to improve communications and restore respect so that they can continue on solving their problems either independently or with the aid of a counselor.

Aside from specific programs, it is up to the couple to determine how long the therapy lasts.

After a reasonable getting-to-know-you period, ask the counselor, “How long will this take?” He or she shouldn’t be offended to hear the question. It’s a reasonable one. The answer may be rather broad but just as with comps in the real estate market, an experienced therapist should be able to provide you information based on prior progress of other “comparable” couples’ issues and results.

Armed with a broad estimate, it is now within your power as a couple to decide if that time-frame is reasonable within the constraints of your schedules, finances and motivation. It’s a tough line to draw in the sand. Most people would probably like to say that nothing has higher priority than their family relationships and they would do anything to preserve them. But being honest. It’s better to establish limits up front.

marriage counseling recheckWith this in mind, set a reasonable “recheck” time. Put it on the calendar for motivation. If possible, make it a positive goal by scheduling a romantic get-away. Having a fun (if arbitrary) end-point to focus on will make all the hard work of marriage-improvement more bearable. Then when the date comes, size up your marriage and see if you’ve achieved the goals you set. Aaron Anderson’s blog, “When Should I Stop Marriage Counseling?” outlines four key signs of successful couples’ therapy.

  • Consistency – “Before terminating marriage counseling, couples should have a solid 4-5 weeks of getting along together.”
  • Enrichment – Getting to a point beyond endurance and tolerance where the marriage is positive, fun and passionate
  • Letting go – Former damages are healed and resentment is abandoned
  • Renewal – Once past relationship weaknesses are addressed, couples feel hopeful and confident about the future together.

Only the couple themselves can determine whether to declare success, continue on the same path or call it quits. Whatever is decided, both parties can agree that they gave it their best effort.

Sources:
LifeHacker.com, “What to Expect from Couples Therapy,” Thorin Klosowski, June 10, 2013. http://lifehacker.com/what-to-expect-from-couples-therapy-512019720

University of Minnesota, “Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project.” http://www.cehd.umn.edu/fsos/projects/mcb/couples.asp