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

Marriage Counseling vs. Couples Therapy

Marriage counseling and couples therapy are two popular suggestions for couples going through a rough time. Although a lot of people take them as two very similar processes, they actually are quite different. Many of us tend to use marriage counseling and couples therapy interchangeably and there is a reason for this confusion.

Both marriage counseling and couples therapy are services offered to those who are dealing with stress in their relationship. During the process, you will be required to sit down as a couple and talk to an expert or a licensed professional who has formal academic training about marriage or relationships in general.  It may sound a little bit the same, but they are not. When you look up the words “counseling” and “therapy” in the dictionary, you will see that they fall under different definitions.

But let’s focus on this question: What really is the difference between marriage counseling and couple therapy?

Marriage counseling

Marriage Counseling helps couples handle the challenges of married life. The goal is to get the relationship back on track. It focuses on the ‘now’ and the issues faced by couples recurrently. Marriage counseling provides the opportunity for you to talk about your differences and compromises. More than anything else, what a counseling does is help the both of you address your problems for a stronger and happier relationship. It’s also about helping the couple master the art of communication. Counseling can help mend the trust or re-kindle the flame. It’s about helping the couple cope up with the different kinds of stress experienced in the relationship. Marriage counseling is usually a short-term focused treatment whereas therapies are a therapeutic process that can last several sessions. One could even say that therapy encompasses counseling and this overlap is the reason why they are confused as one for the other.   

Couples therapy

Therapy, on the other hand, will require you to tackle your issues from the root. That means going back to your previous fights and arguments to find out where it all started. What makes it unique from counseling is that it could go as far as addressing your individual, personal issues to understand the behavior you are showing in the relationship. It is more on finding out the why’s rather than the how’s. Therapy will answer the question “Why do we have these kinds of problems?” and make you realize what specific area of your relationship you should work on. For example, a couple going through some hard times because one of them is ridden with illness might need to seek therapy to know how to properly deal with the situation.

This does not mean that only couples with problems of this level are accepted to go through therapy. You can also meet with a couples therapist to sort out compatibility issues and seek advice from someone who knows the best. The problem is, there is a stigma attached to couples therapy. This stigma does not do any good. Instead of seeking solution, many couples tend to shy away from the treatment that they need. Instead of giving the relationship a chance to get better, many couples would decide not to go into therapy in fear of judgment from other people. For them, it is the last resort when it should be one of the primary options.

The role of a marriage counselor vs. couples therapist

In marriage counseling, the counselor’s task is to hear out the problems and facilitate the discussion between the couples. As a mediator, the counselor allows the couple to conduct an organized method of communication. The role of the counselor involves being kind of the referee – avoiding the couple from speaking in unison, yelling at each other, and manifesting any kind of aggressive behavior towards the other. With willingness and consent from both the parties, marriage counselors can help the couple make new relationship rules to lessen arguments. For example, if one of you has workaholic tendencies, the counselor could suggest not to bring work at home to focus on some family time. The counselor could also help you set some boundaries. For instance, if one of you tends to go over your partner’s phone without asking permission, the counselor is most likely to suggest that you respect each other’s privacy by putting on phone locks if the couple agrees to it. Marriage counselors can be part of these decisions but his/her power to work on your relationship still has certain limitations. A counselor is not able to treat mental illness even if it’s a big part of the problem in your relationship. Marriage counselors are experts but they are not licensed to diagnose or treat mental illnesses like therapists or psychiatrists do. As a matter of fact, a leader of your church can serve as your marriage counselor.

Meanwhile, couples therapists are licensed professionals who are able to touch on mental health issues affecting the relationship. They can talk about your experience with depression and how it affects your behavior towards your partner. However, they would still have to refer you to psychiatrists in case of a more serious finding. Therapists have a very organized process when dealing with their clients. The treatment basically consists of four steps. First, the therapist will try to establish a focus on a particular problem. It could be issues relating to sex, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, infidelity, or jealousy. The second step is for the therapist to intervene actively to find a way to treat the relationship. The third step is to lay down the objectives of the treatment. Finally, together you will find a solution with an expectation that a behavior must be changed for the good during the process.

Both marriage counseling and couples therapy deal with recognizing underlying relationship issues and resolving conflicts. They may not be exactly the same but both work for relationship improvement.