What Is Couples and Family Therapy?

Mary McMahon

Couples and family therapy is therapy for people with issues related to relationship dynamics, like difficulty relating in a marriage or conflict between parents and children. Therapy can include group and individual sessions to identify and work through problems that may arise. The goal is to create stronger connections within the relationship and to develop tools to prevent conflict and address issues in the future. Practitioners in this field can be found in many communities in both group and solo practices. Some are attached to general counseling services.

Couples therapy can help people deal with issues being affectionate.
Couples therapy can help people deal with issues being affectionate.

Specialists in couples and family therapy act as generalists, and may handle clients with a wide variety of active mental health conditions as well as more basic issues that they want to work through. They can handle clients of all ages and place a heavy emphasis on looking at how relationship dynamics affect health and well being. They may also consider the ways that things like gender, race, disability status, and sexual orientation can potentially complicate relationship dynamics.

Family therapy can help with relationship problems between parents and their adult children.
Family therapy can help with relationship problems between parents and their adult children.

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Clients may be referred to a specialist in couples and family therapy by a general practitioner, mental health care provider, or other adviser. They can also seek counseling on their own if they feel it would be beneficial. Counselors may ask to meet with all members of a family at various points during therapy, in addition to having private sessions with individuals to discuss issues that may arise in group sessions.

Couples therapy may include individual therapy sessions with a psychologist.
Couples therapy may include individual therapy sessions with a psychologist.

While in couples and family therapy, people have a safe space in which to discuss things that are upsetting or frustrating them. This might include anything from behaviors like failing to do chores to stress at work that makes it difficult to be involved at home. The therapist can help parties discuss issues and may mediate as a neutral observer to help family members and partners reach resolutions on issues. The approach to couples and family therapy can be highly variable, and may integrate aspects of various schools of psychology and human relations.

Couples therapy provides a safe place for people to discuss things that are frustrating or upsetting them.
Couples therapy provides a safe place for people to discuss things that are frustrating or upsetting them.

A person who wants to become a practitioner in couples and family therapy will need to complete a master's program in this subject and may need to take an examination to get a formal license. There can be continuing education requirements for practitioners in this field. Many belong to professional organizations to keep up with developments and establish professional connections. These organizations can also help therapists connect with clients through referrals and public listings of licensed member therapists.

Couples counseling can help partners communicate more openly and honestly.
Couples counseling can help partners communicate more openly and honestly.
Therapy may be faith based.
Therapy may be faith based.
A couples therapist may provide therapy to couples who are not having difficulties at all.
A couples therapist may provide therapy to couples who are not having difficulties at all.
Couples therapy may help couples work out their relationship problems.
Couples therapy may help couples work out their relationship problems.

Discussion Comments

golf07

I am not a licensed counselor, but have a degree in counseling psychology. So many times I have seen marriage and family therapy really help couples and families.

Too many times when there are problems, they look to advice from friends or other family members, and this is usually not the best place to get advice.

I think it is important for people to meet with someone who can look at the situation from an objective point of view. When you are involved with the situation or have emotional attachments, it is much harder to see things in a clear manner.

It also helps to hear other family members point of view in a situation that is not judging or intimidating.

Mykol

My daughter and son in law were really struggling in their marriage. They had a few major issues, but many of their problems were small things that became big problems because they kept putting off dealing with them.

At first he was not willing to get any counseling and said he didn't need it. Eventually my daughter left for a few months, and then they finally started to talk about things.

He agreed to get some marriage counseling therapy and they began the long process of working through their problems. It was not an easy or quick fix, but I would say that counseling saved their marriage.

Even after they got back together, they continued to see the counselor once a month to keep on track. It is so encouraging to see them together and happy.

sunshined

When my husband and I got married, this was a second marriage for both of us. We were bringing 4 kids in to this marriage and would be a blended family.

We knew this would not be easy for everyone, but had no idea how it would affect some of the kids. We wanted to address the problems before they got out of hand, so scheduled some family counseling.

None of the kids were looking forward to this, but reluctantly came. Once they were there and became familiar with the counselor, I think they were surprised at how non-threatening it was.

Everyone had a chance to voice their feelings and overall it was a very beneficial thing for our family. I would encourage any family that is struggling to try some counseling before problems get worse or you give up altogether.

animegal

My parents made me go to family therapy sessions while they were considering a divorce. For my brother and I it was really eye-opening to be able to talk to our parents frankly and have them speak to us on the same level. I am pretty sure we both felt that the counselor made sure that no one was blaming other people and that everyone had their say.

In a lot of way I think that really good counselors are more like mediators when it comes to dealing with groups of people, especially family members. It is too often that parents don't listen to their kids when big problems happen. A counselor can really make all the difference in a tough situation.

wander

Couples counseling is a fantastic idea if you are struggling to talk with your partner about an issue that you aren't making any headway with, or an issue that makes you uncomfortable. Trained counselors can be incredibly well-informed and are able to give you thoughtful guidance.

One of the most important things to do though is to make sure you meet with your couples counselor for a trial session. Make sure both of you agree with the choice of counselor. While most counselors are trained to handle a vast variety of situations there are always those that specialize too. A good example of this is a counselor that works with mostly family planning.

backdraft

@nextcorrea - That sounds great but unfortunately I had the opposite thing happen to me in couple's therapy. I put a significant amount of blame on the couple's therapist that me and my husband went to for causing our divorce. Well, that's being to mean, I think that couple's therapy in general lead to our divorce. The therapist herself was not all to blame.

We had problems going in, but once we sat on that couch together and really started being honest with each other a lot of new stuff came out, stuff that was very mean and hard to hear. It made our marriage seem like a house of cards and then it went and opened a window. Our therapist tried mightily to get us to work through the pain but too much had been said and done. We couldn't be together anymore. I guess I can't blame couples therapy for getting me out of a fake marriage but the wound is still fresh.

nextcorrea

My husband and I spent about a year in couple's therapy. I will spare you all the gory details and skip straight to the happy ending. Our relationship got a lot stronger because of the time we spent in therapy and we probably avoided a divorce. And it is not just me saying this either. My husband is now a huge believer in couple's therapy as well.

It was just nice to have a safe and supportive space to get things off your chest and have an objective moderator that is able to react to them. You always expect that once your married you will be able to lie in bed and tell your partner anything and everything, but there was a lot that came out only once we got to therapy. I was not easy and there were a lot of tears but we are a better couple now than we have ever been before.

KoiwiGal

@umbra21 - You're right, sometimes it is better if the people involved in the therapy session have individual counseling as well.

But I think that sometimes it's not needed. Sometimes people just have difficulty relating to each other, and need a little bit of help developing the tools they need in order to do that.

It's not actually about their personal issues, it's only about what exists between them.

But it sounds like you might have had a group therapy session that was surrounding a single person, and in that case, I'll say individual counseling can definitely help.

umbra21

I think this kind of therapy can be very useful, but I don't think it should be used as a substitute for one on one therapy. If someone is troubled, without working on their own issues they might find it difficult to address the issues that spring up between them and the people in their life.

I know that I have been in some family therapy counseling sessions which seemed to do more harm than good, because people weren't at a place where they could really express what they wanted. At least, without hurting everyone with how they said it.

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