How to Find Marriage Counseling That Really Works—and Why You Shouldn’t Wait

Nearly half of all first marriages in the United States end in divorce, yet couples typically wait four to six years from the onset of problems before seeking professional help. That’s too bad, because numerous research studies have shown that marriage counseling can be effective at significantly improving relationship satisfaction and preventing divorce.

Why do couples wait so long to seek professional help? Many couples steer clear of marriage counseling because they are afraid it won’t work, or because they view it as admitting failure. In the meantime, they usually turn to the sources of support that are most conveniently at hand: friends, family, pastors, and so on.

But these sources of help usually fail to address the deeper issues in a troubled relationship. Worse, well-meaning friends can offer advice that actually causes more problems.

“No one sets out to destroy their relationship, but I cannot tell you the number of hours I have had to spend with couples cleaning up messes that were made from bad advice they had received,” Dr. Greg Popcak writes in his book How to Heal Your Marriage & Nurture Lasting Love. “Often, my clients will spend weeks undoing the problems caused by bad advice or poor support before we can even get to the original problem.”

When is it appropriate to lean on friends, family, and faith leaders for support, and when is it time to seek the help of a licensed marriage and family therapist? And how do you find a competent therapist—one who has training and experience in marriage counseling, and who is actually committed to helping you heal your marriage?

Dr. Popcak addresses all of these questions in chapter 11 of How to Heal Your Marriage, but we’ll summarize his advice below.


Family, Friends, Faith: The Limits of Common Marital Supports

Couples who encounter problems in their marriage often begin by seeking support from family and friends, and sometimes their pastor or another faith leader. Seeking emotional support and encouragement from family and friends can be a perfectly good first step, Dr. Popcak writes, when those people are able to provide informed peer support.

“The key words here are informed and peer,” he says. Peers are people who are on the same social level as you—not people who are emotionally or materially dependent on you. And an informed peer is someone who has demonstrated maturity, virtue, and good character. This is someone who is capable of lovingly challenging your outlook and assumptions rather than simply affirming everything you say.

While certain friends and family members can provide much-needed support, they are rarely a good source of practical advice for couples experiencing significant marital problems. That’s because friends and family are not usually in the best position to provide objective advice. Moreover, they usually lack the professional training and experience necessary to provide strategies that are research-tested and proven to work. Finally, Dr. Popcak says, in a culture where divorce is common, “most people intuitively know much more about what it takes to end a marriage than how to save it.”

What about your pastor? Your pastor may be able to offer you the spiritual support you need to tackle your marriage problems, but unless he has a professional degree in counseling, he is no more qualified to offer you marriage counseling than he is to treat your medical problems. That is not to say that you shouldn’t reach out to your pastor, but depending on the severity of your problems, most pastors will likely point you in the direction of marriage-friendly counseling.


Why Good Marriage Counseling Works

Human relationships, even between two people who love one another, are complicated, and the keys to a healthy relationship are not always obvious or intuitive. This is where a licensed marriage therapist can help. Drawing on decades of research, a competent marriage therapist can help couples learn the habits and practices that make for a happy, fulfilling relationship.

Dr. Popcak, for example, lists eight habits of happy couples:

  1. Regularly connecting through daily rituals of working, playing, praying, and talking together.
  2. Practicing emotional rapport and benevolence.
  3. Practicing emotional self-control, especially during times of stress and conflict.
  4. Practicing a “positive intention frame”—that is, assuming the best about your spouse even when they are at their worst.
  5. Taking care of one another as you work through conflicts.
  6. Practicing mutual respect, accountability, and boundaries.
  7. Learning from mistakes and learning to talk about “perpetual problems.”
  8. Finding good support for their marriage.

Couples who are struggling often think that the key is to solve the conflict between them. In fact, research shows that both happy and unhappy couples have about the same amount of conflict; the difference is that happy couples have the skills to handle those conflicts in ways that draw them together rather than pushing them apart.

A good marriage therapist serves as a sort of coach, helping couples learn these and other skills that will enable them to have a happy marriage. It is this long-term, expert guidance that makes marriage counseling so effective.

But how do you find a good marriage therapist?


Choosing a Competent, Marriage-Friendly Therapist

To find a good therapist, start by looking for someone whose training has prepared them to specialize in marriage counseling. Research by Gottman (2011) shows that therapists with specific training in marriage and family therapy have significantly higher success rates with marital therapy clients (over 90%) compared to general practice therapists (as low as 30%).

Ask about the potential therapist’s specific training and supervised experience in marital therapy. A qualified therapist should be able to describe their graduate coursework and practical experience in detail. If a therapist gives vague responses, they might not be the right fit.

Next, ask whether the therapist is marriage friendly. What is a “marriage-friendly” therapist? According to the National Registry of Marriage-Friendly Therapists, this is a therapist who believes it is preferable to help couples restore their marriage to health, if that is possible.

It might seem that most marriage and family therapists would hold this belief, but according to one national survey of 1,000 therapists, more than 60% said they are “neutral” on marriage versus divorce for their clients, according to the Registry.

For many Catholic couples, finding a therapist who understands and supports their faith tradition is also crucial. Research indicates that faithful Catholics prefer therapists with competencies in moral theology and other areas specific to their faith. Different faith traditions have unique perspectives on marriage, and working with a therapist unfamiliar with or unsupportive of these views can make counseling challenging.


The Path to a Happier Marriage

So, while many couples delay seeking professional help for their marriage because of fears or misperceptions about what it involves, the reality is that good marriage counseling is no different from the sort of help you would get from a coach, financial advisor, or a medical professional.

Throughout the Bible and two thousand years of tradition, the Christian faith acknowledges that good relationships don’t come naturally to us humans. We all need the help of God—and one another—to nurture happy, healthy relationships. Marriage counseling that respects clients’ faith and works from research-proven methods can provide the support couples need to fulfill God’s plan for their marriage.

For more advice about finding professional help for your marriage, see chapter 11 of How to Heal Your Marriage & Nurture Lasting Love by Dr. Greg Popcak. The National Registry of Marriage-Friendly Therapists can direct you to marriage-friendly therapists in your area. And you can always get tele-counseling marriage therapy from the many Catholic therapists right here at

Wedding Stress: Dealing with In-laws

By: Francine and Byron Pirola

family wedding

When you marry, you not only marry a person, you marry a family. And your fiancé gets more than just a new spouse, he/she gets another branch of the family — YOUR family!
This is how it has always been, but in recent decades, the reality of extended family has come to be seen as an intrusion into the private life of the couple. And a wedding is a peak time when tensions with extended family and in-laws are inflamed.

For many engaged couples, interference in the wedding plans by a domineering family member from either side, is a major source of stress and resentment. Power battles can erupt over any and every thing, causing deep wounds that may poison the relationship for life. At a time when everyone wants to be celebrating, such tensions can be a devastating killjoy.  The reasons for the tension can be many and are rarely the fault of only one party. Both sides are often guilty of insensitivity, ingratitude, judgementalism and selfishness.

Here are some tips on how you can navigate these trying times.

1. It’s (not really) Your Day

The idea that it’s your  day is a myth that’s fed by the ‘princess-day’ culture — that is, it’s all about the bride primarily and groom secondly.  The thing is; weddings are community events. Marriage is not really a private relationship — it’s a community sanctioned and supported institution because good marriages make stable families which produce well-adjusted children.  Moreover, couples in love generally want to share their joy with their friends and family. A major part of the desire to marry is to marshal the approval and support of those closest to us for our relationship. We want to not only celebrate our union; we want our friends and family to celebrate with us.

And this is great. It’s what makes weddings such wonderful occasions; two families and their friends coming together to celebrate the life-commitment of two of their own.
It’s a celebration of the joining of two families, not just two individuals.  Unless you’re prepared to elope and have a wedding with only your witnesses, you need to come to terms with the fact that it is  ‘your day’. If you want to have your family engaged and really participating with you in the celebration, you have to be willing to let them in. And, for your own sake, do it graciously and without resentment, otherwise you’ll only be punishing yourself.  So do some soul searching and think about what you really want. At the end of the day, most couples  want their families involved; you just have to come to terms with the reality that it will be a compromise.  And by the way, this is the stuff of married life — learning to let go of cherished assumptions and expectations to make way for your spouse’s (and your children’s) needs and desires. Learn to give a little now — otherwise you’ll be in for strife down the track.

2. Blood to Blood

Let’s face it. Sometimes the in-laws can be difficult and trying to find a way through seems impossible.   In cases where there is substantial tension, we recommend the “Blood to Blood” principle described by Bill Doherty and his daughter Elizabeth in “The First Dance”. It simply means, that if there’s going to be a difficult conversation with a particular family member along the lines of, “thanks for your offer, but we really feel very strongly about doing xyz differently”, it should be initiated by the fiancé who is related to them. That is, ‘Blood speaks to Blood’.

Why blood to blood?   Firstly, the relationship is stronger and is more capable of withstanding the likely upset. Family members learn to love each other despite faults and limitations over many years. We know each other well and can therefore read the body language and intuit the ‘real’ issues more easily. We also know the family sensitivities and are used to apologising and forgiving each other. So the difficult conversation is more likely to be effective in achieving what you want if the blood relative does the confronting.

In contrast, the relationship between your fiancé and your family is relatively new. Both sides are hoping that the other really likes them and so both are particularly sensitive to slights and disagreements. Deep wounds caused at this early stage of the relationship can have a long-lasting negative impact setting up your future spouse to feel unaccepted or judged as inferior by your parents and family. Resentments across the in-law relationship established at this time have a habit of lurking in the background for years to come. Your job is to do what you can to protect your fiancé from these potential wounds.

3. Keep a united front

Before you take an issue to your family, you need to be on the same page with your fiancé. If there is a disagreement between you on the wedding planning, this makes it difficult for you to clearly communicate what you want from your family. It also sets the scene for family members to take sides; a recipe for a stormy wedding day.  This is not always easy. Often, we struggle to verbalize what we feel or really desire. We may have strongly held opposing views to our fiancé or we may simply be uncertain of what the real issue is for us. This makes communication with our fiancé messy and conflicted.  Part of successful marriage is learning how to negotiate our differences. It’s a skill that isn’t instinctual — it has to be learned and is one of the key tools you will learn at a good marriage preparation course… so to get maximum benefit, enroll in a course sooner rather than later so that you can start applying the skills straight away.  Read more about SmartLoving  Couple Decision Making.

Making the Transition

Transitioning from being a single to a couple is trickier than it appears. There are new loyalties and priorities that need to be formed and appropriate boundaries put in place to protect the marriage. Previously intimate relationships often need to be reformulated; your best friend becomes your second best friend, your family of origin as your primary support network becomes secondary, your untethered freedoms and self-directed decisions submit to a new value of couple-focused decisions.  Often the transition process is complicated by misgivings and subconscious fears; are we really ready to surrender our cherished independence? Our ambivalent commitment to the process can cause misunderstanding and hurt between us. And in some cases, can derail the relationship completely.

Your engagement is meant to be a time of delight and anticipation. It’s also an important time for consolidating your relationship skills and setting in place habits that will support your growth as a couple over the coming years.  If the wedding plans are becoming so fraught with tension, it’s time to call a ‘time out’. Schedule a day to just be together, connecting with the person you love. Agree to  talk about the wedding or the problems for at least four hours. Focus on re-establishing a romantic connection and you’ll find that the issues are much easier to solve.

Credit to Francine and Byron Pirola at SmartLoving.

Thinking About Getting Engaged?

By: Francine and Byron Pirola

engagedment ring

So you’ve been dating for a while. How do you know if you’re ready for marriage? Here are some signs that will help you discern whether you are ready to commit to marriage.
Marriage Readiness Check List


1. Self-growth:  You help each other to be better people. You’ve grown and your partner has grown throughout your courtship.  Marriage is a ‘growing up’ institution — it’s a relationship that helps us to mature and change for the better. If you haven’t seen positive personal growth in yourself or your dating partner, it’s a warning sign: most marriages break down because one or both refuse to change. So a willingness to grow is fundamental.

2. Family:  your family approves of your choice and encourages your relationship. You have good relationships with your partner’s family.  We know that some families are dysfunctional and their objections to a choice of partner may not be grounded on good principles. However, most families are functional and they know and love their child/sibling/niece/nephew well. If every one in your family is shunning the relationship, there’s a good chance that they can see something that you can’t. So don’t be too hasty to dismiss family disapproval.

3. Friends:  You have maintained healthy friendships and your friends approve of the relationship and affirm that you are a better person because of your relationship.
One of the biggest dangers for dating couples is that they loose contact with friends in the intensity of the romance and end up committing to marriage, not because they are ready or a good match, but simply because to break up would leave them lonely and friendless. The absence of friends to meet your emotional needs is not a good enough reason to commit to marriage and will almost certainly back-fire down the road.

4. Attraction:  You enjoy a healthy attraction for each other and share a sexual energy.
The key word here is ‘healthy’; what we’re referring to is a balance. A relationship consumed by uncontrollable lust will not survive and will struggle to maintain sexual exclusivity. Equally so, a relationship where there is no sexual passion will also struggle, especially in our present sex-charged culture. Sex is a wonderful and important communication between a husband and wife and in healthy marriages there should be regular, enjoyable sex.

5. Sacrifice:  You and your partner are prepared to make sacrifices for each other and for the relationship, surrendering recreational hobbies, personal preferences and career opportunities if necessary.  All good things have a cost and it’s simply not possible to have it all. To establish a life-long marriage, both spouses need to be willing to prioritise the relationship and the family over their own interests.

6. Boundaries:  You both respect each other’s boundaries, whether they are moral, sexual, financial, physical or emotional.  Respecting boundaries is one of the key ways we honour and value our spouse. Every marriage partnership will have differences in their boundaries — both need to be prepared to abide by the other’s boundaries, otherwise resentment and wounds will accumulate in the relationship and undermine it.

7. Communication:  You talk regularly and deeply, sharing your inner thoughts, dreams, fears, feelings and needs. You’ve discussed your future goals and  religious beliefs and are open to exploring each other’s spirituality.  Newly in-love couples are often quite good at this… they talk for hours and are fascinated by each others ideas and feelings. We are not static entities; we grow and change everyday, so the need for deep communication is just as important for the relationship that is 10, 20 or 50 years old as for the 2 month one.

8. Trust:  You don’t withhold information from each other or keep secrets. You have disclosed your past mistakes and history. You are transparent about how you spend your money, with who you spend your time and what you do when apart.
Many a relationship has fallen apart because one or both failed to disclose important information. The sense of betrayal can be immense when we discover that our spouse has be keeping secrets or withholding information — it’s often worse than the actual secret itself.

9. Values:  you’ve talked about your values, the things that are really important to you, especially the marital values of fidelity, openness to children, exclusivity and permanence.
Marriage is a permanent and sexually exclusive relationship between a man and a woman — and for good reason… a sexual relationship is the gateway to conceiving children and when children are involved, the stakes are very high indeed. No longer is the relationship just about the two of you, it’s about the rights of your children to be raised in a loving home by both biological parents. Sexual exclusivity ensures that they are your biological children; permanence ensures that the relationship will last until they are grown up.

10. Addictions:  You have dealt with any addictions (drugs, alcohol, gambling, pornography, gaming etc) and are free to make a choice for love.  If you’re enslaved to an addiction of any kind, your spouse will always be second to the addiction. It’s a recipe for strife and marriages have a very difficult time surviving with an addiction. It’s a mistake to think that you will deal with it later, after the wedding. If you or your partner has any addiction, our advice: make it a priority to deal with it. Put the relationship on hold until it’s done.

Credit to Francine and Byron Pirola of SmartLoving.