Marriage counseling is different from other kinds of counseling and not all counselors are well trained or effective in it. People often feel that they are going to the counselor to “tell on” the other person. They expect the counselor to listen while they list their complaints about their partner, often going back many years. If you are one on one with a counselor, then she may be willing to listen to what you want to say, and you are free to talk about what ever subject you desire. However, can you imagine what it must feel like to have your partner share all your mistakes and his/her perceived slights from the first day you met? This only fuels the fire of anger and discontent.
Your counselor doesn’t need to know the details of each-and-every fight. She is more interested in how you two interact with each other – the dance. What music are you playing, how are you dancing together and how are you stepping on each other’s toes. A skilled marriage counselor will interrupt the fight (at least I do: you can fight for free at home) and use the time to help change the “dance.” Are you looking away from each other and talking into space, or worse yet, yelling? Are your arms crossed, your facial expression angry, or do you roll your eyes when your partner talks? Disrespect is damaging to a relationship, and that starts with body language as well as verbal language. Certain words work well in communication while others stoke the angry fire. Once you learn how to change your body and verbal language, and learn some basic listening skills, then the problems start to resolve themselves automatically.
Problems that require individual counseling include any kind of power and control or physical violence (including punching walls and shoving), substance abuse or chronic cheating and lying, or emotional problems such as severe depression or anxiety. When these problems exist, I separate the couple and work individually to resolve the problem prior to marriage counseling. It’s not unusual for me to have the man see a male counselor and I see the woman. This seems to work well and has saved many marriages. So, my answer to the question: Is marriage counseling effective, yes with the right counselor and with motivation from both parties to make it work. The last part – “motivation to make it work,” is the biggest indicator if marriage counseling will work for you.