22 May Great Marriage Therapy: What It Is… And Isn’t

If you’re like most couples, realising that your relationship isn’t feeling as good as it used to, is pretty easy. Not so easy is finding really effective professional help so that you can turn your relationship around.

Which marriage counselling is best? You’ve got a massive decision to make at a difficult and stressful time. Knowing what great marriage therapy is… and isn’t, is crucial.

Maybe you’re arguing more, laughing less, and either avoiding discussing important stuff, or discussing it, only to end up fighting. You no longer feel heard. Or understood.

Maybe you’re using sex as the only thing that really brings you together, or not having sex at all. Maybe you’re starting to think about, (or already having), an affair.

You’re probably also wondering whether it was all a big mistake way back then when you thought you’d found the one person who could fulfil you forever.

If you’re feeling this way, chances are, your partner is too. Perhaps you’re both honest enough to admit it. If so, that’s a start.

Acknowledging that your relationship needs resuscitating is the first step, and it’s hard. It hurts.

Agreeing that your relationship or marriage needs help is one thing. But… what next?

Couple is still together thanks to the therapy

Finding a really good marriage therapist and investing your time, money, and energy into some relationship counselling that’s actually going to make a tangible difference is another thing altogether.

It’s a big shame that relationship and marriage therapy too often falls short for couples who finally decide to seek professional help, only to find it doesn’t work.

OK, even the best marriage therapists won’t be able to help all couples all the time. Successful therapy is determined by much more than the effectiveness of the therapist alone.

But why doesn’t marriage or relationship therapy often work?

Many relationship and marriage therapists work on the premise that therapy is about providing a safe and neutral space for clients to voice their unique experiences and concerns. They work at being compassionate witnesses who allow their clients to speak up, share, vent, complain, rage, or sob…

… Furthermore, many therapists think that great therapy is about prescribing clients with “feel-good” happily-ever-after suggestions involving warm baths filled with rose petals, babysitters and dinner dates, compliments and positive sentiments about love, communication, compromise, faith, and whatever else feels right for that particular counsellor to throw into the mix.

The problem with all of the above approaches is that, used alone, they usually won’t work.

Sure, it might help you both feel better: who doesn’t like being listened to and nurtured by an all-loving, compassionate, non-judgemental, warm and fuzzy person who has been professionally trained to build rapport with people and help them feel good?

But what many relationship and marriage therapists WON’T do is wake you up to your respective blind spots and to whatever self-defeating things you’re doing, NOR show you a way to do things better.

If your relationship needs help, the first thing you need to do is take this seriously enough that you get the very best professional help that you can find. Working with a therapist who is the right fit for you is crucial. Working with anything less is risking the one shot you’ve got at turning your relationship around.

Really effective marriage therapy is rare, but I’ve learned over my 24 years in the business what sets it apart from the everyday.

First up, it needs to be with a therapist you both trust and feel genuine rapport with. It doesn’t matter if you wouldn’t choose him or her as your best friend (you need a therapist, not a buddy), but you do need to feel comfortable. After that, here’s a few more things to look for in a relationship or marriage counsellor:

1. A therapist who is NOT always “neutral”

Whaaaat? Aren’t counsellors meant to listen to you and agree with everything you say?


You’ve got girlfriends, mothers, or mates who can do that, so you don’t need to pay a professional to do this too.

What you need is an objective eye from a relationship specialist with the training and experience to diagnose what’s going on, and by whom. You need a therapist who can give it to you straight.

Let’s face it, you’re not perfect (neither of you), so at times this will mean that your therapist will need to take sides. When done with respect and goodwill, this sort of honesty is crucial for couples who really want to turn things around.

2. A therapist who can cut to the chase and tell you what you’re doing wrong, then teach you how to do it better

Whaaaat? Aren’t counsellors meant to sit patiently whilst passing the tissues and laying on the platitudes, while you speak, whinge, point score, and cry?


Great relationship therapy is educational.

Yes, you will have space and time to be heard. But if you want true and lasting relationship change, you need (and deserve) new perspectives, skills, and prescriptive, practical advice.

A good therapist will give you both an understanding of the relational patterns that are making your relationship unhealthy, and equip you with the skills to change them into patterns that work.

3. A therapist who is “real”

Yep. Not a professional who sits behind a desk, behind a clipboard, or behind some fancy bells-and-whistles therapeutic model or approach, at the expense of really really being there “in the trenches” (as relationship therapist Terry Real says) with you.

Marriage and relationship therapy is not for the faint hearted.

Great marriage therapy is both the most painful and the most exhilarating thing you’ll ever do. You’ll need to leave your ego at the door. You’ll need to be ready to change. Might as well do this with a therapist who is personably accountable, available, transparent, and open-hearted.

Oh, and who can tell it to you straight when needed.

Pamela Pannifex is a psychotherapist, marriage therapist, naturopath and founder of Sunshine Holistic Counselling on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. For over 20 years she has been helping people create personal wellbeing and relationships that thrive. Contact Pamela here.