Marriage Counseling? Couples Counseling? What’s what and who’s it for?

Hello Alexandria, Virginia and surrounding Northern Virginia residents!  In today’s blog post I want to ensure you know the in’s and out’s of marriage counseling, couples counseling, and relationship counseling…and who these therapies are for?  Leave comments below with your thoughts.

2 terms, what is the difference? and, how does it apply to me?

There are 2 terms I throw around interchangeably: marriage counseling and couples counseling. Marriage counseling historically refers to the counseling specifically for those who are married. Couples counseling has been used to reach a wider scope of couples to include dating, pre-marital, same-sex couples, etc.…And there’s actually another term, I actually like it the best, relationship counseling.  Semantically there are differences between these terms; however when it comes to providing therapy for significant relationships they are treated equally, no matter what you call it!

As a therapist inclined to use Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) I approach all couples the same; married or not. So, if you come to me for counseling regarding a significant relationship it won’t make a difference how you title your relationship; the work I do addresses the same core concerns.

So, now that is out of the way, does your relationship warrant counseling?

So who is marriage counseling / couples counseling for? In another blog I’ll be writing specifically about the use of couples counseling as “marriage maintenance” where I’ll be suggesting it’s for ANYONE! In the sense of preventative maintenance I truly do believe all couples can benefit from EFT; you’ll either discover you are doing just fine – keep it up! Or, you’ll discover, ‘here are some new awesome ways we can be together that will really enhance our relationship – what’s there to lose!’ (…And, I’ll address the fear of attending couples counseling in another blog, oh so much to write)!

Couples Counseling Alexandria VA

Bad Relationship Habits Erode on Marriages

But more often than not, couples do not come in for general relationship maintenance (unfortunately!). Generally couples seek counseling because something in their relationship has gone wildly askew. There is a wide range of experiences, but here are a few that often land in my office:

Marriage counseling / couples counseling is for those couples who want to stop bad relationship habits. Perhaps over time you’ve found you and your partner have begun harmful cycles of disrespect, yelling, arguing, nit-picking the mundane. It’s also common for relationships to swing the other way in terms of more distance, silence, less contact and intimacy.  Perhaps you have a general feeling of discontent and dissatisfaction. It’s not uncommon to think, ‘did I marry the right person?’ ‘Is this going to last for the long haul?’

Marriage counseling / couples counseling is for those who’ve had a relationship injury. What’s that? A relationship injury is a significant event that has left a lasting impact on one or both partners. It could be the unavailability of one partner to the other during a key moment in life.   It could have been an affair of any sort. It’s that time when you said to yourself “I’ll never trust him/her again” or “I’ll never go to him/her in a time of need again.” The raw emotion you may experience following a relationship injury may include betrayal, fear of trusting, abandonment, rejection, self-doubt, shame, or embarrassment. And, these feelings can bubble up for years after the injury – time doesn’t necessarily heal.

Marriage counseling / couples counseling is for those who are on the brink of separation. Sometimes couples don’t know what direction to take their relationship. Often at this point divorce or break up has either been spoken of or sometimes it has already begun. While this is not the ideal time to be seeking help (it’s much more beneficial to seek help earlier when you first started noticing problems) it’s definitely not too late! Depending on each partners’ position reconciliation can be discussed or determining how to separate amiably can be a goal.

Marriage counseling / couples counseling is for those who find themselves in dark hours together. It could be the loss of a child or the loss of a parent. It could be a transition in life that is unexpected or overwhelming. During these key moments in life a lot of stress and strain can come upon couples. For those couples who want to ensure they are there for each other and enduring a difficult time as best as possible – with the support of one another – couples counseling can be very helpful. The couple’s counselor can enhance your ability to maintain openness and support for each other while grieving or enduring the difficulties life often brings upon us.

No matter how big or small you think your relationship concern is if it matters to you, then it matters!

Counseling for Couples

True connection is a reality for those that prioritize their relationship

In the above examples couples have lost their connection to one another. They’ve begun to operate on their own instead of within the fluidity of an interdependent relationship. When couples want to improve their relationship through couples counseling or marriage counseling it is all about re-establishing connection to one another.

You may ask, is marriage or couples counseling NOT for some people?

Sure, let me think hard about some exceptions to the rule that counseling is for everyone!

Marriage counseling will not work well for those who do not believe in it nor those who flat out do not want to try it. However, I will say, if there’s even an inkling of openness to counseling please try it. People often find that once they meet the counselor and see how counseling works their fears fall aside and they rather quickly find the benefit in speaking with a professional helper.

Couples counseling is not necessarily helpful for those who have significant ongoing recurring relationship injuries. For example, those in abusive relationships or where there is a lack of safety or security in the relationship because of drug or alcohol use there are other types of counseling that may take initial priority before couples counseling can be as helpful. In Emotionally Focused Couples therapy a basic sense of security is required for couples to begin to open up and feel safe to disclose their thoughts, concerns, and feelings. So the answer here is not no, it’s more of a ‘first lets get this other part nailed down with another form of counseling/treatment and then address the relationship.’

Responsible couples therapists will key into each partners needs and longings. The therapist will be able to assess for safety and security within the therapy setting and at home. With this information the therapist as well as you and your partner will be able to determine how counseling will best work for you and if other recommendations or referrals need to be made. And, a good couples therapist knows that not all relationships are cut out for the same end result.

If you have more questions or thoughts on this topic please contact me via the contact form or email at

About Heather Smith, LPC

Heather Smith, LPC offers marriage counseling and couples counseling, as well as treatment for Trauma, Depression, and Anxiety in Alexandria, VA. Heather’s passion for counseling comes out in her avid pursuit of continuing education and specialty training. Heather actively trains in the model of Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples (EFT) and has substantial specialized training in psychological trauma to include completing her Certificate in Level 1 Trauma Training from the Institute for Advanced Psychotherapy Training and Education.