Marriage Counseling Success

Many people are hoping for marriage counseling success. With the divorce rate hovering around 50%, who could blame them. Success in counseling relies on many factors, as has been detailed in numerous scholarly articles.

As far back as 1979, E. S. Bordin(1) described what he termed the “therapeutic alliance” as a key element to counseling success.

Steven M Cohn, PhD, LMFT
The Portland Couples Counseling Center
1940 NE Broadway
Portland, Oregon  97232

The therapeutic alliance is made up of three essential factors:

1. A commitment to exploring problems

2. The establishment of a mutual trust between therapist and client

3. The identification of a realistic goal of curing or at least ameliorating the symptoms

Although Bordin looked specifically at individual counseling, his research was followed up in 2008, looking at the applicability of the same concept to family and marriage counseling. Success in these fields was also found to be related to the therapeutic alliance.(2)

Another important concept in marriage counseling success is that of properly preparing for success before the wedding. Noting that “failing to prepare means preparing to fail,” sociology student Ashleigh Leeds points out that premarital counseling provides a way for couples to proactively work on communication skills and to strengthen the relationship before the marriage takes place.(3)

There is no doubt that marriage counseling success only results from hard work, but toward what should this effort be directed? In their book, Marriage at Midlife: Counseling Strategies and Analytical Tools, authors Waldron and Kelley mention three re-coupling skills which must be mastered during counseling.(4) Re-coupling is defined as the conscious effort to deepen and strengthen the marriage.

First, they point out, communication skills must be strengthened because they are essential for so many different tasks. In any marriage, especially one undertaken at mid-life, tensions must be managed, roles must be negotiated, disputes must be resolved, intimacy must be renewed, and changing circumstances must be addressed. Good communication skills are required for all of these tasks.

Next, Waldron and Kelley point to the importance of forgiving past transgressions. Few things are more detrimental to a marriage than bringing every past sin into the context of each and every new argument the couple has. It is far healthier to fully deal with each problem as it comes up, then consider that problem resolved, rather than storing it up and letting it fester as ammunition for future arguments.

The third piece of the re-coupling equation is developing new and meaningful shared activities. Couples who are trying to achieve marriage counseling success must work to find ways to spend time enjoying each other’s company by engaging in activities of interest to both of them.

Dr. Noah H. Kersey, a licensed psychologist and owner of the Interpersonal Training Institute in Indianapolis notes that there are four key steps to marriage counseling success These steps include the willingness to work hard, the motivation to make needed changes, the commitment to continue working even though immediate progress might not be evident, and faith that they are capable of success.

Although each of these researchers points to different elements of marriage counseling success, there are two over-arching themes. Communication is perhaps the biggest, as it is integral to all of the remaining tasks. Commitment is the second theme. Counseling requires that both partners feel an obligation to restore the marriage.


(1)Bordin, E. S. (1979). The generalizability of the psychoanalytic concept of the working alliance. Psychotherapy: Theory,Research and Practice, 16, 252-260.

(2)Mahaffey, BA and Lewis, MS (2008). Therapeutic alliance directions in marriage, couple, and family counseling. In G.R. Walz, J.C. Bleuer, and R.K. Yep (Eds.), Compelling Counseling Interventions: Celebrating VISTAS’ Fifth Anniversary (p.59 – 69). Ann Arbor, MI: Counseling Outfitters.

(3)Leeds, Ashleigh. Premarital Counseling and Its Grave Impact Upon Marriages. Retrieved March 13, 2011 from

(4)Waldron, VR and Kelley, DL. (2009) Marriage at Midlife: Counseling Strategies and Analytical Tools. Springer Publishing Company. ISBN 9780826125620.

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