What is Marriage Counselling and How Does it Work?

What is Marriage Counselling

Facing an issue in your relationship? Not sure how marriage counselling can help? Do not worry, here is everything you need to know about marriage counselling. Explained by our relationship and counselling psychologist, who also offers free marriage counselling.

A couple came into my clinic and requested me to help their relationship. They were young, newly married and having adjustment issues and needed couple counselling.

Their brief history is they met at an office function (they are in different departments) and hit it off. They dated for 6 months and after some initial issues with parents, they got married.

Soon minor issues escalated, and disagreements became the norm. The disagreement was based on the financial area. This led to other areas (emotional, personal, social) being compromised. They did not seem to be able to resolve the issues. So, they sought counselling.

What is Marriage Counselling?

Marriage counselling is sought when a couple is unhappy over the way the relationship is going. Seeking help early in the marriage will go a long way to help the couple make their relationship healthy. Marital counselling is where a couple can spend undisturbed time to focus on their relationship. It gives a couple a roadmap to achieve the combined goal of a healthy and vibrant relationship.

Definition of Marriage:

“Marriage or wedlock is an institution in which interpersonal relationship (usually intitmate & sexual) is sanctioned with governmental, social, or religious recognition.”

This definition does not completely hold good now. In today’s world there are separated couples (not legally divorced), live in relationships, contract marriages, etc. However, marital relationship does have legal, religious, and social sanction.

That too in today’s social media, a marriage means photographs of various functions. It is a kaleidoscope of colours, revelry, food, decorations, themes, mehndi and more. Do youngsters get married to showcase on social media? I wonder! And television serials do showcase extravagant wedding ceremonies.

When a couple come together in marriage, it is expected these individuals will lead a happy life and be there for each other always. However, this seems to be an illusion now. More a mirage, and less a reality. Why is it so? What are the reasons the foundation of such an old institution is being eroded and becoming weak?

From a marital template point of view, a child growing up in a joint family is fortunate. He/ she gets to see relationship with different dynamics. A grandparental relationship where the grandfather is a law unto himself. The whole family must toe his line. Grandmother rules the kitchen; however she does not go against the ditkat of her husband.

The child gets to see his parental relationship where both respect each other and resolve their differences with open communication.

An aunt and uncle’s relationship could be an abusive one. A cousin’s marriage is totally different. Her husband is working overseas, and she is managing on her own.

A child observes all these dynamics and makes his/ her own template of relationship. The factors in that template could be communication, no abuse (or abuse is power), respect for each other, trust as in being there for each other even if they live apart (working overseas).

This scenario has changed to a large extent now. Mostly unit families are the norm. Due to professional reasons, or otherwise, families are living as single units. They do meet up for functions and festivals, however, basically children get to see only their parental relationship dynamics. So, children of today’s world do not have any schema/ template to fall back on.

The relationship dynamics have changed now. Earlier man was the provider, the woman was the nurturer. Then the lady of the house started to work outside of home, however, the decisions were taken by husband only.

Times changed to both being professionals, their workload increased and so time for each other diminished. Both could have different working hours, working to different time zones, being apart geographically, etc.

It is rare to see a young woman getting married before she is twenty. To become a professional and to have work experience before marriage, she is well into her twenties, before she feels ready for marriage. This also means some amount of independence. Increasingly, young men are turning to traditional roles. A prime recipe for friction.

In the Indian society, a marriage is between two families, not just the couple. There are many happy marriages that are run by either the boy or girl’s families. The couple in question have no say. This can lead to a lot of resentment between the couple.

What are the foundation stones needed for a healthy marriage?

  • Trust: How can this be built?
  • Respect: Is this important?
  • Intimacy: How can a couple build this?
  • Love: Is it possible to have unconditional love for one’s partner?
  • Communication: What is marital communication?
  • Abuse: This needs to be non-negotiable
  • Conflict: This is essential. However, how can this be resolved?
  • What are the roles and responsibilities?
  • Is one spouse superior to the other?
  • Privacy and space. How important are these?
  • Goals: What are marital goals?
  • And many more..

How marriage counselling helps young couples?

For a young couple who are not aware of how to handle these areas due to less or no exposure, marital counselling will help.

When youngsters are in love, they do talk a lot. However, major areas are not discussed. For instance, how to manage the financial area. Who pays for what? Who takes care of future investments, are there old debts/ loans to repay? Can the wife give her parents part of her salary? Is it mandatory every personal expense be informed to the spouse?

This was the area of disagreement with the couple that sought marital help. Traditional beliefs, modern thinking, the space to discuss this area without losing temper, was not there for the couple in their home. In the counselling room, discussions helped. The fact that a Counsellor was present, made a difference.

When emotions were running high, I intervened. With skillful questioning, probing, eliciting belief system of both, the couple could see the pitfall. Skillful maneuvering helped them arriving at acceptable options. Both had to give to be able to take. This is a crucial step in a marital relationship.

It is better to take marital counselling than involve the family. Relationships can be strained when families are involved. The dominant extended family member will advise which will be close to dictating. This does not help.

How To Start Marriage Counselling?

How to contact a marital counsellor? There are several listed on the internet and many other professionals like medical doctors have contacts with psychologists.

What happens during marriage counselling?

When you start a session with a counsellor, you need to come prepared with an open mind. A counsellor will take down the couple’s basic information like age, address, education, profession, etc. Also, a contract is signed by the couple, wherein the responsibility to change lies with them. Not the counsellor.

The couple need to be ready to share some details of their lives. Since the sessions are of one hour duration, the couple need to be prepared to share important details and not waste time with just blaming and ranting about each other.

After the initial session, a marital therapist will offer individual sessions to the couple. This allows the couple to talk freely and not omit certain details, for fear of hurting/fear of the spouse.

Thereafter joint sessions are scheduled. A marital therapist will also give homework for the couple. Sometimes a list of things to write down or read up on some material. These can be discussed, and clarity and insight sought.

How counselling helps and what is marriage therapy?

A marital therapist can use any therapy to counsel the couple. For instance, Cognitive Behavior Therapy to address unhelpful thoughts. This therapy will also help in cognitive restructuring; that is addressing the same issue with more information, so that thoughts are more useful.

Likewise, depending on the issue at hand, a therapist can use either one therapy or tools from different therapies. This latter style is called integrative therapy. Taking tools from different therapies that will help the couple to resolve their issues. Depending on the issue the couple come with, the therapist works out an action plan.

The number of sessions depends on the severity of the case. It can vary from 7-12 sessions. After the couple feel confident of working on their relationship, a break is taken. The couple return after a month for review.

There are instances where the couples have returned after a year or so with different issues. This then becomes a new case. Also, when the couple is satisfied with the services, they tend to refer their friends and family for sessions!

More and more young couples are seeking relationship counselling. Two generations earlier did not go for marital counselling. There were no issues then? Or psychologists were not available?

There used to be stigma attached to seeking counselling help. That does not seem to be the case now. Even senior citizens are open to counselling. That is a good trend; having someone who listens to you without judgment, can be a boon. Some seek counselling just to vent.

A marital relationship is so complex. It is not like any other relationship. A friend or colleague who irks you, can be removed from your life. Not a marital partner. Wanting separation can be messy.

With global exposure, many young people are confused what this relationship is all about. Is it only sex? Is it having someone to share your thoughts, feelings, and your home?

Entering a marital relationship can be risky. One does not know where or how this journey will be. Nothing is predictable. Days can be lovely, filled with romantic gestures. Or there can be arguments, abuse and/ or separation.

Having arguments or conflicts is healthy. A partner gets to see the perspective of the other. Conflicts should not escalate to ruining the relationship. So how can the couple ensure conflicts do not damage the relationship? Will involving friends help? Peers are mostly in the same boat as the couple. Will joint perspectives help? Media and agony aunts only add to the melting pot.

It is preferable if the couple go for pre-marital counselling. This can give them some information about such a complex relationship. They get to know how to build the pillars of the relationship, how to work on the areas, develop effective and healthy marital communication, and more. This counselling does not prevent divorce; however, the focus is on making a relationship healthy.

When two people are joined in matrimony, there are dreams and wishes. It is possible to make these dreams come true. The young couple need guidance and hand holding initially. Once the foundation of a healthy relationship is set, the couple can go forth and build a wonderful edifice for themselves.

No two marriages are the same. Your marital relationship need not resemble your friends’ or your parents’ relationship. There is no need for comparison. A celebrity couple’s marriage may look so romantic and endearing. That is what is visible from the outside. Who knows what the real scene is?

A couple can have expectations from each other. However, these need to be expressed. A couple had issues exactly in this area. The young lady was used to having her birthday celebrated in a certain fashion. She expected her husband to do the same as her parents did. He had no clue. So, on her birthday, he gave her gifts and took her out for a lovely dinner. (His idea of celebration). She was disappointed. He had no clue because.

This aspect of expectation was revealed in the session. What is not expressed, cannot be done. No person is a mind reader. This issue may sound silly. However, for the couple this was a read roadblock. Many of her expectations were not expressed. She expected him to just know because he had taken on the role of a husband!

During the lockdown, the incidents of domestic violence increased. It was extremely difficult for the victims to seek help or step out. This is one area of marital relationship that is terribly devastating. Sometimes violence can end in death also.

Victims of domestic violence are helped to empower themselves to stop abuse. These sessions can be heavy and take some time.

The most common areas of conflict is the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law friction. Apparently in China, the foremost reason for divorce is the incompatibility between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Here acceptance, compassion, respect, understanding, and space need to be built in the relationship. Basically, both the ladies are tugging for the love of one man, the husband for the wife and son for the mother-in-law.

The importance of marriage counselling

It is not just pre-marital counselling; a couple, in the initial years of marriage too can seek marital counselling. To make the relationship healthy. There will be glitches, ups and downs, resentments, feelings of misunderstood, feeling of no attention from spouse, feeling of neglect, etc. All these are part and parcel of relationships. How to handle them? Who needs to change? These questions become huge when the relationship is on shaky grounds.

A marital relationship is healthy when couple spends time with each other. This time can be just 15 minutes each day. However, busy the couple is, they need to carve out this time. A date of 2 hours at least, once a month is very beneficial. This leads to a lot of sharing, understanding each other’s perspectives, understanding the effects of outside influences, being friends first and foremost and developing intimacy.

A healthy marriage is a boon. It can be accomplished when the couple resolve to work on it in a committed fashion. They need to take responsibility for the relationship and willing to go the extra mile.

In case they are unable to do this on their own, they can seek marital counselling. It is not a guarantee for success; however, it does lead to a road map for the couple. It is for them to decide what to do with the map. Walk, run, deviate, plant flowering trees on the wayside, build oasis for rest, include a lake on the path and soak in it, have pets for company, and much, much more. OR…

About the Author

Rajani Nandakumar, Relationship and Counseling Psychologist


She is a Practicing Psychologist with over 15 years of experience. Rajani does workshops on conflict management, healthy relationship, work-life balance, stress/anger management and effective communication. She is the former President of Chennai Counselors’ Foundation. Currently she is the Secretary of the Indian Academy of Professional Supervisors.

She speaks Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam and English.

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