Marital Therapy: Does it Work? Hope for the Distressed Marriage

Posted on February 25, 2012


In my last two posts, I put forth data asserting that there are significant benefits to marriage and adverse impacts from divorce.  I also suggested that one should not expect to spend a lifetime in an unhappy marriage.  If marriage is beneficial, divorce is harmful, and no one wants to continue in a distressed relationship, it makes sense that there is a need for counseling that helps to improve marital satisfaction if it can be demonstrated to be effective.  This post attempts to answer the questions: Is there hope for the distressed marriage?  Can unhappy marriages actually improve?  The data would suggest that the answer is a resounding, “yes.”

In the early years of the mental health profession, there was little attention given to establishing empirically the effectiveness of psychotherapy.  Though much criticism has been leveled at managed health care, perhaps an inadvertent benefit has been to force more scientific examination of the effectiveness of mental health care.  Does it work?  What factors affect the outcome?

In the case of marital therapy, we are operating in the realm of love relationships: traditionally viewed as mysterious (and perhaps irrational).  Susan Johnson, the theorist who developed Emotionally Focused Therapy, observed that love is “an exquisitely logical survival system” which is understandable, predictable, explainable, and changeable (Woolley & Palmer-Olsen, 2010, p. 6).  The research would appear to support her position.  In studies of couples’ therapy, 70-73% of couples recovered from marital distress and 90% experienced significant improvement (Johnson et al., 2005, p. 4).  Two years after therapy, most couples had maintained gains or continued to improve.  Interestingly, these studies did not involve long term therapy, but comparatively brief therapy (10-12 sessions).

What are (and are not) the predictors of success in therapy?  The level of distress the couple is experiencing at the start of therapy is not a significant factor in predicting the success of therapy.  The #1 predictor of outcome is the quality of the relationship between the therapist and the clients.  In particular is the extent to which the couple perceives the tasks in therapy as relevant to them.  The best pre-therapy predictor is the wife’s belief that her husband still cares for her (Woolley, & Palmer-Olsen, 2010, p. 11).  Even greatly distressed couples can find healing in their relationship and create a safe haven for each other.  There is hope, and it is not unfounded.  In fact, it is well supported by the data.

Up next: Is professional pre-marital counseling worth the expense?


Johnson, S, Bradley, B., Furrow, J., Lee, A., Palmer, G, Tilley, D, & Woolley, S. (2005). Becoming an emotionally focused couple therapist. New York: Taylor & Francis Group.

Woolley, S., & Palmer-Olsen, L. (2010). Emotionally focused therapy externship.  Unpublished document.

“I work with individuals, couples, and families to help develop secure connections
and craft manageable solutions.”

More information is available on my website  I am also available for speaking engagements, seminars, and retreats

Scott Wood is a registered marriage and family therapist intern (IMF67385) and is supervised by Dr. Melinda Reinicke, Psychologist (Psy11011).