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Alternatives to Marriage Counseling

5 Ways to Tell if You’re Getting Help That’s Actually Helpful

By the time I was trying to find marriage counselors, things were pretty bad at our house.

I wasn’t looking for suggestions on how to improve a good thing; I was looking for ways to hold the marriage together before it self-destructed.

I remember knowing that we just couldn’t figure it out ourselves really helped me to be brave about deciding to go. It was more desperation than courage, actually.

Of course, marriage counseling didn’t turn out to be helpful for us, and since a study at UCLA showed that 75% of couples who got traditional behavioral marriage counseling were separated within a year, it probably hasn’t been the answer for you, either.

So it makes sense to look for an alternative.

Here are 5 litmus tests to see if the marriage help you’re getting will actually help:

1. Does Your Mentor Have What You Want?

Of course, you don’t want a personal trainer who’s a couch potato. You don’t want a financial planner with a mountain of credit card debt.

The most important qualification for someone who is going to help you with your marriage is that she has the kind of relationship you want.

If you found a counselor who would share openly about her marriage, and the struggles she’s had and how she overcame them, that would really be a stand-out counselor.

Unfortunately, most marriage counselors won’t get into that because, they’ll tell you, counseling is about you–not them.

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Certificates on the wall mean they know theories and have learned things in classrooms–just like the flabby trainer and the broke financial planner did.

That’s not going to do you much good, in my experience. It could even make things worse.

Therefore, here’s my best marriage-counseling tip: consider relationship coaching instead.

You might be wondering, what’s the difference between marriage counseling and relationship coaching?

Glad you asked! I happen to have this handy chart:

Marriage Counseling Relationship Coaching
Assumes there is something wrong with you that needs to be fixed or medicated Assumes you want to become proficient in intimacy
Focuses on the problem Focuses on the solution
Provided by someone who has achieved academic (theoretical) mastery Provided by someone who has had a personal transformation and enjoys the benefits of having the desired skills
Explores past hurts Provides specific actions for the present and future
Based on models developed in the nineteenth century Based on the latest advancements from this millennium
Promotes blaming the other person or parents


Promotes personal accountability
Invites you to say hurtful things in front of your husband and a stranger Promotes emotional safety and respect
Talk-oriented Action-oriented

I’ve had the honor of hearing a lot of happy stories from women who have benefitted from relationship coaching. That’s why I consider it such a great alternative to marriage counseling.

2. Is She Helping You Work on You or on Your Relationship?

There’s actually no such thing as working on a relationship.

There’s only working on yourself, and then the other person responds to you in a much better way.
That’s one reason couples counseling is so unproductive. You could be there just waiting for the other person to finally shape up, like I was when my husband and I went to marriage counseling.

It’s tempting and human to want to blame the other person and to point out all the ways that they could improve, but it won’t get you the connection you’re wanting. Ever.

The blame train doesn’t go to happily-ever-after land.

Focusing on the things you’d like to improve about yourself–like being more respectful, laughing instead of snapping or yelling, smiling more, and expecting the best from your spouse and choosing your faith instead of your fear, for example–will get you a tender response and restore the passion a lot faster.

What’s going to make your relationship feel a lot easier is learning the right skills, not waiting for someone else to change or telling them what they need to change.

I already did that, so let’s not both make that mistake.

Life got significantly better when I started focusing on my small corner of the world instead of looking at all that I thought my husband should do differently.

3. Will She Sit on the Same Side of the Table as You?

In order to improve your relationship, things have to change.

If you want things to improve, that means you want to change so things can get better.

What helps nurture change, which can be uncomfortable, is emotional safety.

Knowing you won’t be kicked out of the tribe, shamed or ridiculed is a critical part of being able to make the changes that make your marriage magical again.

You need room to try new approaches and phrases, even though you may feel awkward or foolish at times while you’re trying to learn the new steps.

The way to get that safety is to get help from someone who has also made mistakes and is willing to tell you about the time she tried to tell her husband how to install a dryer hose and ended up flinging a copy of The Five Love Languages at him, for instance.

If you’re going to tell someone embarrassing stories, knowing some of hers too is going to make you feel safer, and therefore braver. And fortune favors the brave.

Having someone who is willing to share her experiences with you–someone who sits on the same side of the table as you and therefore won’t be judging, laughing at or correcting you–can help you make those changes so much faster.

Hearing that your mentor was once ready to divorce her husband, but that he just took her on a romantic getaway weekend to the beach is also proof positive–not just a theory–that your marriage could really get better, too.

Especially if she kinda reminds you of you.

4. Does She Trust You to Make Your Own Choices?

When I hear from a client who tells me she ended her marriage because a marriage counselor authoritatively told her she should because it was obvious that her marriage was over, it always breaks my heart.

I hear about that happening way too much.

You are the expert on your own life, and nobody knows better what you should do than you.

Does that mean you’ll make mistakes? Of course you will. But those are your mistakes to make. You’ll get a lot of things right too, because you know your situation best.

That means that no expert knows what’s best for you–only you know that.

Of course, you will still be open to suggestions, willing to experiment, do exercises and learn new skills.
But you get to decide when to apply those skills and do those experiments. And a good relationship coach is not going to insist that you to take a certain course of action because she thinks it would be best for you.
She knows better.

It wouldn’t work anyway because of human nature, which is that nobody likes to be told what to do. We’re an autonomy-loving species, and most of us will go way out of our way to NOT do something if someone else says we should.

A good relationship coach is happy to be your guide, remind you of your commitment, share her experience, bring encouragement and inspiration, and ask powerful, perspective-changing questions.

She will be your mirror. She will acknowledge and celebrate your progress.

But she recognizes that she knows only a little about you, and she trusts you to find your own way without her telling you what to do.

5. Does She Know The 6 Intimacy Skills?

I used to think my relationship problems were based on deep childhood issues that I couldn’t quite sort out.

And, of course, that my husband was a loser-face.

But it turns out that I just didn’t have the training I needed.

I hadn’t learned the skills that contribute to intimacy.

Now that I know those skills, my marriage and all my other relationships seem so easy, pleasant and gratifying.

It really blew my mind.

So I can’t understand why the 6 Intimacy Skills aren’t taught in every school. After all, we are all going to have relationships. Isn’t that pretty critical to having a good life?

Just learning those skills is such a fantastic alternative to couples counseling.

Having a relationship coach who can help you learn and apply them is a huge shortcut to getting the playfulness and passion back in a relationship.

I know of no better investment to make in your marriage, your personal development and your happiness than working with such a relationship coach.

By Laura Doyle

Hi! I'm Laura.

New York Times Bestselling Author

I was the perfect wife--until I actually got married. When I tried to tell my husband how to be more romantic, more ambitious, and tidier, he avoided me. I dragged him to marriage counseling and nearly divorced him. I then started talking to women who had what I wanted in their marriages and that’s when I got my miracle. The man who wooed me returned.

I wrote a few books about what I learned and accidentally started a worldwide movement of women who practice The Six Intimacy Skills™ that lead to having amazing, vibrant relationships. The thing I’m most proud of is my playful, passionate relationship with my hilarious husband John–who has been dressing himself since before I was born.