Relationship or family therapy isn’t only for couples in crisis.
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If you're going through hard times in your relationship with your partner, it may be time to see a marriage and family therapist (also known as going to couples' therapy). It can, however, be intimidating to seek out professional help if you've never done so before. After all, the thought of revealing your deepest troubles to an outside party can seem terrifying. But the process of talking to a professional marriage and family therapist (sometimes abbreviated as MFT) is less scary than you might expect. The goal of a therapist is to help clients—usually a romantic couple, but occasionally a family with children—work through their issues healthily together in a safe and private environment. 

"The aspects that bring people to our office are difficult for them to work through on their own; that's why they come to us," shares Anne Appel, a licensed clinical professional counselor based in Chicago. A marriage and family therapist provides helpful feedback in a variety of ways, whether that's through demonstrating active listening, teaching people a constructive way to have conversations, and giving them new behavioral tools for working on the areas in which they're struggling.

There Are Some Misperceptions About Marriage and Family Therapists

Before you decide to see a marriage and family therapist, you should first understand what they can't help with. First of all, a therapist is not going to tell you what to do, nor will they be able to wave a magic wand and fix all your relationship problems. "There is no right or wrong way of doing things, as each couple or family is unique," Appel says. 

A marriage and family therapist isn't there to judge you or take individual sides; they're on the side of the relationship, says Appel. They are not psychics, either, and can't predict the future of your relationship. 

You also don't have to be married to see a marriage and family therapist; think of it as relationship therapy, not specific to marriage. 

The most damaging misperception of marriage and family therapy is that it's a last resort or only for couples who are really in trouble, says Robert Solley, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in San Francisco. Some couples even seek the guidance and support of an MFT while their relationship is at its healthiest, gaining the tools they need to prevent and/or properly resolve future conflicts. "The earlier the couples come in for therapy, the easier it is to correct problems," Solley explains. "When people wait years after conflict starts or distance grows, they have developed entrenched negative habits, patterns, and emotions that are much harder to reverse."

8 Reasons to See a Marriage and Family Therapist

If you're experiencing one or more of these signs, consider finding an MFT to work through any relationship issues.

1 You feel stuck in your relationship.

You're having the same conflict or conversation with your partner over and over again and can't figure out a way to break through it. Many times, this occurs when one or both partners in the relationship are not feeling heard or understood. "Everything really breaks down into a lack of effective communication," says Appel.

2 You're at a crossroads.

Many people will see a therapist when they're trying to determine whether they want to continue in their relationship—to discover whether it's repairable or if they want to call it quits, says Appel.

3 You're in a crisis.

You've hit a major problem in your relationship (such as one partner having an affair, or one partner going through a mental illness or substance abuse issues) and don't know where or to whom to turn. This may also take the form of a trauma that affects the couple, such as a death of a loved one, says Solley.

4 You've decided to divorce.

You've made this decision together, but want to split in the most amicable way possible (and perhaps have children involved) and need guidance.

5 You're having problems with your kids.

Many times, a couple will come to therapy to discuss issues related to a problematic child or teenager (i.e., not going to school, drug use, reckless behavior). This is usually not an issue with the child, says Appel, but a symptom of what is going on in the family.

6 You're carrying resentment.

Feeling bitter or disappointed is common in long-term relationships, and therapy helps to break that down, says Appel.

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7 Your relationship is being affected by others.

Having difficulties with third parties outside the relationship—such as in-laws, coworkers, friends, or neighbors with whom one partner does not get along—can be another reason to see a therapist, says Solley. In therapy you will learn constructive ways to tackle these tensions as a team.

8 You're engaged to be married.

Appel is an advocate of couples seeing a therapist before they tie the knot. Many people do not have the difficult discussions they need to have before they get married around topics such as finances, children, and values. "It sounds surprising, but many people are fearful to have these kinds of ongoing and difficult conversations with their partner," says Appel. A marriage and family therapist can help them through those.

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What to Expect From Marriage and Family Therapy

The first visit is a chance to get to know the therapist and for them to get to know you, including getting a basic understanding of your main problems and how you relate to each other, says Solley. People often want to know how long therapy might last, but it's impossible to answer that question precisely because there are so many variables involved. 

The average couple will go to about six therapy sessions, says Appel. However, most couples need at least 20 sessions, says Solley, and some find continuing benefits for years. In the beginning, Solley recommends having a session at least once a week, or sometimes more often for especially difficult or intense situations. "If you go more than once a week you get more than twice the benefit, and by the same token if you go less than once a week you get less than half the benefit," he explains. "As the frequency gets diluted there is a loss of momentum [and] more to catch up on."

Appel stresses that going to an MFT is a sign of strength, not weakness. It takes courage to face challenges. "Therapy is like going to the gym," she adds. "You can only get so far on your own, then you need to bring in a trainer to get to the next level." Remember that a marriage and family therapist serves as an unbiased sounding board to help you work through your relationship issues in a positive way.