Condition Header Background

What is Couples Therapy?


What it is

Couples therapy (also known as family or marriage therapy) focuses on the family as a system. It addresses unhealthy patterns of behavior between family members. This concept forms the core of multiple different subtypes such as emotionally focused, cognitive-behavioral, systemic, integrative, and functional family therapy.

Who needs it

Typically, a single family member (the primary patient) will seek help with a psychiatrist for a mental health issue. The doctor will assess whether the condition is suited to couples therapy. They evaluate how much the main problem involves other members of the family and refer the family to an appropriately qualified therapist.

How it works

Couples therapy supports the treatment of the primary patient’s disorder by involving the spouse and other family members. The degree to which the therapy focuses on the relationship itself depends on how intertwined the relationship difficulties are with the primary patient’s disorder. For example, couples therapy in which the primary patient is abusing drugs may address the relationship more than if the primary issue is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. By seeing the family as a system of inter-working parts, family therapy identifies and addresses the poor relationship structures that perpetuate the main disorder.

Where to go

Family therapy is a specialized profession, requiring either a master’s degree, PhD, or postgraduate training. Interested patients should look for providers who are certified by the state and by the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy.

What to expect

Studies looking at couples therapy show that it tends to be at least as effective as individual therapy. Furthermore, psychiatric patients consistently suffer more in the long run when there are accompanying relationship issues. This therapy addresses that gap.

What could happen

When seeking a therapist, make sure to find one who is an official Marriage and Family Therapist. Some may offer “couples counseling”, but you need to make sure they have the right training to handle a troubled family system. Unseasoned advice may be a waste of time and energy.

Types of Treatment Options

Wondering about a possible disorder but not sure? Let’s explore your symptoms.

  1. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Substance Abuse Treatment and Family Therapy. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2004. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 39.)
  2. Baucom DH, Belus JM, Adelman CB, Fischer MS, Paprocki C. (2014). Couple-based interventions for psychopathology: A renewed direction for the field. Family Process, 53(3), 445–461.
  3. American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. (2016). About Marriage and Family Therapists. Retrieved from
  4. Shadish, W. R., Ragsdale, K., Glaser, R. R., & Montgomery, L. M. (1995). The efficacy and effectiveness of marital and family therapy: A perspective from meta-analysis. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 21(4), 345.