Marriage Counseling Statistics

Most marriages go through stormy periods severe enough that divorce is a likely outcome, or that one or both spouses develop an illness such as anxiety or depression. Marriage counseling statistics can help you determine whether or not you want to do couples therapy. They can also help you improve your chances of success in healing your marriage.

You’re not the only one looking for help from professionals. As one researcher put it, people with marital problems “are overrepresented among individuals seeking mental health services, regardless of whether they report marital distress as their primary complaint.”[1]

Rosy Statistics

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy provides some rosy marriage counseling statistics about client satisfaction which I am not inclined to believe. They claim that 97.1% of surveyed clients say they “got the kind of help they desired,” and 98.1% “rated services good or excellent.”[2] But it is results that matter, and therapists’ ratings do not reflect results. One study showed that 80% of those who made and retained gains over two years and 100% of those who relapsed said that marital therapy had a positive impact on them.[3]

I am not trying to steer you away from counseling. In fact, I think you should seriously consider going. But you need facts, not public relations hype.

Real Marriage Counseling Statistics

Marriage counseling statistics depend on how and what information is collected, among other things.
There are very few studies that follow couples for more than a year after concluding marriage counseling. Most investigations show that couples are more likely to retain what they have learned and maintain higher levels of marital satisfaction in that first year. But long-term studies show that relapse is a major problem, and that divorce occurs in significant numbers.

A 1987 study of 34 couples resulted in 56% unchanged or deteriorated 2 years after counseling.[4]

A 1991 study compared the outcomes of two types of therapy on 55 couples. Between 58% and 61% improved from beginning of treatment to follow-up at 6 months after treatment finished. However, improvements rates slowed significantly once therapy was over, and between 8% and 14% deteriorated from conclusion of treatment to the 6-month follow-up. Deterioration continued over the next 3-1/2 years, wiping out a majority of the gains. After 4 years, of those who had received behavioral marital therapy, 38% were divorced. But only 3% who received insight-oriented marital therapy divorced.[5] While this study has been cited quite often, little has been written on the insight-oriented approach since then. The behavioral approach, while having evolved somewhat since then, remains the therapy of choice for the American Psychological Association.[6]

In a 2010 study of 134 “chronically and seriously distressed” married couples, 48% showed clinically significant improvement at 5 years after receiving 26 weekly therapy sessions, and 27% were separated or divorced. The remainder showed no change or had deteriorated relationships.[7] It is safe to assume that couples going into the same therapy with less distress than those in this study would have better odds of success. (The study examined two types of behavioral therapy. The results showed no significant difference between them.)

Marriage counseling statistics from other studies are similar to the three mentioned above. Some have better results, some worse. Most report immediate gains only, and say that couples are better off at conclusion of treatment than 70-80% of those who do not get counseling.[8] John Gottman says that just 35% of couples in marital therapy get clinically significant immediate improvements. (Note the difference in what is being reported – comparison to a control group vs. actual improvement.) In the best university studies that maintained close supervision of participating therapists, he says that between 11% and 18% of couples made meaningful gains that lasted more than a year. Out in the “real” world, more than 43% of couples seeking marital therapy are separated or divorced after 5 years.[9]

One other interesting note about marital therapies: they perform as well as or slightly better than alternative treatments. But follow-up tests show that over time the differences diminish and become insignificant. The alternative treatments include self-help books and programs.[10]

Statistics About
Marriage Counselors

In a survey of 1,053 participants with a specialty or subspecialty in marital and family therapy, marriage & family therapists devote about 53% of their practice to marital and family issues. Psychiatrists -15%, psychologists – 27%, pastoral counselors - 33%, social workers - 38%.[11]

A report in Psychotherapy Networker magazine says 86% of psychotherapists (including marriage and family therapists) in a huge multinational survey say they are “highly motivated” to learn more and get better at what they do. A part of this pursuit for professional development comes in the form of learning from their clients. 97% say that “learning from clients was a significant influence on their sense of development.” Unfortunately, therapists are not good at evaluating their own performance, as 2/3 give themselves an A or A+ rating. Without getting quantitative measurements before and after treatment, and without long-term follow-up (not mentioned in the report), therapists are in the dark about just how good they really are. Actually, clients who provide feedback are 4 times more likely to achieve clinically significant change.[12]
Only Half of Therapists Are Alive, Engaged, or Productive at Any Given Time

That same multinational survey also showed that only 50% of therapists (including marriage and family therapists) can be described as “alive, engaged and productive” at any given time. The other 50% fall into the categories of challenged, distressed or disengaged.[13] You must be vigilant when seeing a marriage counselor, and make sure he/she is in top form for you. After all, it’s your marriage that is in jeopardy.

One third of psychologists agree with the statement: “there are many times in my practice when what I do is motivated more by the need to protect myself legally than what I feel is good practice clinically.”[14]

Despite the fact that it is unethical (by their own professional standards) to form any kind of relationship with a client aside from the professional “therapeutic alliance,” “one-third of therapists have at some time developed non-sexual non-therapy relationships with current or former clients.”[15]

Malpractice insurance records show that over half the cost of claims paid against counselors and therapists involved unethical behavior, such as sexual contact (#1 on the list) and breach of confidentiality.[16]

Surveys have shown that up to 9.4% of male therapists and 2.5% of female therapists have had erotic contact with clients.[17]

In a survey of 259 students of marriage and family therapy, 12% disagreed with the statement, “If I am attracted to a client, I make sure it doesn’t affect therapy.” Another 23% were undecided. This indicates a lack of training in how to handle such a situation.[18]

The Take-Aways

The first thing one has to say about statistics is that you can pretty much prove anything with them. How you go about collecting data, what you choose to measure, sample size, drop-out rate, checks on internal consistency, whether or not you use control groups, and what you choose to include or exclude are just a few of the decisions that affect the results you get.

One important thing to remember as you look at marriage counseling statistics and wonder whether couples therapy can be successful for you: many, if not most, couples don’t go to counseling until their problems have gotten seriously bad. In order for it to be effective, there must be a commitment to improving the relationship. After spending so much time and energy trying to make things right on your own, your willingness to make your marriage work may not be strong enough to allow the counseling to succeed.

And here’s the bottom line when considering marriage counseling statistics. What works for someone else may or may not work for you. Look at all the variables: you (and your preferences and your baggage), your spouse (and his/her preferences and baggage), the skills of the therapist, the problem, the values of the community in which you live, the values of the larger society in which you live, the economic conditions you are currently experiencing, etc. Your chances of successfully improving your marriage really cannot be calculated. Success comes down to your willingness and determination to make it happen.

What you can take away from the numbers is that couples therapy can help you improve your marriage in the short run. But you cannot expect a miracle cure. Like anything else, a marital relationship must be attended to, or it will deteriorate over time.

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[1] ^ Douglas K. Snyder, Ph.D., et al., “Current Status and Future Directions in Couple Therapy,” Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 57, 2006.
[2] ^ “Marriage and Family Therapist: The Family-Friendly Mental Health Professionals,” Retrieved Oct. 22, 2011 from
[3] ^ John Gottman, Ph.D., "The Marriage Clinic: A Scientifically Based Marital Therapy (Norton Professional Books)", WW Norton & Company, Inc., 1999. P. 6.
[4] ^ Neil Jacobson, Ph.D., et al., “Component Analysis of Behavioral Marital Therapy: 2-Year Follow-up and Prediction of Relapse,” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, Vol. 13, 1987.
[5] ^ Douglas K. Snyder, Ph.D., et al., "Long-Term Effectiveness of Behavioral Versus Insight-Oriented Marital Therapy: A 4-Year Follow-Up Study," Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 59 (1), Feb. 1991.
[6] ^ “A Guide to Beneficial Psychotherapy,” Retrieved Oct. 20, 2011 from
[7] ^ Andrew Christensen, Ph.D., et al., "Marital Status and Satisfaction Five Years Following a Randomized Clinical Trial Comparaing Traditional Versus Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy," Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 78 (2), 2010.
[8] ^ William Shadish, et al., “Meta-Analysis of MFT Interventions,” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, Vol. 29, Oct. 2003.
[9] ^ Gottman. P. 5.
[10] ^ Shadish.
[11] ^ John Wall, et al., “The Ethics of Relationality: The Moral Views of Therapists Engaged in Marital and Family Therapy,” Family Relations, Vol. 48, 1999.
[12] ^ Barry Duncan, Psy.D., “What Therapists Want,” Psychotherapy Networker, May/June, 2011.
[13] ^ Peter Fox, Clinical Psychologist, “How to Choose a Therapist,” Retrieved July 12, 2011 from
[14] ^ John McLeod, Ph.D., "An Introduction to Counselling", 3rd Ed., Open University Press, 2003. P. 411.
[15] ^ McLeod. P. 401.
[16] ^ McLeod. P. 396.
[17] ^ McLeod. P. 402.
[18] ^ Steven Harris, Ph.D., “Teaching Family Therapists About Sexual Attraction in Therapy,” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, Vol. 27, Jan. 2001.