Theories of Marriage Counseling

Theoriesof Marriage Counseling

Theoriesof Marriage Counseling

Althoughpeople are brought together in a marriage by love, there are timeswhen differences arise and create the need for counseling in order tosalvage the union. The role of professional counseling is to helpmarried partners resolve their differences and equip them with theskills that they need in order to live in harmony (Berg-Cross, 2001).Different theorists have proposed several theories that can be usedto counsel married partners. This paper will provide the analysis ofpsychoanalytical marriage therapies, marital systems theories,behavioral, cognitive therapy (CBT), and Christian cognitive andbehavioral theory.

Psychoanalyticalmarriage therapies


Thepsychodynamic theory that was advanced by Nadelson holds thatconflicts in marriage can be attributed to unconscious issues thatremain unresolved for many years (Worthington, 1993). A properselection of a supportive marriage partner can resolve the issues.However, there are cases where unconscious issues escalate to majorconflicts that require the intervention of a counselor. Althoughthis theory helps couples overcome their anxieties, therapists shouldstart investigating the unconscious factors that motivate partnersfrom the beginning of the relationship, instead of the second step asNadelson suggests (Worthington, 1993). However, the theory is aneffective tool that can be applied in resolution of interactionissues that affect couples.

Maritalsystems theories


Thistheory holds that problems in a family are caused by disorders thataffect emotional systems of the couples. For example, parents whowere brought up in difficult families get into a marriage withunresolved issues or establish relations that suffer from emotionalcutoff (Brown, 2013). One of the key strengths of the Bowen’stheory is the fact that it empowers couples to handle their issues,even when they are away from the therapist (Worthington, 1993). Thisis based on the notion that interactions between the coupled alwaystake place outside the therapeutic settings, which makes it necessaryto prepare them for such environments. The theory is applied inaddressing relationship issues that are passed from one generation toanother, which is accomplished by breaking adverse emotional patterns(Worthington, 1993).

MaritalResearch Institute Theory

TheMRI theory applies the black box model in addressing conflicts amongthe couples. This model assumes that the challenges affecting a givensystem can be analyzed with the need for studying the individualcomponents of the entire system (Worthington, 1993). Any attempt tostudy the thoughts, values, and motivations of individual couples isconsidered as a waste of time. In addition, the theory holds thatbehavior is communicated between partners. This implies that atherapist seeks to identify rules of communication that are appliedby the couple in order to identify the source of conflicts. The MIRtheory has a weakness known as counter-transference, which makes thetherapists feel used after being required to follow their feelingswith the affected couple (Worthington, 1993). The theory can beapplied in addressing conflicts that are caused by communicationproblems.

Minuchin’sstructural therapy

Minuchin’stheory is founded on three assumptions. First, the theory assumesthat people operate within certain social contexts. Secondly, a givensocial context has its structure (Worthington, 1993). Lastly, thestructure of a given social context can either be bad or good. Thetheory is applied in addressing issues that result from four sources,including an interaction between the couple and forces that areoutside the family (such as peer interaction), disruption afterchanging a church, idiosyncratic sources (including the naturaldisasters), and developmental transactions. The theory is effectivebecause it addresses the underlying structures that cause conflictsin a family. However, the theory is action-oriented, which creates aperception that the therapist is bullying the clients and forcingthem to change their behavior (Worthington, 1993). This limits theusefulness of the Minuchin’s theory.

Haley’sthe Madane’s theories

Haleyand Madane developed the theory of strategic therapy. This theoryholds that an effective therapist should work playfully in order toprovoke the couple to adopt behavioral changes (Worthington, 1993).The theory is applied in addressing marriage problems that arise frommisunderstandings. For example, the theory may be used to redefine arelationship when the couple describes the term “submissiveness”differently. Strategic theory is effective and it offers a short-termsolution to a couple that is willing to do everything possible tohave the problem eradicated. However, the theory may be abused bycounselors since its effectiveness relies more on the daring andcreativity of the therapist.


Behavioraltheories rely on the social learning and psychological approaches toaddressing issues that affect married couples. These theories areapplied in addressing issues that are directly attributed to thebehavior of the either or both of the partners (Worthington, 1993).Therefore, the therapists aim to influence the couple to changebehavior in order to reduce conflicts in the marriage. Behavioralapproaches are easy to use because they have been tried for manyyears compared to other therapeutic techniques (Worthington, 1993).However, the theory is quite simple, which limits the capacity of thetherapist to consider some factors (such s motivation and needs) thatcould also be affecting the marriage.


Baucomand Lester developed the behavioral marriage therapy technique. Thistechnique is applied in the treatment of distressed couples. It isadministered in six weeks of problem-solving and communication,followed by six weeks of contracting (Chambers, Lebow, Christensen &ampJohnson, 2012). Its effectiveness in addressing stress among marriedcouples was confirmed by a study showing that over 50 % of thepatients under treatment reported that they were no longer distressed(Worthington, 1993). However, the technique is not entirelyconsistent with the principles of CBT.


Epstein’stheory of marriage is one of the cognitive behavioral theories usedto help troubled couples. The theory is applied when there is a needto assist couples with unrealistic expectations that affect theirmarriage (Worthington, 1993). The aim of a therapist using thistheory is to help the clients discover that their ideas andexpectations are faulty. The effectiveness of the theory is confirmedby a successful change in the thinking patter, which then alters theway the couple behaves in marriage. Strengths of this theory includeits ability to help couples gain control over their emotions andbehavior. However, the theory has not been practiced and studied fora long time, which limits its application.


Sagerused a combination of techniques from system and psychodynamiccounseling theories. Sager held that the difficulties are caused inmarriage by interferences that affect individual and group contracts.The therapy is administered using a lengthy questionnaire that helpsthe therapists assess the underlying problem that is affecting thecouple (Worthington, 1993). The counselor proposes compromisesolutions that are then discussed with the couple. This type oftherapy is applied when the probable solution to a given challenge isnot expected to satisfy any of the clients. The objective is to helpthem compromise and meet their basic needs. It is a strong andeffective therapeutic theory because it emphasizes on theconceptualization of the challenge before a viable solution can beidentified. However, Sager relied more on the principles ofpsychodynamic, which makes it difficult to generate detailedinformation about the couple’s behavior.

Christian,cognitive, and behavioral theory

Wright’smarital counseling theory

Thetheory combines Biblical teachings and values with CBT to counseltroubled couples. However, some of the concepts applied in thistheory are derived from the work of other Christian authors, such asGary Collins (Worthington, 1993). Wright’s theory is applied whenthe underlying challenge is associated with unrealistic or unmetneeds inadequate problem resolution techniques among marriedpartners the lack of positive behavioral reciprocal and negativecommunication. The goal of a therapist who chose to apply Wright’stheory is to empower the couples by equipping them with bettercommunication as well as the problem-solving skills. The theory iseffective because Wright was able to combine principles derived fromdifferent sources, including the bible and CBT. However, Wrightassumed that partners are responsible adults, who should be taughtabout communication skills and allowed to solve their problems. Somepartners may not be able to address their own challenges.


Maritalproblems can be addressed using different approaches depending on thetype of theory that a therapist decides to apply. However, marriagecounseling theories can be put into four categories. These categoriesinclude psychoanalytical marriage therapies, marital systemstheories, behavioral, cognitive therapy (CBT), and Christiancognitive and behavioral theory. There are other theorists whointroduced different techniques, but their contribution fits withinthe four broad categories of marriage counseling theories.


Berg-Cross,L. (2001). Couplestherapy (2nd ed.).New York: Haworth Clinical Practice Press.

Brown,J. (2013). Bowenfamily systems theory and practice: Illustration and critique.Neutral Bay: The Family System Institute.

Chambers,L., Lebow, L., Christensen, A., &amp Johnson, S. (2012). Research onthe treatment of couple distress. Journalof Marital and Family Therapy,38 (1), 145-168.

Worthington,L. (1993). Marriagecounseling: a Christian approach to counseling couples.Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.