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How to Decide between Marriage Counseling and Marriage Coaching

Do you know when to hire a coach and when to hire a counselor? Do you know what the differences are between the two? Making the right choice can make the difference between reconciling and divorcing and being friends.

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Coaching or counseling–which one is more likely to help you to keep your marriage intact?

There are so many coaches and counselors providing services both online and off, it can be very confusing when you want to get help. Understanding the essential differences will help you to decide which to get. That decision becomes very important if your time and opportunity to make things better is running out.

If you are like me, the more time you spend trying to figure out who to hire, the less you feel like hiring anyone. In the end, you might just hire someone based on price or availability. Those are not good ways to choose who is the best person to entrust your relationship with.

Unlike hiring a handyman, the wrong help may not be easily fixed by hiring someone else. Any mistakes or poor guidance the coach or counselor gives you can make the difference between keeping your marriage and losing it.

Perhaps the most important thing to know about getting help for your relationship is that there is no one type of help that is best. You have to match the skill and values of the person you hire to your values and the kind of help you need. If, for example, your spouse will not talk to you and you hire someone who primarily works with couples, the counseling or coaching will fail rather quickly.

Skills set needed, values match, and kind of help needed should determine your choice of coaching or counseling.

Is your spouse motivated to reconcile or improve your relationship?

Take an uncooperative or reluctant spouse to counseling and it will become apparent to you and the counselor that your marriage is not salvageable. This is because marriage counseling focuses on problems and differences that increase distance in the relationship. The focus will then quickly shift to working on co-parenting or an amicable divorce.

The problem actually is not that the marriage is not salvageable, but that the marriage is not salvageable with couple’s counseling. Couples counseling only works when both people want to build their relationship. Their desire to work together keeps them on the same page, cooperatively, and helps mitigate talk about problems.

On the other hand, getting individual coaching when you have an uncooperative spouse means you will be learning attraction and connection skills that will re-interest your spouse in the relationship. After that, your could then attend couple’s counseling. It may also be that, as with most of my clients, once your spouse is re-interested in the relationship no further counseling or coaching is needed.

Whether coach or counselor, be sure they have the right skill set

Whatever professional you choose, it will be important that you choose someone who is educated in psychology and has years of experience. For me, regardless of what kind of person I hire for anything, I try to get someone with a lot of experience. I have had several surgeries for example. While all equally trained surgeons may be able to perform the surgery under routine conditions, that is not true when something goes wrong or when something doesn’t quite fit the textbook.

In that situation, either the surgeon has to make a best guess, or get consultation during the surgery. Either one is very risky. But, with an experienced surgeon, it is going to be very rare that the surgeon is going to be surprised by anything.

The same is true for counselors and coaches. I have been a PHD licensed psychologist since 1994. I almost yearn for a challenge. Having coached more than 9000 individuals and couples, nothing surprises me anymore. That was certainly not the case when I was starting out. And, regardless of how much experience someone has, they still need that psychological education.

The main reason for this in both counseling and coaching is that personalities and psychological issues play a part in almost every relationship. Improving a relationship with a depressed spouse is going to be different from improving a relationship with an anxious spouse, which is different from improving a relationship with a narcissistic spouse, which is different from a narcissistic, depressed, spouse, and so on.

There are an incredibly large number of possibilities. Personally, if I were seeking individual or couple’s counseling or coaching, I would not hire someone with less than a PhD and less than 10 years of experience.

Does the coach’s or counselor’s goals/values match yours?

Assuming that you have found experienced doctoral level coaches and counselors, you can take a look at the next criteria. Unlike any other field, match between client and counselor is very important for success. If you take your car to a mechanic it will not matter much what values your mechanic has. The only thing that will matter is his ability to fix your car and what it is going to cost you.

It will, however, make a big difference for your relationship whether you are seeing someone who prioritizes maintaining relationships vs. someone who prioritizes individual well being. In general, counselors prioritize the happiness of the individual client or clients they are seeing, while coaches (especially Christian ones) prioritize the relationship.

That means that counselors are good for helping you to figure out whether you want to stay in a relationship or not, while coaches are going to be more focused on what you need to do to repair your relationship–whether that is difficult or not. As a skills focused coach, I want my clients to already know they want to reconcile before they work with me.

If they are not sure, then they will only half-heartedly do the sometimes difficult things that need to be done to save their relationship. The same is true for other kinds of coaches as well. Don’t get a business coach if you are not sure you want to have a business, and don’t get an athletic coach if you are not sure you want to get into great shape.

Counseling comes before coaching if you don’t know whether you should stay in your relationship. Coaching is for when you are sure you should.

Treatment vs. training

Although there are blurred lines between coaching and counseling, a good way to think about the difference is in terms of what happens in the session. In counseling, you will do most of the talking and the therapist’s job will be to help you to clarify or modify your thinking. This is treatment, regardless of the type of therapy being done. The very word therapy indicates treatment.

In coaching, the coach will do most of the talking and the focus will be on training you in skills you do not already have. You will then apply these skills during the week with your spouse. The difference between working with a coach and learning skills from a book, recording, or video is that the coach will choose specific skills for your situation and help you to make specific adjustments for your marriage. You also get the opportunity to practice with the coach before trying it out with your spouse.

You will also be able to ask specific questions about your relationship–something that is not possible with books and recordings. Whatever kind of help that I need, my basic is approach is to learn and do what I can on my own. Then, if I get stuck or am making a bigger mess of things, I hire a professional. The exception to this approach is when I have a crisis situation or already know I cannot do it on my own. I will try to fix water leaks, for example, but am not about to touch the electrical box. Here are some of my self-help books for relationship improvement.

You may be able to DIY with your relationship problems. However, get help when the situation is critical or risky.

Guidelines for deciding whether to get coaching or counseling:

  • If you need to work through personal issues, get a counselor,
  • If you want to know why you or your spouse behaves a certain way, get a counselor,
  • If you want to work on clarifying issues with your spouse, get a counselor,
  • If you and your spouse want to work together on communication skills, get a counselor,
  • If you want to have a safe space to vent and be validated for your feelings, get a counselor.


  • If you are seeking direction and advice on specific actions to take, get a coach,
  • If you don’t know how to attract or connect with your spouse, get a coach,
  • If your spouse is NOT motivated to improve your relationship, get a coach,
  • If your spouse is having an affair, get a coach IF you want to reconcile (get a counselor if you want help ending your relationship cooperatively)
  • If you and your spouse want to work on self-improvement together, either attend a marriage retreat, or get a coach

In short, get coaching if you need skills more than validation and can set aside your feelings to work on achieving goals.

If you are becoming frustrated with the help you chose, you are probably either:

  • expecting your counselor to teach you skills for re-attracting your spouse, or
  • expecting your coach to help you with your emotional problems and confusion.

Example: If you don’t know whether to start your own business or not, get counseling. If you know you want to start your own business, but don’t know how, get a business coach.

Example: If you don’t know whether you should divorce your spouse, get counseling. If you know you want to reconcile, but don’t know how, get a marriage coach.

Although counselors teach some skills, their focus is on personal happiness, understanding, and well being. Although coaches can empathize with your situation, their focus is on teaching you skills for achieving goals (like reconciling or how to resolve conflict without arguing).

If you could use some elements of coaching and counseling:

If you could use either a coach or a counselor and don’t know where to start, I have an interactive quiz that will help you to figure out whether coaching or counseling is best for you and whether you should work by yourself or with your spouse.

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