If you're going through tough times, counseling may help your marriage survive and thrive. Consider these options as you look for advice.

couple fighting
Credit: iStockphoto

It's a sobering statistic that's sure to give any nervous bride or groom pause: Half of all first marriages end in divorce. Couples who have kids are particularly likely to experience rocky roads, says Mikki Meyer, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist in New York City. "Differences between partners bubble to the surface when children enter the picture," she says. That's when conflicts over child-rearing beliefs come to the surface, money becomes tighter, and emotional connectivity and bedroom romps become sparse.

So how do you know if your occasional disagreement is just par for the course or a sign of real marital trouble? If your relationship is marked by nonstop arguments or criticisms, growing distance or resentments, or incessant complaints about your spouse to others, it may be time to call in professional help. A couples counselor can help you work through your issues, or come to the decision that it's time to split.

Traditional Behavioral Couple Therapy

Licensed family and marriage therapists help couples resolve conflicts and strengthen their relationships. The focus is on learning more effective ways to communicate and solve problems together. It's best if both you and your mate attend together. "This isn't a one-person problem so it's better to talk -- even on an individual basis -- to a licensed marriage therapist who has experience working with couples and not someone who works mostly with individuals," Dr. Meyer says. A trained marriage counselor can help you examine how your marriage reached the breaking point and can serve as a neutral party as the two of you sort out differences. (Counseling can help even if your spouse is reluctant to attend.)

Most couples attend an average of 12 weekly or biweekly sessions, with fees ranging from $100 to $200 per session, depending on your location and your therapist. Many therapists will reduce their fees if you don't have insurance or are unable to cover the cost. You can find a licensed marriage therapist in your area via Therapist Locator, a service of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT). Dr. Meyer recommends doing an initial consultation -- either via phone or in person -- to make sure the therapist is a good fit for both of you and your needs.

Discernment Counseling

Marriage therapy is based on the premise that both people wish to save their marriage, but studies suggest that in a third of couples seeking marital counseling, one person is already prepared to call it quits. Discernment counseling focuses on helping that spouse decide if leaving the marriage is the right decision, while helping the partner cope in a way that fosters open communication and a positive relationship.

"It gives couples time to consider whether divorce is the best option or if reconciliation is possible," says William Doherty, Ph.D., director of the Couples on the Brink Project at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. The program is the first in the country to offer discernment counseling. One survey conducted at the school found that 30 percent of divorcing parents weren't certain that divorce was their best option. "You have three options when you begin discernment counseling: continuing with your marriage as is, divorce, or reconciliation with marriage therapy," Dr. Doherty explains. "It's like a rest stop as you contemplate which road to take."

Although discernment counseling is still relatively new (the University of Minnesota project was launched in 2010), findings suggest that 40 percent of couples that complete this form of counseling choose to restore their marriage. The rest either get divorced or remain undecided. The per-session cost of discernment counseling is about the same as that of traditional marriage counseling, but the number of sessions is limited to no more than five. "At that point, you should know whether you need more traditional marriage counseling or a divorce attorney," Dr. Doherty says. Unfortunately, discernment counseling is currently offered only in the Minneapolis area, although a program is in the works that will train therapists nationwide. In the meantime, Dr. Doherty suggests contacting marriage therapists in your area and asking if they are willing to work with you on a short-term basis to help you and your spouse determine whether divorce is your best option.

It takes work to be in a committed relationship. If you and your partner are unhappy, a licensed marriage therapist may be your saving grace. Since the 1980s, the nation's divorce rate has steadily declined. This may be due to couples' increasing willingness to give their marriages one last go with a counselor before deciding to part.

Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.