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When is Counselling Needed and How can a Relationship be Saved?

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

Marriage is a romantic act of union between two lovedones designed to last forever. So it can be tough when it feels like a marriage is not working out. But there is no such thing as the perfect marriage — even the most suitable couples will argue every now and then. But sometimes this conflict can increase to a point where it seems unmanageable.

Married couple holding hands

Conflict can arise from anywhere. Over time circumstances change, and people change. Conflict can come from worries over money, or a breakdown in communication. But conflict does not have to be an obstacle standing in the way of a happy marriage.

Instead, it can be an opportunity to rediscover what made it so exciting in the first place.

What is marriage counselling?

“The truth is that couples can develop stubborn and inflexible mindsets over time. These mindsets can creep up without either partner really noticing them, and a marriage can end up a bit like an engine stalled by a wrench..."

The first and most important step to save a conflict-ridden marriage is not to give up but to recognise that it can be saved.

Some people think the very need for marriage counselling in the first place is to admit its failure. This line of thinking is counter-productive. Marriage counselling is, without doubt, very effective. It is a very workable and efficient means to bring the love back in any weakening marriage.

The truth is that couples can develop stubborn and inflexible mindsets over time. These mindsets can creep up without either partner really noticing them, and a marriage can end up a bit like an engine stalled by a wrench. These mindsets are like invisible forces on a marriage. They can cause unnecessary friction between partners. This friction can get worse as time goes on, until the relationship seems to grind to a standstill.

But the wrench can be removed, and the engine restored to working order. Think of a marriage counsellor as an engineer, a trained third party called in to look at a problem. A marriage counsellor helps to facilitate healthy, honest discussions. More often than not, these discussions help couples to realise what it was that made their relationship so special in the first place.

When is marriage counselling needed?

The simple answer is: marriage counselling is needed whenever it is felt to be appropriate. There does not have to be a confrontational problem, or indeed, a problem at all. It is entirely normal for couples to attend counselling sessions as a means of emotionally “working out”.

To use another imaginative example: a relationship is a bit like working out in the gym. The relational and emotional “muscles” need to be worked to stay at their best. Un-worked muscles quickly become un-toned, weak, and are more likely to get damaged. “Working out” is not for the negatively-minded expecting failure. It is for couples who wish to encourage a healthy mindset. Emotionally “working out” is a great for stress reduction and increased lifestyle satisfaction.

For marriage counselling it is important that both partners are on the same page. If one partner has already given up, then dragging him or her to a therapy session is not very likely to work.

Symptoms of conflict that could require relationship counselling

Often the conflict that arises in relationships tends to produce the same symptoms. The most common are:

  • A tired, almost bored, feeling that the relationship has run its course

  • A sharp decline in communication or willingness to talk

  • Dialogue that quickly turns heated, or angry

  • A fear of open, honest discussion

  • Viewing a partner as an obstacle or the ‘antagonist’

  • No honesty

  • No intimacy

  • Hoping that the partner will change

  • Staying together due to guilt only (especially common in relationships with children)

Research suggests that those most likely to need marriage counselling are young couples who marry very early in life, couples in low-income brackets, couples in inter-faith marriages, and couples with a history of divorce or with divorced parents.

But there is also evidence that so-called “grey divorces” are on the increase worldwide. It seems fair to say that marriage troubles can affect anyone.

Often a major life change can spark conflict. Money troubles, starting a family, a new job — even the act of getting married itself (which is why many couples opt for pre-marriage counselling, of which more information is below). Often one life change may accompany or affect the other.

Restoring the relationship: How to get the most from marriage counselling and couples counselling

Nearly 70 percent of South Africans believes divorce is morally unacceptable. That’s a lot of people who, it seems, would do anything to strengthen or fix a failing marriage.

A couple of years ago the organizers of South African Marriage Week said marriage culture was in decline. This was a response to the news that divorce rates had increased by 5 percent since 2015. But this can’t be true because marriages are actually increasing in South Africa.

What that means is: a lot of people have just… given up. Perhaps, in part, because of the thinking that to undertake marriage counselling is somehow to admit to failure. It is not.

To save a marriage you first have to believe that it can be saved; that the perfect conflict-free marriage does not exist. And that negative mindsets can creep up on any couple, even the most compatible ones.

A crucial part of this understanding is to understand that marriage counselling is a healthy, sensible step on the road to recovery.

However, an understanding alone is not enough. The mindset for change needs to be there. In order for marriage counselling to work, each partner needs to do the following:

  • Go early

  • Go willingly

  • Be prepared to listen

  • Be honest

  • Go for as long as they need

Counselling sessions help to wash away creeping conflict and friction. They facilitate positive, honest dialogue between partners. So in order for it to work each participant needs to be willing and authentic when they attend a counselling session.

Relationship counselling: Why intensive therapy is more effective for marriage counselling

The words ‘counselling’ and ‘therapy’ are often used as if they mean the same thing and it is not hard to see why. They both mean similar things but are actually quite different.

‘Counselling’ is the act of seeking professional assistance to help solve a personal problem — usually from a counsellor or clinical psychologist.

‘Therapy’ on the other hand, is considered a form of treatment to relieve or heal a complication.

A conflict-fuelled marriage is tough. Things can break down quickly when partners are not communicating properly. For this reason, we believe the approach and methods of traditional marriage counselling could be improved upon.

Traditional marriage counselling, and the methods behind it, lack in energy. With a typical marriage counselling session only lasting an hour, and with there being a week or so between sessions, it can fail to keep up the pace. Worse, some counselling sessions seem all too happy to guide the couple to divorce, without going into any real depth.

Clinical psychologists and traditional counsellors move at too slow of a pace for couples in conflict. Relationships can decay in-between the weeks or months in sessions, and much damage can be done in the meantime. This can threaten to undo much of the progress made.

Intensive therapy as a form of trauma counselling

Trauma counselling can help you deal with a problem, but the real goal is to ‘heal’ the conflict in a marriage. This is the beauty of intensive therapy. Intensive therapy is about sustained sessions that aim to ‘heal’ the trauma associated with a conflicted marriage.

Intensive therapy is a form of continuous counselling. These sessions can take place in a familiar “safe space” environment — such as the home. As the name suggests, intensive therapy is a highly concentrated exercise. Sessions can last for up to three days at one time. It can be “intense” but it works. In fact, in our experience, over 95 percent of conflicted relationships have restored to wholeness — a remarkable success rate.

Premarital counselling

Conflict can arise from big life changes. Marriage, for all the joy that it brings us, is also a big life change. This can bring about entirely normal feelings of anxiousness and confusion, which can sometimes lead to negative emotions.

The beauty of pre-marriage counselling is that it can lay the foundations for a long and successful union between partners. It is about fostering lines of communication to ensure that a couple is always “on the same page”.

Typical sessions can consist of personality analyses and understanding the unconscious needs and longing of each partner. With strong, healthy dialogue, couples often discover a whole other side to their loved ones that they never thought possible.

Imago therapy

Imago therapy is about learning to talk in a new way. This can “shift” the “rules” of a relationship. This can be useful is one partner is uncooperative at first, or reluctant to get involved. It can be very effective. After all, it takes two people to make a relationship difficult, but only one person to make it better. If the one partner desiring change consciously becomes more empathetic, it allows the dialogue to move from defensive to curious to cooperative. This is because the previously uncooperative partner can no longer behave in the same way, because the rules have been changed.

There is perhaps no greater life change than expecting the birth of a child, which can generate all sorts of anxious as well as joyous feelings. In this case, imago pregnancy counselling is available for couples wanting to reduce some of the conflicts that can come about from expecting.

Marital Status in South Africa Today

South Africa’s multicultural landscape means there is some scope for confusion when it comes to marriages. There are three ‘types’ of marriage that people may face in South Africa today: civil marriages, customary marriages, and civil unions. Customary marriages became officially recognized through the Recognition of Customary Marriages Act in November 2000. Civil unions became recognized in the terms of the Civil Union Act of 2006.

The number of civil marriages in South Africa has decreased by 8.1 percent since 2015, but customary marriages are increasing quite a lot. Between 2014 and 2015, customary marriages in South Africa increased by 13.2 percent. There seems to be some confusion about the different types of marriages in South Africa, and some South Africans may not even be sure what type of marriage they are in.

Let us now explain the differences between the types of marriages, and how you can check your marital status.

Civil marriage

A civil marriage is, according to the South African Department of Home Affairs, a “marriage governed by the Marriage Act and regulations issued in terms of the Act”. Civil marriages are automatically registered with the Department of Home Affairs and, as a result, the couple is then given a marriage certificate. If you do not have a marriage certificate, or do not recall getting one, then it may be that your marriage was not governed under the laws of the Marriage Act.

Customary Marriage and the Requirements for a Customary Marriage

Africa’s rich and non-Western culture defines marriage slightly different as we know it. The traditional African life is a communal one by nature – a sacred connection between families and communities, not just two people. Customary marriages are defined as marriages that are “negotiated, celebrated, or concluded according to any of the systems of indigenous African customary law which exist in South Africa”.

A customary marriage must be entered into the terms of local tradition. This means there must be a traditional ceremony with an exchange between the partners’ families known as lobola. This word essentially means “bride price” but does not actually mean that the bride-to-be is being paid for—it is just a traditional term. The husband and wife are officially married when they are “handed over” by their respective families.

How to use home affairs marital status checker

A big challenge with the rise in customary marriages is the marriage certificate. This is not usually a problem with civil marriages, as civil marriages are automatically registered with the Department of Home Affairs. But with customary marriages, many of them are not registered. This can cause confusion if a situation ever arises where a partner must prove they are the spouse of the other.

The law currently states that customary marriages must be registered at the Department of Home Affairs within three months of the ceremony. But if you live in an area with no Home Affairs Office, you can always register the marriage through a designated traditional leader. To register a customary marriage, you will need:

  • Proof of identification

  • The relevant lobola agreement letters

  • A witness from each family

  • A representative from each family

  • Alternatively, you can track and trace your marital status on the official government website here.

Does marriage counselling work?

Marriage counselling is healthy and sensible and really does work. Counselling is actually very helpful with at least a sixty percent success rate —our own personal estimations are over the ninety-five percent range, thanks to intensive therapy. Half of the battle lies in admitting the problem and seeing a positive future. With these two steps, we are confident your marriage or relationship can be restored to its beautiful wholeness.

Online Sessions

If you prefer to work through some of the content in your own time and from the comfort of your own couch, take a look at my online sessions The Art of Loving.

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