Strategic Couples Counseling

Strategic Couples Counseling

The types of goals/issues that couples focus on when doing marriage and family counseling generally falls into one or more of these three categories:

Relationship Issues.  Intimacy, communication, personality difference, emotional habits, conflict, and etc. are examples of relationship issues requiring strategic couples counseling.

Parenting Issues.Differences in parenting styles, lack of discipline, children rebelling against parents/teachers, and etc. are examples of issues that fall into this category that can benefit from strategic couples counseling.

Blended Family Issues.  Issues adjusting to new family members, difficulty with ex-spouses, kids acting out, concern over favoritism and etc. require a strategic approach to sort out.

When a couple is experiencing difficulty in any of these three areas, a structured, intricate, ever-evolving strategy is required in counseling to guide the couple and create a therapeutic environment conducive to the changes the couple needs to make as consistent with their goals. First off, if it were simple and straight-forward, couples wouldn’t need the help of marriage counseling. Second, Strategic Marriage Counseling is much different than simply meeting with a counselor-referee for an hour each week. There are many options in marriage counseling. Some are not as effective as others and can even cause more of a setback in achieving marriage goals, which is why a strategic approach that considers all of the following factors is crucial. To combat difficult and complex couple’s issues, Strategic Marriage Counseling includes the following options:

  1. CONJOINT SESSIONS– The couple meets with the therapist together focused on marriage goals.(75-minute session)
  2. ONE-ON-ONE SESSIONS – Each spouse meets separately with the same counselor, and the goals are cooperative marriage goals.
  3. INDIVIDUAL COUNSELING SESSIONS WITH MARRIAGE GOALS – One or both spouse(s) would meet separately with their own counselor (rather than the same counselor) focused on their personally-identified goals in support of a better marriage.

CONJOINT SESSION RECOMMENDED GOALS: Strengthening communication & conflict resolution skills–skills-based training is not focused on tackling the hot-button issues; identifying and understanding personality differences–includes options for bridging gaps;reinforcing the friendship and partnership of a relationship; Negotiating middle-ground strategies—a more advanced skill; and skills-training for navigating through emotionally difficult and conflicted discussions—a moreadvanced skill; and more.Other goals well suited to conjoint sessions including: deepening intimacy, grieving changes and/or loss, and etc. Special Note: None of these goals can be achieved in the presence and expression of overwhelming hurt, resentment, frustration, defensiveness, shutting-down, and/or escalation.


  1. Cases where a spouse is so upset, resentful, unforgiving, and/or frustrated and attempting to use conjoint therapy time to heal these wounds by way of emotional expression of the issue. Result: escalation of emotion and even more frustration upon realizing that the session ends with more resentment and upset—not less. Best option: one-on-one sessions or individual counseling focused on marriage goals to explore and heal the underlying emotion and to prepare the spouse(s) for conjoint sessions.
  2. When domestic violence is occurring or has occurred within the last year, conjoint therapy is not a good option. Most professional counselors consider it unethical to do conjoint therapy in these cases.Best option: each spouse work with their own therapist on personal issues to include emotional healing and relationship skills training.
  3. Sometimes only one spouse wants to participate in marriage counseling. I’ve seen many cases where great progress is made within the marriage as a result of individual counseling focused on marriage goals.
  4. Conjoint marriage counseling is not recommended if one or both spouses are considering divorce. This would be a waste of your time in these cases. Best option: consider individual counseling for one or both spouses to support exploration of decision-making regarding marriage vs. divorce. (See 5.)
  5. Conjoint sessions may not be a good option if the marriage is too fragile (as in 4. Above). Best option: Once both spouses are on the same page—no longer considering separation or divorce and willing to work on marriage goals—consider one-on-one sessions (with the same counselor) focused on marriage goals in preparation for conjoint sessions.
  6. Conjoint sessions are not the best option for couples with a pattern of escalation or shutting down. Best option: First consider doing one-on-one sessions with the same therapist and focused on marriage goals in preparation for conjoint sessions.
  7. When one spouse tends to do all the talking or is more dominant and the other quieter and/or more passive. Best option: First consider doing one-on-one sessions with the same therapist and focused on marriage goals in preparation for conjoint sessions.

One-on-One Sessions. Each spouse meets separately with the same counselor, and the goals are cooperative marriage goals. ONE-ON-ONE SESSIONS RECOMMENDED SITUATIONS:

  1. One-on-one sessions are the best approach for building, rebuilding, and/or strengthening the foundation of a relationship which does not have a history of a solid base in the marriage.
  2. This approach is particularly effective at helping one partner to understand the emotions of the other. The same discussion in a conjoint session would be more likely to result in the spouse feeling confronted, which is likely to cause problematic defensiveness or escalation, which sidetracks progress.
  3. Effective at helping to process and soothe difficult emotions, which would likely sidetrack progress in conjoint sessions.
  4. Effective for negotiating strategies that would likely result in escalation during a conjoint session. From the discussion above regarding conjoint sessions, negotiating solutions is an advanced skill that can only be achieved once the couple has made a lot of progress in conjoint sessions. In the one-on-one marriage sessions, negotiating strategies can often be achieved much sooner. Spouses are generally far less resistant to negotiating solutions in one-on-one sessions.
  5. More effective at creating a validating and motivating experience for both spouses.
  6. Spouses prone to being stuck in difficult emotions and/or with a pattern of escalation make far FAR greater progress in this style of marriage counseling as opposed to conjoint sessions.
  7. Often the underlying issues causing the most trouble are not revealed in conjoint therapy due to defensiveness, escalation, or shutting-down. These issues are able to be compassionately revealed in these one-on-one sessions.
  8. Effective at preparing a couple for the rigors of conjoint therapy. This includes developing emotional habits conducive to achieving marriage goals.
  9. A great option for spouses who work different schedules or find it difficult to arrange for baby-sitting.


  • Cases of controlling or manipulative behavior.
  • Domestic violence and/or any incidents of verbal, emotional, or psychological abuse.
  • Spouses with hidden agendas and/or any secretive behaviors.
  • Spouses who perceive they are being victimized.
  • Spouses looking for a referee or counselor to choose sides.
  • Spouses contemplating divorce or separation.
  • Spouses with a pattern of escalation who are unable to demonstrate an ability to remain emotionally calm when discussing difficult topics.

Individual Counseling with Marriage Goals. A spouse meets separately with their own counselor, and the goals are marriage goals. INDIVIDUAL COUNSELING WITH MARRIAGE GOALS RECOMMENDED CASES:

  1. If only one spouse wants to do marriage counseling. You wouldn’t think so, but I’ve seen spouses make great progress on marriage goals, even when their partner is not participating in counseling. I often do this style of marriage counseling for this reason.
  2. For many of the cases listed above where both conjoint and one-on-one marriage counseling is not recommended, individual counseling either focused on individual or marriage goals would be the best option.

See Love Habits Couples Resources