If you’re seeking help for your marriage or relationship, you have probably noticed that there are many providers out there with many different titles and names. You might be wondering what’s the difference between marriage counseling (or couples counseling, or relationship counseling) and marriage coaching. Good question!

If you’re a bit confused, you’re not alone. It’s not super clear-cut what the differences are, on top of which there are folks out there doing one thing and calling it another. Let’s try to break down the differences between marriage counseling and marriage coaching.

marriage counseling vs. marriage coaching

Different Terms, Same Deal?

For starters, let’s clarify that “therapy” and “counseling” are the same thing for all intents and purposes. You won’t find any consistent or measurable difference between a marriage therapist and a marriage counselor – it’s really simply a linguistic preference (kind of like, say, soda vs. pop). So we’ll use those terms interchangeably. (Likewise, marriage counseling, couples counseling, and relationship counseling are all the same thing.)

Coaching, on the other hand, is arguably different from counseling or therapy in a number of ways; that said, there’s still a lot of overlap between them, and it’s not unlikely you’ll find a therapist using coaching techniques and vice-versa. (Note that it’s technically illegal to provide counseling without a license; but since it is not so easy to distinguish one from the other, especially when it comes to working with couples, you may well find coaches using therapy techniques.)

Here are the main differences between marriage counseling and marriage coaching:

  1. Coaches are future-oriented; counselors address both the future and the past.

  2. Counselors are trained to address mental health issues, while coaches are not.


couples coaching vs. couples therapy

Let’s spell this out a little more:

1. Past vs. Future

The primary difference between counseling and coaching, which is true for individuals as well as for couples, is where the focus of the work is. Coaches generally help clients work on goals and on strategies for getting there; counselors may address the psychological underpinnings of the relationship in addition to offering strategies for meeting future goals. This can be somewhat simplistically reduced to “past vs. future” (although counseling usually involves both).

Thus, in marriage coaching you might talk about communication skills, conflict resolution, date nights, and other things you can do to make a change in the relationship. In counseling you might go a little bit deeper, digging into the roots of how your relationship came to be the way it is and how your individual histories and personalities play into that.

For example, attachment theory is a popular and evidence-based approach in marriage counseling that looks at your attachment to your parents, especially very early in your life, as a way of understanding the problems in your current relationship. (Emotion-Focused Therapy is an example of a modality that is based on attachment theory.)

Not every counselor will talk about attachment or your psychological makeup; not every coach will refrain from these. We are talking in very broad generalizations here.

relationship counseling vs. relationship coaching

2. Mental Health Issues

A marriage counselor is a clinically licensed practitioner of some form of mental health discipline. (There are formal degrees in marriage & family counseling, although therapists of all kinds, including marriage counselors, can also be social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, or professional counselors. The distinctions between all of these are for another post.)

Anyone who has a degree in one of these areas has had at least some education (and possibly a whole lot of it) on mental health issues, which are certainly relevant to your marriage. Depression, anxiety, trauma, and a host of other conditions can have a significant impact on your relationships. A counselor is trained to recognize the signs of these mental health challenges and respond appropriately.

In some cases responding might mean bringing in elements of treatment for that particular condition (perhaps even as simple as relaxation techniques). Generally, however, it is inadvisable for a counselor to treat a couple for relationship issues and at the same time one of the individuals in the couple for mental health concerns. It is usually better to refer the individual(s) needing mental health care to a separate provider.

All this is not to say that a coach won’t spot a problem if someone is demonstrating, say, OCD symptoms. But they may not know what to do with that, and even if they did, it is illegal for someone without a proper clinical license to treat mental health issues. (Many coaches, including us, do have mental health training as well. That said, training or no, it is illegal to treat mental health issues in a jurisdiction where you are not licensed. In the US/Canada, licensure goes by state/province.)

relationship help


I want to note that there is information out there that I believe is inaccurate and misleading. Here are some things that are not different between coaches and counselors:

1. Counselors focus only on the past while coaches focus on the future.

I’m not even sure what this is supposed to mean. Does a marriage counselor just mediate old arguments and decide who’s right? Or help them get over a painful incident from the past and then wish the couple well?

Obviously not. Sure, coaches might focus more on the future and less on the past, but that doesn’t mean a counselor won’t help give you tools and plans for the future. What kind of help is it to clear out the past if the future is going to be just as rotten, based on the couple’s skills and understandings in the present?

Anyone who is working with couples is hopefully giving them what they need to succeed in the future, not just cleaning up old messes. If you’re working with a professional who isn’t doing that – find someone else.

Also, it doesn’t make much sense to suggest that coaches will never address past issues. If there have been past problems in the relationship of any significance, it may not be possible to just do better going forward without talking about what happened before. Again, if someone suggests to you that nothing from the past should be brought up – find someone else.

fix a marriage

2. Coaches work collaboratively with the couple, assuming the couple to be the expert on their own relationship; counselors operate from a medical model where the counselor is assumed to be the expert providing the answers.

Maybe there are some counselors who see things this way (maybe there are some coaches as well). But it’s certainly not standard practice in the field. Decades ago mental health care was seen as something performed on a patient by a medical doctor (i.e., psychiatrist). That’s really not how it goes anymore. (The exception, perhaps, is in cases of significant mental illness where an individual does need firm direction on how to manage themselves.)

Certainly any marriage counselor worth their salt is working collaboratively with the couple and understands that, since every pair is different, the couple knows themselves better than the counselor does. Paternalistically asserting that the counselor knows who the couple is and what they need without taking feedback from the couple isn’t all that helpful.

By the same token, any coach you’re working with better have some expertise to offer! Not that they have all the answers to your problems, but if they don’t have a good grasp of relationship dynamics, common problems and solutions, what works and what doesn’t, etc., then however humble and collaborative they are, they won’t be of much help to you!

marital therapy

3. Coaching is cheaper than counseling.

I have encountered many coaches who charge hundreds of dollars per session. I have also seen some who charge far less. It’s across the board – there are less expensive options and more expensive options, regardless of whether the provider is a coach or a counselor.

Another relevant point about cost is that counseling can sometimes be billed to insurance and coaching never can. Coaching is explicitly not mental health treatment, so health insurance has nothing to do with it. Couples therapy, on the other hand, is of course considered a form of therapy, which conceivably falls under the umbrella of mental health care.

Note, however, that to bill insurance, a counselor must tell the insurance company which mental illness they are treating. “Relationship issues” is not a mental illness.  

Counselors who bill insurance are often assigning one of the partners a diagnosis (regardless, unfortunately, of whether they truly qualify for that diagnosis, or whether that condition is what’s being treated). If you are going through your health insurance, you may want to ask what diagnosis the counselor is giving you.

You will also find that many coaches use a package model for charging clients – e.g., you have to commit to a 3-month package of weekly sessions in order to work with them. Thus, even if they charge a lower per-session rate, you might find yourself paying more overall if you don’t use the full package (whether because you get what you needed sooner or because you wish to end the process in the middle).

Personally, I don’t believe in the package approach for a number of reasons. First, I’ve definitely seen people meet their goals in just a handful or sessions or even just one. Second, the whole model is designed to benefit the coach and not the couple. Yes, there is value to having the couple commit to a certain period of work. I don’t agree that locking them in financially is truly done altruistically for their benefit. Many couples can get the results they need without committing to paying up front for a certain length of time.

marriage coach


The bottom line is this: marriage counselors and marriage coaches are both equipped to help you with your relationship issues. You will find very competent professionals in both disciplines, and, unfortunately, very incompetent ones as well. Neither an advanced degree nor a boutique price tag are good indicators that a given professional can help you successfully.

So what’s the answer? Finding the right person to help you is a bigger question, but at the end of the day, the truth is you can’t know until you try someone out. No matter how “good” someone is at what they do, coaching and counseling are based on personal relationships, and you need to feel comfortable with the person you’re working with.

So, if you’re looking for marriage help and are interested in meeting with us to see if we’re the ones for you, please contact us and let’s connect!