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Marriage and Family Counselor

Learn about the Marriage and Family Counselor career

marriage counselor

A boy sitting at the kitchen table leans over and covers his ears to drown out the noise. His math homework stares back at him unhelpfully, offering no escape from the endless fights and arguments.

He overhears his father yell something about missing a meeting, only to hear his mother rebuff him, screaming about family priorities. It seems to worsen every day, with no end in sight.

While positive outcomes in these situations might seem bleak, couples are able to work through their differences to create strong family bonds once again. With the help and expertise of marriage and family counselors, couples learn to communicate their emotions and feelings in more effective ways, rescuing their relationships from the brink of collapse.

Who are marriage and family counselors?

If you've ever witnessed distress in a family before, you understand the daily challenges and worries that permeate the home environment. Maybe you know a friend who is struggling through a divorce, or perhaps you, yourself have experienced similar situations.

Marriage and family counselors have an exceptional understanding of these and other challenges that families face on a daily basis. Counselors work with family members to identify roles, communication deficiencies, and dysfunctional behavioral patterns, hoping to educate couples about positive interaction strategies.

With their understanding of family issues and treatments, counselors take multiple viewpoints into consideration when working with clients. They see each member of a family as an individual with certain needs, and then reframe those needs in the context of the whole family.

This level of insight is developed through years of education and experience in counseling. Marriage and family counselors must become certified in the state they work in, earning a master's degree in the field and two years of supervised clinical experience.

Backed with this certification, counselors can effectively treat couples experiencing distress. Without any treatment, these relationships tend to deteriorate over time, eventually leading to additional pain, loss, and even divorce.

Why do couples seek help from counselors?

When couples feel they cannot communicate with each other, they often seek the assistance of marriage and family counselors. Marital distress causes partners to experience difficulty working together and accepting each other's differences, leading them to lash out in negative ways.

According to "What Predicts Change in Marital Interaction Over Time? A Study of Alternative Models," published in Family Process, several factors are most predictive of divorce for couples.

The study, conducted by researchers John Gottman and Robert Levenson, notes that when couples argue or fight, there are negative and positive ways to resolve the conflict. When resolution becomes increasingly negative, divorce becomes more and more likely.

The most consistent predictors of divorce found during conflict resolution are:

  • Feelings of disgust
  • Feelings of contempt
  • Defensiveness
  • Belligerence
  • Acting in a domineering way
  • Stonewalling the other partner

By engaging in these aversive behaviors, couples exchange fewer rewarding behaviors and become distressed. Distressed spouses are more likely to respond aversively in turn, while also becoming more sensitive to those behaviors. It creates a never-ending spiral that eventually leads to divorce and dissolution of the family.

With strategies offered by marriage and family counselors, couples learn alternative ways to communicate their emotions and differences. Through a combination of change and acceptance, they are able to save their relationships and maintain their family structures.

As a counselor, how would I help these clients?

Marriage and family counseling offers couples a chance to reconnect and improve their lives and the lives of any children they might have. Children who are suffering from a couple's dysfunctions often recover when the couple recovers, meaning the marriage and family counselor must provide them with strategies to change and cope. (See also Child Counseling)

These strategies often come in the form of both traditional and integrative behavioral couple therapies, which aim to establish greater closeness and intimacy between the partners.

According to "Traditional vs. Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy for Significantly and Chronically Distressed Married Couples," published in The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, both strategies are generally effective in treating couples, but tackle challenges in different ways.

The article, by authors Andrew Christensen and others, reports that these treatments produce similar levels of success by the end of the process. Approximately 71% of couples who underwent IBCT in the study reported improvement, while 59% of TBCT couples reported improvement.

Traditional Behavioral Couple Therapy

In TBCT, the counselor relies on three major strategies to improve a couple's relationship:

  • Behavioral exchange
  • Communication skills training
  • Problem-solving training

During the behavioral exchange phase, the therapist asks each spouse to generate a list of the specific, positive behaviors they want to see from each other. With these behaviors understood and in the open, the therapist asks the couple to increase the mutual exchange of these behaviors.

In communication skills training, the therapist focuses on both speaking and listening skills. These include using "I" statements, such as "I feel hurt when you miss my events," instead of "You're being selfish and inconsiderate." Couples learn to actively listen to each other's concerns without taking the concerns personally.

Couples who learn problem-solving skills are able to define their problems more accurately, and generate positive alternatives to problematic behavior. By considering alternatives, they weigh the pros and cons of their behavior, and implement more positive changes to behavior.

Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy

Counselors originally introduced IBCT to enhance traditional methods, but the practice has become more differentiated over time. While TBCT focuses on enacting changes to behavior, IBCT concentrates on emotional acceptance of past behaviors.

The counselor uses three main strategies when engaging in IBCT with clients:

  • Empathic joining around a problem
  • Unified detachment from the problem
  • Building tolerance to responses the problem can trigger

During IBCT, the counselor tries to build empathy between the couple. Because both clients are mutually suffering from emotional anguish surrounding the relationship, they can identify with each other's feelings. While specific problems might underlie these issues, the therapist tries to make the emotions the focus of the session.

Then the counselor tries to create a unified detachment from the problem, helping couples to step back and take a descriptive stance toward the behavior that created the emotions. For example, the therapist might have the couple describe the sequence of actions that led to the behavior, and what specific triggers escalate their emotions.

With specific triggers identified, the counselor moves to analyze each couple's reactions, and the functions of the problem behaviors each displays. If a wife is struggling because a husband is consistently late to dinner, the husband might note that he feels he needs time to decompress after work, and needs alone time.

With an understanding of why a partner is engaging in a certain behavior, the counselor encourages the couple to engage in that behavior more often, allowing each to build tolerance to the previously problematic behavior. By engaging in that behavior more frequently, clients become more comfortable with it, taking it less personally. Both understand the functions of the behavior, and change their reactions to it.

Becoming a marriage and family counselor

If you're interested in learning more about how couples can solve their differences with the help of marriage and family counselors, request information from schools offering Counseling degree programs. Also, learn more about the counseling licensing process and what the requirements for licensure are: Counseling Licensure.

Who benefits from marriage and family counseling the most?

According to "Research on Couples and Couple Therapy: What Do We Know? Where Are We Going?" published in The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, certain couples are more likely to positively respond to treatment than others.

In the study, researchers Neil Jacobson and Michael Addis note that couples therapy isn't always successful, and depends on a variety of factors outside of the actual therapeutic strategies.

Unfortunately, severely distressed couples are far less likely to save a marriage, even with the help of a counselor. Highly distressed couples often become depressed, and are unable to reconcile their differences.

Couples who identify their challenges early and enter treatment are much more likely to stay together after treatment. These couples are typically younger, and are more open to suggestions from the counselor because they have spent less time creating an environment of aversive behaviors.

Additionally, couples who actively engage in their conflicts are more likely to work through them, more so than couples who avoid their issues. With time, these suppressed feelings grow and grow until they become impossible to overcome.

By actively communicating with each other from the beginning, couples can defeat many of the problematic emotions that cause them to distance themselves from each other. Attending counseling early and often helps them to bolster their chances of success, learning to accept many of their differences.

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            • Ranked among top Regional Universities in the South by U.S. News and World Report in 2015.
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            The Chicago School of Professional Psychology , Online (campus option available)
            • Designated a 2015 Military Friendly School by Victory Media for the 4th consecutive year.
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            • Links students to hundreds of training opportunities ( beyond their traditional internships and practicum) at their many “partner agencies” in each of their local communities. 
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            Regent University prepares students with the knowledge to excel and the faith to live with purpose. Our 20,000 alumni, from more than 110 countries, are changing the world as accomplished professionals. Named a top-15 school nationally for online bachelor's programs (U.S. News & World Report, 2015), Regent is among the most affordable undergraduate Christian colleges (CCCU 2015). Fully accredited, challenging programs are available online and on campus. New classes begin every eight weeks.

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            •        Ranked among the top 20 Regional Universities in the West in 2015 by U.S. News & World Report.

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            •        Student to faculty ratio of 15:1, and 47.5% of classes have fewer than 20 students.

            •        Accredited by The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC).

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            Argosy University , Online (campus option available)
            • Designated as a 2015 Military Friendly® School by Victory Media, publishers of G.I. Jobs®.
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            University of Phoenix , Online (campus option available)
            • Provides career services that help students find careers that match their interests and map out a personalized career plan.
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