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Our family is usually considered our foundation – a system of unconditional support and love we can turn to even in the darkest times.
Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, fathers, and mothers offer us sympathetic ears when we experience loss, enthusiastic praise during a victory, and guidance through personal growth. However, sometimes cracks appear in this foundation, damaging the ability to connect with loved ones.
Negative emotions and communication patterns tear families apart, affecting multiple areas of life. Problems at home can lead to depression, difficulties at work and school, divorce, and anxiety, impacting each family member in different ways.
While someone experiencing problems in their family might feel as if they are on a downward spiral, there are solutions to reversing negative trends. Marriage and family therapists offer a range of treatments that allow individuals and families to recognize problem areas, and work toward solving them.
By meeting with families, listening to specific concerns, and offering strategies for communication, affection, and compromise, marriage and family therapists hope to repair cracks in the family foundation.
What problems do marriage and family therapists treat?
Marriage and family therapists blend knowledge of traditional therapy with a family-oriented approach to tackle a variety of conflicts. In one session, they might meet with a family to discuss emotional deficits, only to pinpoint the substance abuse of the father as the major problem, meeting with him individually in later sessions.
Who do marriage and family therapists see?
Most people will encounter difficulties in their families and relationships in their lifetimes. While many people work through these difficulties themselves, others require the outside help of a marriage and family therapist.
According to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, marriage and family therapists see over 6.1 million people annually. These include:
- 2,294,728 individuals
- 808,798 children
- 752,370 couples
- 526,659 families
- A total of 3.4% of American households
Source: American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy
In “Current Status and Future Directions in Couple Therapy,” published in The Annual Review of Psychology, researchers note that marital distress and conflict leads to a wide range of effects – not only in partners, but in children as well.
By emphasizing the interpersonal context in which these conflicts occur, and by including multiple members of the family in direct treatment, marriage and family therapists coach couples through distressed periods in their relationships. Typical concerns they treat include:
- Child conduct disorders
- Communication deficits
- Substance abuse
- Marital problems
The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy states that 90% of those who meet with marriage and family therapists report improved emotional health, 75% report improved relationships, and others find improved functioning at work or social situations.
Improving communication and strengthening ties
Strong communication is a key element for healthy relationships, and is usually a major quality marriage and family therapists seek to establish in families and partners.
According to “Empirically Supported Couple and Family Interventions for Marital Distress and Adult Mental Health Problems,” published in The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, there are a number of strategies that help improve communication in families.
In the article, researchers Donald Baucom and others describe these strategies falling into the main areas of:
- Cognitive and Behavioral Marital Therapies
- Insight-Oriented and Emotionally Focused Therapies
Cognitive and Behavioral Marital Therapies
Cognitive and Behavioral Marital Therapies (CBMT) are skills-based approaches that stress greater understanding of relationship interactions. Couples undergoing marital distress may feel their negative interactions are greatly outweighing positive ones, and feel unable to break the cycle.
Basic qualities of marriage and family therapies
While marriage and family therapists have access to a variety of techniques, common factors exist between all strategies. According to “Outcome Studies of Family Therapy in Child and Adolescent Depression,” these qualities include:
- Promotion of family discussion and communication
- Clarification of meanings to create new shared understanding
- Promotion of family problem solving
- Reduction of negative and increase in positive interactions
- Enhancement of sense of control and mastery
- Focus on solutions
Source: Journal of Family Therapy
Therapists introducing CBMT ask couples to plan out behavioral changes that increase the number of pleasing interactions they have, while minimizing negative ones. These sessions could also include exercises dealing with anger management and control in the hopes of reducing aggression in their conversations.
Because aggression arises mainly from communication deficits, the therapist teaches the couple to explain their feelings to each other in more detail. This includes the use of phrases like, “I feel hurt when you ..” rather than blaming a partner for something they did.
As aggressive interactions are reduced, the therapist assigns the couple “homework” where they engage in more positive activities. Some of these could include taking walks, attending theater performances, and other romantic gestures.
Insight-Oriented and Emotionally Focused Therapies
Rather than focusing on increasing positive future interactions, insight-oriented and emotionally focused therapies concentrate instead on building understanding of past actions between couples.
Partners undergoing a distressing period may be stuck in negative emotional patterns that prevent them from accepting each other and feeling attached. Emotions like fear, disgust, shame, sadness or anger damage attachment – which therapists hold as a key element of healthy relationships.
These emotions grow more severe overtime, until couple interactions are limited to defensive communication and hostility.
Therapists introducing these strategies first ask couples when such emotions arose, hoping to explore the extent of the attachment injury. Typically, such situations first appeared after a betrayal in the relationship occurred, such as placing other priorities above the partner.
Next, the therapist asks both partners to articulate the reasons they believe the betrayal happened, while understanding that it happened in the past. One partner may place significant blame on the other, who withdraws or defends their actions.
The final stage of therapy asks both partners to acknowledge the emotions surrounding the event, but agreeing to move on from it. The betrayed partner must become more trusting and less hostile, while the betraying partner must accept responsibility and attend to more of their partner’s needs.
Becoming a marriage and family therapist
If you’re interested in helping couples and families create lasting foundations that will serve them through life, consider becoming a marriage and family therapist. Request information from schools offering programs in marriage and family therapy and other fields of psychology. Also, explore how to become licensed in marriage and family therapy.
Including children in therapy
Couples undergoing stressful periods aren’t the only ones who suffer – their children also sense damage to the family infrastructure.
According to “The Effectiveness of Family Therapy and Systemic Interventions for Child-Focused Problems,” published in The Journal of Family Therapy, family-based strategies can help children overcome these problems.
The article, by researcher Alan Carr, notes that these children sometimes develop issues like conduct disorder, which can be treated in conjunction with relationship issues.
In initial sessions, therapists meet with the child to understand why they might be acting out. Therapists believe that symptoms of conduct disorder tend to stem from a particular event or situation, and look to uncover it.
During the next stages, therapists ask the child what they hope to accomplish with their negative conduct, and what some of the impacts it actually has. Many times, children are hoping to regain the attention of their parents, who have been more focused on their relationship than the child.
Therapists are then able to include this information in separate sessions with the parents, bringing to light some of the emotions the child is experiencing. By understanding why their child has lashed out, they adjust their interactions with him or her. Typically, this includes conversations reinforcing their love, and increasing their attempts to mend their own damaged relationship.