You and your spouse are having serious problems. You've thought about marriage counseling. But, you're not sure who to go to. This is a serious concern.
William Doherty of the University of Minnesota, himself an experienced marital therapist, has studied this issue extensively. He found that while many marriage therapists are well trained and fully competent, others, who also call themselves marriage therapists, are not and will cause more harm than good for couples seeking help.
Even before seeking professional help, ask yourself what you really want: Are you after a healthy marriage or are you only looking for someone to justify your decision to get divorced? Are you ready to work to hold your marriage together, or are you just going through the paces to make yourself look good to friends and family?
Doherty suggests asking pointed questions of the therapist before beginning counseling:
•Ask the counselor about his or her training and experience in marital therapy.
Doherty reports nearly 80 percent of all private practice therapists say they do “marital therapy,” but only 12 percent of them have taken courses of study that “requires even one class or any supervised experience” in couples' counseling.
Instead of having specific education in the field of marital therapy, they've attended some workshops and done some self-training. Neither of these is nearly enough.
•Avoid counselors who “mostly do individual therapy.”
Working through the dynamics of a marriage, especially if there are children involved, is far different than trying to work an individual through a personal problem. Unfortunately, most people who seek counseling for their marital problems are actually seeing a counselor only trained in individual therapy. Doherty warns “that's where a lot of the damage to marriage goes on.”
•Ask the therapist about her or his “attitude toward salvaging a troubled marriage versus helping couples break up.” If the answer is they're “neutral,” consider finding another counselor.
Being “neutral” sounds good, but it ignores the enormous body of research saying that marriage is usually highly beneficial for couples and their children. Likewise, answering that “I don't try to save marriages, I try to help people” ignores the fact that most people are better off if the marriage is saved.
•If the counselor believes in “starter marriages,” leave.
Doherty calls this the language of “consumerist ethics,” which completely ignores the value of stable relationships and personal commitment.
•Avoid counselors, however, who “do not believe in divorce.” Highly contentious marriages, especially if there is physical abuse, should not be saved. Insisting that all marriages be saved at all cost may be putting people at risk of physical harm.
•Ask what percentage of the couples the counselor sees who are able to stay together with “a reasonable amount of satisfaction with the relationship”? Likewise, ask what percentage break up.
If the answer is 100 percent to either question, go someplace else. If the counselor brushes the question aside, saying it doesn't matter, or that staying together is not a measure of success, Doherty says, “I'd be concerned.”
Counselors who see their job as helping each spouse “clarify their personal values and decisions” won't try to save the marriage. They don't understand the value of the marriage as a separate entity. They are doing what some have called “pre-divorce” counseling, not marriage counseling.
If you're having heart surgery, you want a trained heart surgeon, not an eye doctor. Qualified marriage counselors are trained to get to the heart of marital issues. Your marriage is too important to trust to someone who's not qualified.