Find Out Why
Many "Marriage Counselors"
Get Poor Grades

Your Quick Guide to Relationship Success
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Your Quick Guide to Relationship Success
Buy Audiobook on Amazon

Will Marriage Counseling Really Help My Marriage?

Couple enjoying a picnic in a field

Will Marriage Counselors Really Help My Marriage? So, the answer
to that question depends largely on two things. First, the effort that you and your partner are willing to put forth both inside and outside the therapy office. And second, the education, training, and experience of your marriage counselor or relationship therapist.

Although it's important for therapists to know what information and techniques are helpful to couples, knowing what doesn't work should also be part of every relationship counselors skill set.

Speaking of knowing what doesn't work, here's a little fact that many couples therapists might prefer you didn't read: In an article titled "Does Therapy Help?" Consumer Reports Magazine reported that couples counselors got very poor ratings.

Why the low marks?

Your Marriage Counselor
Must Have The Right Skills

One reason is that marriage counselors and couples counselors often attempt to teach couples how to communicate better by teaching them to use reflective listening techniques. Reflective listening is where you parrot back to your partner or spouse what they just said. It goes like this, "What I hear you saying is that . . ."

Research shows that reflective listening is annoying and doesn't help couples. The sad news is that reflective listening is probably the most widely practiced "marriage counseling" intervention in the United States.

Maybe that's why the nationwide relapse rate for typical marital therapy runs as high as 50 percent.

Your Marriage Counselor
Must be Cut Out for The Job

Another important reason for those poor ratings and high relapse rates is that not every therapist is really cut out for the emotional and intellectual rigors of couples work.

According to the Journal of Couples Therapy, inexperienced "therapists are attempting to master the skills of becoming couples therapists which is no easy task. . . . This particular method of psychotherapy does not lend itself well to all therapists."

According to an article about Couples Therapy in the Sunday New York Times,"Couples therapy is the most challenging . . . Part of the problem is that the kind of person who tends to become a therapist . . . is generally not the kind of person who is a good couples therapist."

How Do I Choose
Among The Various Marriage Counselors?

First, understand the difference between a general practitioner and a Relationship Specialist.

Its like understanding the difference between your Primary Care Physician and a Heart Specialist. If you had a heart condition you would probably want to skip right past your Primary Care Physician and go straight to see a Cardiologist. Who wouldn't?

A Cardiologist is a specialist in the disorders, structure, and function of the heart. By the same token, a Relationship Specialist is a specialist in the disorders, structure, and function of a marriage or relationship.

Not all therapists who advertise as "couples counselors" are Relationship Specialists.

In fact, its just the opposite. Most psychotherapists with MA or PhD credentials practice as generalists. That is, by analogy to your Primary Care Physician, they have a general understanding of how to work with individuals, couples, children, families, and groups.

Relationship Specialists, on the other hand, are analogous to Cardiologists. Where Cardiologists have developed specialized skills working only with the heart, Relationship Specialists have focused on becoming skilled at working only with couples.

Relationship Specialists devote their training, experience, and education to having, in my opinion, a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of couples issues than would be expected of a therapist working as a general practitioner.

Second, understand that not all therapists advertising as "marriage counselors" are Relationship Specialists.

General practitioners advertising as "marriage counselors" probably have, in my opinion, less experience working with couples when compared to Relationship Specialists.

General practitioners who work with both couples and individuals have reported to me that they tend to treat fewer couples than individuals. He has been told by general practitioners on several occasions, "Oh, I only see one or two couples per week."

Why? One reason given to me is that individual clients tend to stay in therapy longer than couples. As a result, some general practitioners find their practices filling up with individual clients with little space left to treat couples.

Does this make a difference? It might, remember the 50 percent relapse rate for couples. Let's look at an example.

Third, Know that Experience is Measured in Sessions and Years.

If a general practitioner sees two couples per week and eighteen individual clients per week (20 sessions total), at the end of the year that generalist has facilitated about one hundred couples sessions. Sounds okay? Well, keep reading.

If a Relationship Specialist (who only works with couples) sees twenty couples per week, at the end of the year that specialist has facilitated more than one thousand couples sessions.

After ten years of practice, the generalist will have seen only as many couples as the Relationship Specialist sees in a single year.

After ten years, the Relationship Specialist will have facilitated more than 10,000 couples sessions.

So, who would you rather trust with your heart? The Primary Care Physician or the Cardiologist?

In my opinion, a general practitioner who spends ninety-five percent of their professional time working with individual clients, for example, and five percent of their professional time working with couples, ultimately builds ninety-five percent of their skills working with individuals and only five percent of their skills working with couples.

And there in lies another challenge. According to the previously mentioned New York Times article,"All of [an individual therapist's] wonderful joining skills from individual therapy can backfire within seconds with a couple . . . timing is also crucial, far more than in individual therapy."

And finally, according to Dr. William Pinsof, professor of clinical psychology and president of the Family Institute of Northwestern University, "A lot of therapists who primarily work with individuals feel overwhelmed by the number of variables they have to deal with when they work with couples."

As you consider which therapist to trust with your relationship, remember that not all therapists who advertise "couples counseling" or "marriage counseling" are Relationship Specialists.

The only way to find out whether a therapist is a generalist or a Relationship Specialist is to ask questions. In my opinion, the general rule of thumb is: A Relationship Specialist treats only couples and does not work with individual clients.

Steven M. Cohn, PhD

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Steven M. Cohn, PhD is the Director of the Portland Couples Counseling Center and Co-Founder of the Irvington Counseling and Healing Arts Center. Steven Cohn, PhD specializes in treating couples from all backgrounds.

What Does the Mayo Clinic Have to Say About Marriage Counselors?

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Steven M Cohn, PhD is pleased to have been featured on Oregon Live "Why Oregon's Latest Divorce Statistics May Be Divorced From Reality"

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Steven M Cohn, PhD, MBA, LMFT has twice been named one of the top three marriage counselors in Portland, Oregon by the non-profit organization Three Best Rated

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