Marital therapists help couples solve problems, learn to communicate, and deepen the bonds that exist between them. The work is often difficult, but it is also highly rewarding. Below you’ll find a detailed account of why marriage counseling can be an essential exercise for couples and families, what a course of treatment looks like, and a few questions to help determine if a career as a marriage therapist is for you.
And, if you’re in a rush and you just want to find out how to become a marriage counselor, jump down to the section that reads, «Education and Training.» Those are the bare-bones details about what you’ll need to do to become a therapist who works with couples. If you have any questions or comments, please let us know! We’re glad you’re interested in counseling, and we’d love to answer any questions you may have.
Why Is Marriage Counseling Important?
Life can be tough, and in any family—whether that family is just two people who love each other or two people and their five kids—there will be situations that arise where the family unit needs help. There are innumerable issues that a married couple can face, but some of the most common problems that bring married people to counseling are:
Communication problems. Are people expressing themselves in a way that is hurtful to others
Is one partner listening, but not «hearing» the other?
Power struggles. Who makes most of the decisions in the relationship? Who is doing the «steering»? How does the other spouse feel about the couples’ power dynamic? Parenting styles and responsibilities. Do spouses share the same philosophy when it comes to raising kids? Is one of the children acting out, and parents have no idea what to do?
Relationship dynamics, either between the two married people, or between one of the married people and one or more of their children. Does one spouse have a particularly hard time with one of the children? How does that affect the other relationships in the family? What is the characteristics of each of the relationships in the family? Infidelity or extramarital affairs. Has one of the spouses cheated on the other? How is the couple working through the incident?
Mental health issues. Does one or both of the married people suffer from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or suffer from another mental health disorder? How does that affect the relationship? How does the couple deal with the issues tha arise from the condition?
Substance Abuse. Does one or both of the spouses abuse drugs or alcohol? How does that affect their relationship, and the lives of their children?
Regular old «Life is Hard» Difficulties. Are the spouses stressed at work, feeling underappreciated, or simply «falling out of love,» and need to revitalize their relationship? These are just a few of the reasons married couples come to counseling, and there are thousands more that you’ll experience if you become a marriage therapist. The amazing thing is—despite how difficult each of the problems above may seem, marriage counselors are trained to help couples face each of them!
How Marriage Counseling Works
Couples counseling sessions are usually divided into sessions where the therapist will meet each person individually, and then into sessions where the therapist will interact with the couple together. If one of the issues that a couple is working through involves another family member (one of the couple’s children, a mother-in-law, or someone who is related to the issues being discussed), that person may also be included in the sessions.
As the counselor spends time with the couple, he or she will observe their communication styles, and take note of the problematic dynamics that may be present in the relationship. S/he may use guided exercises and «coach» the couple on how to interact with each other, or use «reframing» or «rephrasing» techniques to help couples truly understand the other’s point of view. The therapist may also give homework assignments tailored to the couple’s presenting problem, and have them spend time together, practice an interaction technique used in a session, or experiment with a new style of interacting (ie, «Mary, instead of disciplining the kids, let Erik do it this week»). Therapy sessions may be time-limited, and a couple may visit the counselor for 12 or 16 weeks to deal with a specific incident, or they may continue sessions indefinitely, and receive help with issues as they pop up.
Many couples seek marriage counseling thinking that the therapist will take sides, and tell each spouse who is right and who is wrong about a particular issue. That’s not really the purpose of marriage counseling. The goal of couples therapy is to pinpoint the issues that are problematic to relationships, enhance communication, and increase the level of love and trust between spouses and family members.
Education and Training
In order to become a marriage counselor (and most marriage counselors practice not just as marriage counselors but as «marriage and family counselors»), a person needs to attain a certain level of education and attain a number of states licenses. The requirements to practice as a marriage counselor are determined by the state that a counselor will work in, but most states require marriage counselors to do at least the following.
Graduate from high school.
Receive a master’s degree, usually in psychology, social work, or counseling. Master’s degrees can usually be attained in two years for full-time students, or in three to four years for part-time students.
Pass a state exam proving to prove you’ve truly learned everything that they’ve taught you in your master’s program. Accrue a certain number of supervised work hours counseling clients. The number of hours is determined by each state, but the number of hours is usually between 1, 500 and 3, 000, and it usually takes two to three years to complete. Pass a final state exam after accruing the necessary work hours to get gain full licensure.
That sounds like a lot of work, but it actually goes by pretty quickly. You can begin to counselor people right after graduate from a master’s program and pass a test—you just need to do so under supervision. Many marriage counselors get their bachelor’s degree, work for a few years, and then start a master’s program in their late 20s or 30s, and the vocation is full of mid-life career-changers.
To find your state’s educational and licensing requirements, you can visit the state website and visit their «Office of Professions» or «Vocational Licenses» page. They usually have a listing of all the credentials you’ll need to practice. Here, for example, is the New York State page that lists each of the educational and licensing requirements to practice as a marriage counselor. It lists the education you’ll need to receive, the exams you’ll need to pass, and internships or work experience you’ll need to accrue in order to be a fully-licensed marriage counselor.
An important note about getting into a master’s program: many marriage therapists get an undergraduate degree in psychology, social work, or counseling (many colleges do not offer undergraduate counseling degrees), but it is important to note that many marriage and family therapists complete undergraduate degrees in other fields. So if you’re thinking about becoming a therapist, and you already have a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field, that may not hinder you from getting a master’s degree that will allow you to be a counselor. Many social work and counseling masters programs allow candidates to have a bachelor’s degree in any number of fields, and you should check with the master’s programs you’ll be applying to. Masters programs in psychology tend to be a little more strict, and only admit students who have. Again, check with the masters program you are applying to for details.
Is Marriage Counseling for Me?
Therapists who work with couples and married people report a high level of job satisfaction, but are also quick to note that the work can be very difficult. It’s not easy to sit with people who are yelling at each other. However, because martial counseling has a very high success rate—that is, couples who commit to counseling often report a significant increase in their marital happiness—marital counselors feel that they have made a difference, and improve the lives and relationships of those they have worked with.
If you have an interest in human dynamics (that is, how people interact with each other) and excellent diagnostic skills (in other words, the ability to observe a couple’s relationships and determine the reasons for conflict), marriage counseling can be a satisfying and profitable career. If you decide to continue in the career, we wish you all the best! Marriage counselors provide a clear and lasting benefit for couples, and they help families stay intact and learn to love each other better.