In this weekly feature, the editors of SpringBoard highlight one career in the health care professions–including a basic description, educational requirements, core competencies/key skills needed, and related web sites and professional organizations where you can find more information!
Marriage and family counselors will counsel couples as well as couples and their children. As a counselor who has counseled couples and families, I find that counseling couples is likely to be less complicated than counseling couples and their dependents, as the number of people in the session has been reduced to two. Naturally, counseling couples will also involve addressing parenting issues (if they have children), issues each partner brings from their own family of origin, and the current situation of their relationship.
Issues to Understand
Couples counseling will be more akin to family counseling than group counseling or individual counseling. However, couples counseling will differ from family counseling in that children will not be present in the session. Most counselors will find couples counseling simpler than family counseling due to addressing the needs of two versus three to five people. Just as in family counseling, counselors must be attuned to issues of abuse. Some research estimates that more than 40% of couples who attend counseling have experienced domestic abuse (Gladding, 2009). Couples counselors must also be aware of potential child abuse, addiction, unemployment or underemployment, family-of-origin issues, and many more. Perhaps one of the more interesting issues that couples counselors face is that the quality of couples counseling may not involve whether or not the couples remain together. In my experience of many years counseling couples, I found that more than 50% of couples chose to break up. Yet, virtually all couples I counseled seemed to feel that counseling was helpful. Some partners come to counseling to improve their relationship and others see counseling as a safe, orderly place to break up. Couples counselors should remember that it is not their job to keep couples together, but rather to provide them the tools to have a healthier relationship either together or separately.
Best Aspects of the Job
Many couples counselors are likely to express that assisting a couple to have a healthier, more fulfilling relationship is one of the more rewarding parts of the job. Couples counselors will also be able to witness relationship changes on a weekly basis, as they will see the couple regularly. Through homework in session role play, writing, drawing, and drama therapy, the couples counselor has a front row seat to promoting healthy change in the relationship.
Challenging Aspects of the Job
Perhaps the most difficult part of the couples counselor’s job is that many couples will utilize couples counseling as a place to dissolve their relationship. Beginning couples counselors may have a lot of difficulty with this reality. Also, physical, sexual, and verbal abuse will be present in the relationships of many couples who come to counseling. Couples in counseling will often exhibit outright anger and hostility and will occasionally transfer that animus onto the counselor. When issues of domestic abuse arise, the battered partner will often defend the abuser much to the chagrin of the counselor. Basically, counseling couples can be emotionally challenging work.
Occupational Outlook and Salary
BOLS (2010–2011) projects the profession of family counseling to grow by a rate of 12% over the next 7 to 10 years. Median earnings for marriage and family counselors are roughly $45,000, though there may be considerable variation depending on the work setting.