Marriage Counselors: 10 Things They Don't Want You To Know

08/20/2012 12:41 pm ET | Updated Aug 20, 2012
  • KELLI B. GRANT SmartMoney

You're ready to talk and -- finally -- so is your spouse. But who can you trust when your heart, time and money are on the line?

Here are the 10 things your marriage counselor won't say.

1. I have no business giving relationship advice.

Divorce rates for baby boomers have doubled in the past 20 years, with one in four couples over age 50 calling it quits by 2009, according to a study from Bowling Green State University released earlier this summer. Although overall figures have fallen in recent years, some estimates still put the divorce rate for all new marriages at roughly 50%. But couples looking to stave off a split may want to choose their expert help with care. Training and experience levels among purveyors of marriage advice run the gamut from never-took-Psych-101 to spent-more-time-in-school-than-your-doctor.

State-licensed psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health counselors and social workers can all offer sessions for couples, as can licensed marriage and family therapists. To earn the latter distinction, therapists are required by states to get at least a master's degree in the discipline and a passing score on a national licensing exam, followed by a set number of client hours -- from 1,500 hours in New York to 3,000 in Texas -- under the supervision of another fully licensed practitioner. But pretty much anyone can hang out a shingle as a marriage coach, relationship adviser or other uniquely labeled provider of "alternative marriage counseling" -- they just can't call the services "therapy." License or no, experts say the risk for consumers is that it's so easy to pick a provider who doesn't have the education or skills to solve their problems.

A license provides a baseline -- the client knows that the therapist has experience and education in the field, which isn't guaranteed with unlicensed providers, says Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, which oversees licensing. It's no guarantee, however. Couples should ask about the provider's overall qualifications, says Dr. Karen Ruskin, a Boston-based licensed marriage therapist and clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. For example, an unlicensed provider might well have earned a psychology degree or completed training or certification courses in relevant areas. Pastors and other religious leaders can get counseling certifications or even qualify as a state-licensed pastoral therapist. Some licensed professionals, on the other hand, may offer services to couples as a side effort but lack marriage-specific training, she says. Plus, many of the consumer complaints about marriage therapists that Texas receives each year are linked back to therapists who are practicing despite having an expired license, says Van Deusen. Most state departments of health services maintain a database consumers can check to confirm a provider's licensing status, and to see any complaints that have been logged against him or her.

2. You're not going to make it.

Dr. John Gottman, who developed the Gottman Method of couples therapy and co-founded the Gottman Relationship Institute that certifies therapists in the method, has another claim to fame: He has said his studies in the field enable him to predict within minutes of meeting a couple whether they will eventually divorce, with better than 90% accuracy. Just don't expect Gottman (who wasn't available for an interview) or any other therapist to tell you flat out, says Dr. Dave Penner, a licensed clinical psychologist and the assistant clinical director at the Gottman institute. "You don't say to a couple, 'Too bad, you've got all the predictors of divorce,'" he says. That's not conducive to therapy, which is about changing those behaviors, he says. (Of course, telling a couple that their chances of resolution are nil would also mean they'd stop going to -- and paying for -- counseling sessions. But therapists say hiding information just to keep clients coming isn't ethical.) A 2005 Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology study found that five years after receiving eight months of therapy, half of couples said their relationships had improved. A quarter were divorced, and the remaining 25% were still having problems.

Couples may be able to pick up a few cues, however. A practitioner might point out that a couple has major challenges ahead, or is exhibiting some characteristics that can lead to divorce, says Penner. Expect to be called out if you're obviously coming in just to go through the motions, but not to attempt actual improvement, says Dr. Lynda Doyle, a licensed marriage therapist in Yarmis, Maine. "You can tell somebody's already checked out of the relationship," she says. "I'll tell them they can do fake therapy for another five sessions if they want, or try the real thing.

3. I like your partner better than I like you.

Over the course of trying to resolve marital problems during the '90s, John Wilder of Midway, Ga., and his then-wife saw nine different marriage therapists. None of them helped, says Wilder, who has a bachelor's degree in behavioral science and has since trained as a marriage coach. His main gripe: He contends that because the counselors didn't address problems equally, they did more harm than good.

It's not uncommon for couples to feel like their practitioner is playing favorites, and that won't help them solve any problems, says attorney Kenneth Altshuler, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and husband to marriage therapist Doyle. (The two say they don't refer clients to each other.) It can also make a divorce more acrimonious.

Therapists say that most of the time, any imbalance is inadvertent. With two people sharing session time, it's not easy for even an experienced counselor to split attention 50-50, says Doyle. Or one person may be more comfortable with the therapist or the style of therapy than their partner, leading to a sense of unfairness. The couple's issues can also be more weighted toward one party -- say, if one has committed adultery -- in a way that leads to a more imbalanced talk. Couples shouldn't be shy about bringing up perceived favoritism during sessions, or about asking for another referral if they feel balance isn't restored, says Doyle.

4. I've got my own baggage.

Styles can vary widely among therapists, coaches and other practitioners, and that's not something that's typically apparent by looking at their listings in the phone book or on an insurer's website, says Dr. Arshad Rahim, a vice president with physician data and review site HealthGrades.com. Traditional counseling is primarily about solving the problems, but there's also the relatively new field of "discernment counseling" that has the specific aim of helping couples decide whether to stay together or divorce. Some practitioners are more pro-marriage than others too. The therapist's personal history may also have an influence, says Altschuler. "I tell clients, you need to find out about the marriage counselor," he says. "Is that person divorced, or going through a divorce?"The best approach is a direct one: Ask them, preferably before booking an appointment.

Most of the time, though, the practitioner's approach isn't "wrong"; it's just not a good fit for the couple -- which makes the sessions unlikely to be successful, says Rahim. Even if the couple decides to go elsewhere after one session, their bill can still amount to several hundred dollars. Ruskin suggests asking for a free phone consultation before scheduling an appointment. "Ask them to describe how they feel marriage problems are resolved," she says. Wilder says many coaches also offer free in-person consultations or a money-back guarantee if the couple feels the first paid session wasn't helpful.

5. Anything you say can be used against you -- in divorce court.

Something called "therapist-patient privilege" typically keeps your mental health professional from divulging details of your private sessions in a court of law or elsewhere. But that privilege applies to one-on-one relationships, says Altschuler. "When a marriage counselor sees two people, arguably there's no confidentiality, since there are three people in the room," he says. State law on that point varies, and unlicensed experts seeing couples often have less legal standing to claim that information revealed during their sessions was privileged. (The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy's code of ethics requires therapists to disclose any limits to clients' right of confidentiality.)

Most courts try to keep marriage counselors out of the proceedings, though, unless they are testifying to something serious, Altschuler says. Most of the cases where he's seen a marriage therapist testify focused on admissions of abuse that were made in session. It's more common that seeing a marriage counselor simplifies a divorce, he says, by helping a client figure out what they want and how best to proceed.

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