How to Become a Couples Counselor
While falling in love may feel as natural as falling off a log, resolving conflicts that inevitably arise in any intimate relationship is not so simple. Many couples become baffled by hurtful patterns of behavior that evolve in the course of an otherwise good relationship. A couples counselor (also known as a marriage counselor) evaluates the relationship problems and offers strategies for resolving them.
Couples counselors are trained and licensed professionals who specialize in couples therapy (many couples and marriage counselors also have an academic background and training in family therapy). These counselors focus on finding practical, immediate solutions to the problems or issues brought to their attention. Couples-based counseling typically involves a finite number of sessions between the professional and both partners. During these sessions, the counselor will help the couple identify the cause or causes of their problem or problems—for example, finances, children, infertility, sex, anger, grief, adultery, drugs or substance abuse.
The work of couples counselors is different from psychotherapists, who work with clients over a long term to gain insights into their psychological processes. Counselors are also different than psychiatrists, who hold MD degrees and can prescribe drugs for mental disorders. If either of the partners needs psychiatric help, a couples counselor makes the necessary referrals. Otherwise, counselors work with clients to build skills for communicating, understanding and accepting differences; expressing uncomfortable emotions; and solving problems. As a neutral third party, the counselor provides a valuable perspective on the relationship and a range of strategies and options that each partner can use to move past their problems.
Some couples counselors work in inpatient clinics; others set up a private practice or group practice with other counselors. Some specialize in treating same-sex clients or couples from various religious or cultural groups. Couples counselors with a doctorate in family therapy may go into teaching, administration, research or consulting. Counselors generally work scheduled hours, but may have to interrupt downtime to deal with client crises.
Marriage or couples counselors begin their educational career path with an undergraduate degree in psychology, social science, or sociology, although some universities and colleges offer undergraduate relationship counseling programs. Along with coursework on dynamics and family systems, programs involve classes in human development, psychology, family therapy, and assessment and counseling techniques.
After obtaining an undergraduate degree, the aspiring counselor applies to graduate programs that offer an MA in Marriage and Family Counseling, or a Master of Social Work—both two-year programs. Most graduate counseling programs arrange internships or clinical residencies for their students.
Licensing and/or Certification
All couples therapists working in the United States need to be licensed before they can practice. States have their own licensing requirements, including a nationally recognized Marriage and Family Therapy examination. Experiential and credential requisites (including two years of hands-on supervised clinical experience) must be met before sitting the exam. Specialties recognized by various states include:
- Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)
- Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC)
- Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC)
- Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT)
Many states require couples counselors to renew their licenses annually by taking additional courses or workshops, or attending professional conferences.
Marriage counselors also have the option of applying for certification by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC). Some states accept this credential in place of a state-administered license. In addition to their state license and/or NBCC credential, marriage counselors who meet the educational and training criteria can become members of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT). The AAMFT hosts a national annual conference, publishes several professional journals, and sets professional and ethical standards for the field. Members are included in the AAMFT national professional database.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Communication strategies play a large role in counseling. Often, the two partners are used to talking at each other or responding defensively. Conflicts often involve painful issues like betrayal, jealousy, money issues, anger, frustration and unmet expectations. Relationship professionals utilize various methods to provide couples with the skills to effectively communicate needs, desires and wishes to each other. Once each partner actually hears and acknowledges the other’s views, resolving problems in the relationship has a better chance of success.
Effective couples counselors use empathy, trust, and the skills learned in education and training to resolve relationship issues successfully. Counselors must appear unbiased and deal with each client fairly. Sessions can be intense and draining, so therapists in this field need to be able to monitor their own stress levels. Finally, couples counselors need to be able to inspire trust and gain the confidence of clients. Couples and marriage counselors are expected to abide by a professional code of ethics and to stay abreast of research and developments in the field.
Opportunities for Advancement
Advancement in this career requires additional education and training, moving from the master's level to the doctorate level. As with most fields, movement from private practice to a governmental agency or non-governmental organization that generates legislative policy greatly increases opportunities.
The average annual salary for a couples or marriage counselor as of 2011 was $47,530. The range is about $24,180 to $63,630. Counselors who are employed by government agencies earn higher salaries, while positions in residential care facilities pay less.
More people are aware of the benefits of couple’s counseling, so the job outlook for this career is positive, with an anticipated increase in the number of available positions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a 37% job growth over the next ten years—a much faster than average ranking.