Part I: The Characteristics and Skills of a good Eugene Marriage Counselor
“I wanted to write this article because so many people I meet have an uninformed or distorted idea of what a marriage counselor really is – or at least what the kind of marriage counselor I strive to be really is. And I want people to be able to take advantage of something that can deeply improve their relationship, without fear or anxiety.” Dr. Max Vogt
First and foremost, a good marriage counselor is not looking for “sickness” or “problems” in individuals or in the couples relationship. A good marriage counselor is always looking for strengths, skills, ability, and most of all, points of emotional, intellectual and practical connection between you as a couple, that you can work to build upon to reach your goals, whatever those might be.
This is not saying that there are no problems in relationships, or that those can’t be fixed. But that’s not the real purpose of marriage counseling… people often think it is the purpose of marriage counseling (such as to “communicate better” or “learn how to fight fair” etc) but that kind of superficial activity is only the “kindergarden” approach to couples counseling or couples therapy.
A serious and many times “fatal to the relationship” mistake many new couples therapists is looking for “things to fix” or even worse, following the lead of the couple to focus on “problems” that they think need fixing.
Unfortunately this often leads to much worsening of the relationship, because it’s just technique. Without those points of real connection I spoke about earlier, no amount of techniques and methods will work, ever. Period.
This is probably a big part of why people think marriage counseling is not helpful to couples, or even that it makes things worse.
This is not a young therapist’s fault. There are multiple hurdles they are facing:
1. They’ve been (usually) taught in graduate school to look for individual pathology- sickness – in their patients, and how to “treat mental illness.”
2. Many are far too young and inexperienced in life to really understand relationships or to have experienced the scope of a relationship, the ebbs and flows, and how uniquely people in relationships handle their challenges.
3. Insurance companies require psychiatric diagnosis of at least one individual in order to pay. (This, by the way is one of many reasons I don’t accept insurance payments). Most new therapists – and even more experienced ones – rely on health insurance referrals and payments to get their fees. I won’t go into the implications of that here, but will in another article.
So what are the characteristics and skills of a good marriage counselor?
First, he or she should be a licensed professional. Even though I said before that much of the training is antithetical to doing good marriage counseling, every marriage counselor must know what constitutes standard of care in his or her field, and also be able to identify real individual mental illness when it is present in one or both partners.
There are forms of mental illness that are absolute roadblocks to marital counseling or couples counseling. Early in my career I thought differently and attempted to be a “hero” in working with couples; I believed every couple had a chance at a great relationship. I no longer believe that – having attended the “school of hard knocks” and learning things in stark reality that theory was not adequate to deal with. Some people are incapable, unwilling, too disturbed or too without empathy to be in a relationship.
Also, working with a licensed professional is a protection for you as a client, because licensed professionals have to be responsible to their state board, and to other professionals in the field, and to the laws and statutes of their state. They are required to take an examination about their state’s requirements and laws.
Next, you should check to find out if your marriage counselor has specific training in working with couples, and not just general training in counseling or therapy techniques. I highly recommend you work with a marriage counselor who has a minimum of ten years’ experience in the field of couples therapy and couples counseling, and has seen at least a hundred couples. It takes a lot of experience to be effective with couples. You don’t want to be their “learning board” or “guinea pig” upon which they get their practice in doing marriage counseling.
Beyond that, I highly recommend that you work with a marriage counselor who has been in a marriage or committed relationship for at least 10 – 20 years.
Since that person is human, and life intervenes in the very best plans, it is not reasonable to expect that the therapist has been “perfect from day one’ at being in a relationship. He or she may have had breakups or divorces, and this does NOT mean they are not a good therapist or are a “failure” at relationships. It means they are human and may have had to learn many lessons along the way.
It may seem strange to you, but in my opinion, a person who has not had at least one serious breakup or divorce has little business conducting marriage counseling or couples therapy… since they do not really know first hand what such an experience means or feels like. If I am working with a therapist, I want that person to know about life and to have experienced life, not just to have read about it or seen it from the “outside.”
A mature marriage counselor will fully realize in his or her heart, mind, soul and professional approach, that even though some similarities exist between couples and their challenges, he or she will have the knowledge, skills and experience to work with your relationship in all its uniqueness.
Further, that person will be mature and experienced enough that he or she will not be stuck on techniques or approaches above encouraging the best and deepest connection between you as you meet the challenges of your marriage… and that person will be mature and wise enough not to think that his or her own unique experience represents YOUR situation, or that his or her answers to marriage challenges necessarily apply to YOU.
In summary, it is very advisable when choosing your Eugene Marriage Counselor, to choose someone who is mature, wise and deeply experienced in working with couples.
Next, in Part II, I will discuss what actually happens in good marriage counseling, and what distinguishes good marriage counseling from mediocre marital therapy, and what distinguishes good marriage counseling from marital counseling which will potentially destroy your relationship.
Your Eugene Marriage Counselor
Dr. Max Vogt