Even the best of marriages can experience rough patches. Significant life events, career changes, feelings of doubts, and even communication problems can lead to feelings of hurt and mistrust between spouses. Once both spouses in a marriage are hurt, it can cause a variety of issues between the two. A marriage counselor’s job is to help a couple determine the root cause of their marital distress and assist in developing new methods and behaviors to solve their differences and determine if the marriage is salvageable.
So, how does marriage counseling work? To help you decide if a career in marriage counseling is something you'd like to explore, we've put together this guide outlining what to expect when working as a marriage counselor.
What is a Marriage Counselor?
According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), a marriage counselor is someone who performs a variety of clinical services for mental health issues, psychological concerns, and interpersonal relationship issues. Simply put, marriage counselors are trained to listen, access, and mediate conversations between individuals struggling in their marriage to improve their well-being and relationship. Though marriage counselors often work with individuals, they can also help to counsel couples and families.
What Does a Marriage Counselor do?
While the job description of a marriage counselor differs depending on where and who a counselor works with1, Here are a few typical job requirements and specifications of a marriage counselor:
- Provide counseling services to couples and individuals seeking to improve the health of their relationship
- Identify critical obstacles within interpersonal relationships
- Help facilitate positive change
- Diagnosing, accessing and providing mediation services as needed
- Coordinating treatment and referring individuals to other professionals (medical doctors, dietitians, and case managers) as required.
How to Become a Marriage Counselor for Couples Therapy
The most common way to begin working toward becoming a marriage counselor is to obtain a Master's degree in Marital and Family Therapy. While there are alternative methods, like seeking clinical graduate and postgraduate supervised hours of practice, most job positions will require a master's degree.2
Master's degree programs in marital and family therapy typically focus on coursework involving:
- Clinical interventions
- Counseling theory
- Law and Ethics
- Individual and Family Life Cycle
- Introduction to Psychopathology
- Group Therapy
- Parent-Child Therapy Techniques
- Chemical Dependency and the Family
- Couples Therapy
- Trauma and Crisis Intervention
As students complete their school coursework, they often have the opportunity to intern as a training therapist at approved clinical sites. Upon the completion of a Master's Degree and required training, some individuals go on to complete a Doctorate in Marriage and Family Therapy program.
What can you Expect as a Marriage Counselor?
1. Expect to Counsel Individuals and Couples
While a marriage counselor helps couples through their marriage problems, they do not always see both individuals at the same time. Often, it is better for the marriage counselor and the couple if the patients work through things in individual counseling. Talking to a counselor on a one-on-one basis allows patients to feel more comfortable expressing their feelings and diminishes feelings of judgment from their spouse. Or, in other instances, a spouse may seek relationship counseling on their own because their partner refuses to attend meetings.
Often, when both spouses agree they need counseling, they will seek help together to better understand what is causing their marriage problems. If a couple attends relationship counseling together it is the marriage counselors job to clearly access the situation and help mediate discussions between the couple. By providing a couple with a set of actionable steps and boundaries, a marriage counselor can help their patients get their marriage back on track.
2. Expect to Provide a Level Ground
The role of counseling is to provide patients with a safe space to talk openly about what is troubling them. In marriage counseling, the counselor mustn't make either spouse feel as if they are taking sides. Instead, the counselor should encourage each spouse to talk about what is disrupting the marriage and keep bullying and dominating to a minimum. In addition to providing a neutral space for the couple to talk, it's a marriage counselor's job to detect emotions of betrayal, hurt, or anger during a counseling session and work on coping strategies for the patient.
3. Expect to Listen
In most cases, marriage counselors will refrain from telling a couple if they should continue to work on their marriage or file for divorce. Instead, a marriage counselor is trained to help promote effective communication between the couple, dialogue that will render real results. Instead of telling a couple what to do, an experienced marriage counselor or licensed therapist provides insight into each of the spouses' perspectives. A counselor may make suggestions about reducing hurtful habits that they have noticed a spouse is bothered by - habits like, not showing respect to one another, being insensitive, or habitual lying. By helping the couple identify what is hurting their marriage, a counselor can teach the couple how to communicate with one another more effectively and end problems before they start.
4. Expect to Keep it Real
Remember, a marriage counselor cannot diagnose and treat mental illnesses that may be contributing to the failure of a marriage. Diagnosing and treating mental illness is the role of a psychiatrist, and any mention of mental illness should be taken very seriously.3 Instead, if a counselor suspects that mental illness may be present, they can make suggestions about what they believe the underlying issue to be. Childhood trauma, depression, and substance abuse are all underlying factors that could contribute to a couple's troubles. Depending on the severity of the mental illness, it is a counselor’s responsibility to refer the individual to an appropriate medical doctor. If a patient does decide to seek the help of a medical doctor, this does not mean that the marriage counseling session ends. Instead, once treatment has started, the marriage counselor can continue with the couples therapy session and help the couple determine the next steps to take to mend the marriage.
5. Expect to Keep Couples on Track
As life gets busier, it's not uncommon for the health of a marriage to take the backseat. Often, two people enter a marriage with a team mindset, and overtime small issues begin to build into bigger ones until the team dynamic is no longer. Children, demanding jobs, or a spouse's personal interests are all factors that can contribute to the mutual goals of a successful marriage getting lost or set aside. It is a marriage counselor’s duty to help shed light on these issues and encourage their patients to be considerate and thoughtful of each other once again - just like when they were dating! A marriage counselor will help the couple assess the underlying problems in their marriage and provide them with the tools needed to mend it back into a healthy relationship.
6. Expect to Assist Couples in Difficult Circumstances
Though couples often explore marital counseling after they are already experiencing problems in their marriage, there are non-marriage related circumstances in which a couple will seek out a marriage counselor. When families face a difficult situation such as an illness, death, or job loss it can become hard to navigate through the struggle without feelings of anxiety, depression, or resentment arising. Significant life changes can put a great deal of pressure on individuals and their relationships. One spouse may shut down and not want to communicate, while the other is left seeking someone to talk to. It is the role of a Marriage Counselor or Family Therapist to assist, support, and offer solutions to families experiencing these difficult times.
Earning your Marriage and Family Therapy Degree
Earn your Marriage and Family Therapy degree on a schedule that works for you. At Alliant International University, we offer day, evening, and executive-format classes at each campus. Our family therapy programs make every effort to meet the needs of each cohort of students creating a tailored schedule that fits within your lifestyle.
Ensure that your graduate program is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE) and receive quality family therapy education by enrolling in Alliant's Marriage and Family Therapy graduate programs. With over 80 license-eligible MFT programs in California, Alliant is one of a select number that hold COAMFTE accreditation.
For more information on Alliant's uniquely tailored Marital and Family Counseling courses and marriage counselor jobs, check out our online and on campus MFT Programs.
- “Where Do Counselors Work? - Settings & Their Similarities & Differences.” Study.com | Take Online Courses. Earn College Credit. Research Schools, Degrees & Careers. Accessed November 19, 2021. https://study.com/academy/lesson/where-do-counselors-work-settings-thei…;
- “What Does a Marriage Counselor Do?” CHRON. CHRON. Accessed November 19, 2021. https://work.chron.com/marriage-counselor-do-12240.html.
- “How to Become a Marriage Counselor.” Marriage Counselor Career: Job Duties, Skills & Degrees. Accessed November 19, 2021. https://www.psychologyschoolguide.net/counseling-careers/becoming-a-mar…;