Couples therapy is fundamentally different from other forms of counseling. It has to address the needs of two people. It can be adversarial. And there’s a difference that isn’t quite as obvious: couples therapy can be a lot more stressful than other forms of psychotherapy and counseling for the therapist providing it.
Many forms of clinical therapy prioritize listening. In couples therapy, however, the therapist has to be an impartial mediator or even a referee. That can be surprisingly difficult.
“I thought a couple came in, and they would tell me their story, and I would say, you’re right, you’re wrong, and I would break the tie,” marriage therapist Pat Love told the Chicago Tribune. She later realized that her role as a couples therapist was to treat relationships, not individuals.
Couples therapists (also called relationship therapists, couples counselors, or marriage counselors) weren’t always mediators. In fact, up until about the 1960s, there were no couples therapists. A wife or a husband in a troubled marriage might meet singly with a counselor—usually a doctor, pastor, or social worker—and that counselor would tell them what they needed to do to fix their marital issues.
When divorce rates shot up in the 1970s, more therapists started meeting with couples in what is known as ‘conjoint therapy’. There wasn’t a lot of research to support couples therapy at the time, and the average success rate was only about 50 percent. Modern couples therapy, which uses proven therapeutic techniques like Emotionally-Focused Therapy and the Gottman Method, is much more effective.
If you’re interested in helping people have longer-lasting, more satisfying relationships (not just marriages), this is definitely a career you should explore. In this article about how to become a couples therapist, we cover:
Couples therapy is a form of mental health counseling or psychotherapy that helps people resolve conflicts, understand and improve their relationships, and meet relationship goals.
While many people equate couples therapy with marriage counseling, couples therapists work with all kinds of couples. Married couples are probably the most likely pairs to seek out relationship counseling, but couples counselors also work with people who are in dating relationships, couples going through divorce proceedings, and people in non-traditional relationships (e.g., non-monogamous or polyamorous partnerships).
Most people seek out the help of a couples counselor because they want to solve a specific issue like:
Consequently, couples therapy tends to be objective-oriented, solution-focused, and time-limited. Whether couples attend couples counseling sessions together or apart, they usually achieve their goals more quickly in couples therapy than they would in other forms of clinical therapy.
There are a couple of significant practical considerations:
- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification
Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:
- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)
Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. ( )
A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. ( )
- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees
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Couples therapy and marriage counseling are two names for the same discipline, but that doesn’t mean that all couples counselors are marriage and family therapists (MFTs). All kinds of clinical therapists, from psychologists to licensed therapists to professional counselors to clinical social workers, can work with people to improve their relationships.
However, MFTs have an advantage in this area because they receive extra training related to healthy interpersonal relationships and marital therapy. They’re also trained to look at mental health concerns and emotional disorders through the lens of a person’s relationships.
What some people find surprising is that not all marriage and family therapists are couples counselors. Like other clinical mental health professionals, MFTs are qualified to treat a variety of cognitive, mood, nervous, and behavioral problems—even severe conditions as part of a therapeutic team. They can provide all kinds of mental health counseling, using a variety of psychotherapeutic techniques. While working with patients, an MFT might use cognitive behavioral therapy, talk therapy, or other forms of psychotherapy more commonly associated with psychologists and professional counselors.
Couples counselors come from a variety of educational backgrounds at the master’s degree program level. Most earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology, social work, sociology, or social science first. Some colleges and universities offer undergraduate degrees in counseling, and this might be the best option for aspiring couples therapists. Students in these programs take core courses like English and math, but also study subjects like:
Completing a bachelor’s degree program is only the first step. Aspiring couples therapists must then earn a master’s degree or a doctoral degree, depending on whether they want to study counseling, social work, or psychology. Both educational pathways involve clinical internships and residencies, but earning the PhD or a PsyD required to become a psychologist usually takes longer (three or more years versus two).
The Master of Family Therapy (MFT) is the obvious choice. This degree goes by many names: Master of Marriage and Family Therapy, Master of Science in Marriage and Family Counseling, or Master of Science in Marriage, Couple, and Family Counseling, among others. In these degree programs designed to train the next generation of licensed marriage therapists, students study:
An MFT degree isn’t the only option when it comes to graduate school for couples counselors, though. Some future couples counselors choose master’s degree in counseling programs and graduate with either an MA in Mental Health Counseling or MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling before becoming licensed mental health counselors. Others pursue Master of Social Work (MSW) degrees and become clinical social workers.
Students following all the master’s program and doctoral program pathways open to couples therapists must complete one or more internships in clinical settings to fulfill licensure requirements. During these internships, they receive hands-on training from licensed therapists and have opportunities to participate in therapy sessions with actual clients in a clinical setting. They must also take and pass whatever exams their state requires of counselors, social workers, or psychologists. MFTs, for instance, take the Marriage and Family Therapy National Exam to become licensed marital family therapists.
All licensed therapists are qualified to offer in-person and online marriage counseling, but marriage and family therapists have a unique advantage over other psychotherapists. They typically have two years of clinical experience, whereas many other types of counselors can begin working with only one.
MFTs are also trained not only in general psychotherapeutic practices but also in family systems. They have a deeper understanding than most other practitioners of how relationships affect people and vice versa. More importantly, they are trained to focus on relationship systems instead of who is in the right or who is in the wrong. When a couple needs help, an MFT will treat their relationship—not just each half of the couple.
There are very few certifications specific to couples counseling. The Certified Gottman Therapist (CGT) credential offered by the Gottman Institute is one of the few specialty designations available to couples therapists. This certification is available to licensed clinical therapists who complete three levels of training in Gottman Method couples therapy and complete an interview and observation hours. Not every couples therapist is a proponent of the Gottman Method, but many do find that the Sound Relationship House Theory developed by Drs. John and Julie Gottman can help minimize conflict in relationships, improve communication, and increase intimacy, respect, and affection.
Couples therapists tend to be:
Earning a bachelor’s degree in counseling or psychology typically takes four years. Most marriage and family therapist master’s degree programs and graduate-level clinical counseling programs take two years of full-time study to complete. Earning a doctorate in psychology degree takes at least three years.
After graduating from an advanced degree program, aspiring couples therapists must complete one or two years of supervised clinical work. Studying for—and then taking—whatever state licensing exam is required to practice independently can take a few months. Add it all up, and becoming a couples therapist can take six years or more.
Couples therapist is its own career path in mental health counseling. MFTs, licensed clinical counselors, social work counselors, and clinical psychologists can all open private practices focused on marriage counseling. They can also work in:
It’s tough to nail down an average couples therapist salary because the counselors who work with couples go by many titles. A marriage and family therapist, for instance, might earn anywhere between $40,000 and $79,000. According to ZipRecruiter, however, the average marriage counselor earns $131,000.
Whether a therapist earns closer to $40,000 or in the six-figure range may depend on what degree they choose (clinical psychologists tend to earn more than social workers) or where they work (a marriage counselor in Provo, Utah could make $90,000 or more).
This is a great career path for anyone interested in the many ways relationships impact mental health and vice versa. It’s also an excellent choice for people who want to work in a psychotherapeutic field that’s results-driven. However, before deciding to become a couples therapist, you should know that this job is extremely stressful.
“It’s widely acknowledged that couples therapy is the most challenging,” Richard Simon, editor of the Psychotherapy Networker, told the New York Times. “The stakes are high. You’re dealing with volatility. There are often secrets… You often feel confused, at odds with at least one of your patients, out of control.”
To succeed in this career, you have to be comfortable with the idea of spending your days willingly standing in the crossfire between people who are not just unable to see eye-to-eye but have reached a point where they’re actively refusing to do so. Not everyone is capable of doing that, day in and day out. If you can handle the pressure and the intensity, however, you’ll thrive in your work and help the couples you care for do the same in their relationships.
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