Careers in Couples Counseling

The romantic bond between two people is one of the most sacred, and, arguably, the most intimate, in all human interactions. Despite the strong attachments that form between men and women – or between any two individuals of any sex or gender – many issues may still arise any time two people try to form a partnership. These issues can become so destructive that the union disintegrates unless the couple seeks professional help.

Couples counselors are positioned to offer that assistance. They listen to clients talk about their problems, both in their personal lives and their lives with their partners and offer solutions through a variety of psychological approaches. Some couples counselors also provide other family and mental health services, but their primary goal is to deepen the bonds of trust, happiness, and security between two people involved in a marriage or romantic relationship.

Overview of Couples Counseling — What Is Couples Counseling?

Couples counseling is a subspecialty within the field of marriage and family counseling. It is a type of psychotherapy, an approach to treatment that does not rely on medical science or prescription medications. Counselors use discussion therapy to coach couples through their disagreements, frustrations, betrayals, communication problems, and other issues, with the end goal that the couple arrives at a happier, more equitable solution for both parties involved. They help patients resolve conflict, make more thoughtful decisions in their relationships, and confront head-on whether they want to continue their lives together.

Marriage counseling can occur during a single session or multiple sessions, over the course of days or months. Sometimes, counselors respond to acute crises, such as one partner having an affair, a separation, a request for divorce, or another disastrous occurrence. At other times, couples counselors are consulted about a situation that affects both partners, such as an aging parent, a teenager on drugs, or the death of a child.

Sometimes, one member of the couple works with the counselor individually, or both partners alternate seeing the counselor; then, both partners see the counselor together. The exact nature of the arrangement depends on the situation and on the couple’s ultimate goals for seeking relationship therapy.

What Does a Couples Counselor Do?

Couples counselors help people who are in all types of relationships: heterosexual, homosexual, married or unmarried, with children or without. Any two people who want to be together romantically but are experiencing difficulties in maintaining a healthy relationship are subjects for couples therapy. Additionally, couples often seek the assistance of a couples counselor before they marry to ensure their marriage is happy and successful, leading to a well-adjusted family.

Couples counselors work in many different facilities. They may have their own practices, where they provide relationship in their private offices. Other counselors work in nursing facilities, at clinics run cooperatively or by other counselors, or in hospitals. In all these settings, the counselor’s goal is to provide emotional support to both partners, while helping them move toward a resolution of their issues and to mutual understanding.

To accomplish these multiple tasks, couples counselors need a variety of specialized skills and training, including:

  • An ability to travel: Many counselors must travel to meet patients in different facilities or who are homebound.
  • Good bedside manner: In relationship therapy, the couple discusses the most intimate details of their lives and must feel comfortable discussing these personal issues.
  • Excellent interpersonal skills: Counselors need to communicate and interact effectively with colleagues and other medical professionals as well as with patients or clients.
  • The ability to work unusual hours: Many counselors work evenings and on weekends to accommodate the schedules of their working clients.
  • Compassion: While the counselor may be tempted to form conclusions or judge others, compassion and open-mindedness are necessary.
  • Organizational skills: Counselors must keep files on their clients as well as maintain their own credentialing and licensing paperwork.
  • Boundary setting: While a counselor’s primary role is helping others, he or she must be able to maintain boundaries and know when bounds have been breached.
  • Business management: Many couples counselors work independently, marketing their services, running their own small business, so they must acquire the necessary administrative skills.

The Practice of Couples Counseling: How Marital Education Programs Keep Couples Together

By the time a couple arrives at counseling, the two are often so unhappy they’re not sure if they can maintain their relationship. According to relationship expert John Gottman, most couples endure an average of six years of unhappiness before they seek the services of a counselor. During that time, issues have had a chance to accrue and multiply, which makes the counselor’s job more difficult.

An effective therapist has the ability to determine the motivations of their clients and help them move toward resolution of their issues. They may use a variety of approaches to help the couple achieve success, including:

  • Teach the couple new communication techniques
  • Provide financial counseling
  • Have the couple role-play difficult situations
  • Guide discussions of childhood events that are affecting the relationship
  • Teach effective parenting methods
  • Address sexual dysfunction, including infidelity or the loss of the “spark” that formed the initial basis of attraction

In some relationships, domestic abuse is at the heart of all the couple’s issues. If, while during a treatment session, the counselor either senses abuse is taking place or the couple describes it, the counselor’s responsibility is to report the issue and encourage the abused party to leave the relationship.

Couples Counselor: Salary & Employment Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics groups couples counselors under the general term, “Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists.” Therapists in this classification can expect to earn an average of $44,170 per year or $21.24 an hour. Attrition, which occurs when a greater number of younger and less-experienced therapists enter the field, brings down the average. Counselors who stay in their roles can expect to make considerably more after a decade or two.

Job prospects are strong. The rate of job growth for all professionals in the counseling field, including couples counselors, is 19 percent – much faster than the average job growth predicted for all careers between 2014 and 2024. Those who graduate with a master’s degree in counseling and pass their licensing exam should easily find employment at an organization or acquire a number of private clients.

Couples Counseling Jobs & Job Description

A couples counselor’s primary role is to help couples achieve a satisfactory relationship. They accomplish this task by utilizing a variety of methods, but the focus is always on maintaining the partnership.

Evidence suggests that second marriages are no more successful than first marriages, and, in fact, they are more likely to fail. While everyone is not able to achieve happiness in a relationship, existing unions are worth saving, provided both parties want to continue. To this end, couples counselors have a variety of duties and responsibilities toward their patients, including:

  • Using talk therapy to determine the source(s) of the problem
  • Teaching the couple how to communicate effectively, including, in many cases, how to listen at an optimal level
  • Using behavioral therapy to teach clients how to exhibit healthier behaviors
  • Helping both parties learn to control their thoughts and emotions
  • Diagnosing specific disorders that may be affecting the relationship, such as anorexia or addiction
  • Helping clients cope with difficult situations affecting one or both parties
  • Guiding clients through divorce, when necessary
  • Finding additional services for couples and families when necessary

Couples Counseling Degrees & Education

To work as a counselor in any state, you must earn a master’s degree. Most counselors begin their studies in undergraduate psychology programs, but others first acquire degrees in education, child and family services, or human development. The degree subject is not as important as the resulting bachelor’s degree, which is required for entry into any master’s degree program.

A master’s degree in a variety of subjects prepares candidates for careers in counseling, including Marriage and Family Therapy, Clinical Mental Health Counseling, and Psychology. You also may obtain an education specialist (Ed.S.) degree or a doctoral degree (Ph.D. or Psy.D.).

Master’s programs in mental health counseling prepare couples counselors to work with couples, individuals, and groups in many settings. To work as a professional couples counselor, however, candidates should focus on the psychology of relationships and romance. Enroll in an accredited couples counseling program to ensure earned credits will apply toward licensure. Check the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs website to determine which programs are accredited.

Couples Counseling Licensing & Certification

Couples counselors must be licensed therapists in the state of their residence before they can legally offer treatment. Since each state regulates its counselors differently, search the National Board for Certified Counselors for your state’s requirements.

In most cases, licensure requires coursework in an accredited master’s degree program as well as a supervised follow-up period of between 2,000 and 4,000 hours, depending upon the requirements of the individual’s state of residence. After completion of the supervised hours, candidates may take the licensing exam. Find detailed information on the Association of Marital and Family Therapy Regulatory Boards website.

Some couples counselors may choose to pursue additional specialization by earning certification in a particular area, including human sexuality, meditation techniques, multicultural counseling, family dynamics, or developmental psychology. While earning certification is not necessary to practice, it may make candidates more appealing to employers or help self-employed professionals attract clients.