Marriage and Family Counseling to Therapy
When certain problems develop within relationships and families, it’s normal to consider going to marriage or family counseling. Licensed marriage and family therapists are specifically trained, understand relationship dynamics, and know how to help couples and families overcome challenges they face. Officially called Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT), therapists in this career diagnose and treat both mental health and emotional disorders within the context of marriages, relationships, and family systems. Marriage and family therapists provide brief and solution-focused therapy to help resolve issues with depression, marital problems, anxiety, psychological concerns, or child-parent problems.
History of Marriage Counseling to Marriage and Family Therapy
Marriage counseling has a historical background dating to the early 1930s, when three separate marital clinics opened from 1929 through 1932. These clinics were service and education oriented working specifically with young couples who were experiencing difficulty adapting and adhering to the traditional gender roles of the time. When couples would meet with their marriage counselor, sessions were held individually, not together. At that point in time, the theory behind struggling marriages was interlocking neurosis. It was assumed each spouse had his or her own internal conflict, which was then projected onto the other spouse. The partner accepted this neurosis because it fit his or her own. For instance, the over-bearing man would naturally marry the meek woman.
A shift occurred as time went on - marriage counselors began to develop the role of telling the truth between both partners’ distortions. Therapy was used to say who was right and who was wrong in different aspects of the relationship and it was often conducted with one person discussing things with the therapist while the other watched. It was more like individual therapy with an observer than a combined effort with both partners.
It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that psychological problems began being addressed within the context of relationships. For the first time, therapists recognized that issues were developed and maintained because of the social constructs within a family or marriage. This switched the responsibility of treatment from the individual to the family or couple.
As time progressed, the theories of marriage and family therapy began to grow from the idea that problems were caused by internal dysfunction to the theory that healthy people can have unhealthy relationships and that sometimes even healthy relationships struggle when under extreme stress.
In modern marriage counseling and MFT, the therapist is no longer a referee between couples and families, but is instead more like a teacher or coach, guiding individuals to recognize the communication errors and family dysfunction in a way that allows them to modify behaviors and habits to improve relationships.
What Do Marriage and Family Therapists Do?
Marriage and Family Therapists work with couples and families to help them overcome relationship and behavior issues that occur within the constructs of a marriage or family unit. These can include events such as divorce, death and affairs or communication problems and mental health concerns. These therapists help couples identify the feelings behind harmful behaviors and emotional issues to develop strategies in improved communication and the overall relationship.
Marriage and Family Therapeutic Approaches
Marriage and Family Therapists use a wide variety of therapeutic approaches when it comes to helping families and couples. Here are some of the most common:
Structural Family Therapy: A therapeutic approach that centers on the problems of functioning as a family, SFT guides the practice of marriage and family therapists with an understanding that each family has invisible rules which govern it. The therapist strives to “enter” the family to understand and disrupt the dysfunctional patterns, leading to healthier habits and stronger relationships.
Strategic Therapy: Strategic Therapy works to address treatment issues quickly and effectively. The therapist works with the family or couple to find solutions, not to determine the underlying cause of behaviors or issues. This type of therapy has a large focus on goal and task setting.
- Milan Family Therapy: With an emphasis on family systems and behaviors, Milan family therapists work to uncover games families play at both non-verbal and unconscious levels. Once these are recognized, MFTs help families confront and overcome these issues.
- Solution Focused (Brief) Therapy: A solution-focused, short-term form of therapy that focuses on the present and the future, using past events only to gain an empathetic history. The marriage and family therapist understands that the root cause of problems may be complex, but the solution doesn’t have to be. This approach uses specific questions to find appropriate solutions, not confrontation or interpretations.
- Narrative Therapy: To help clients develop a new narrative about themselves, MFTs use narrative therapy to have couples and families create stories that help to identify their own values and skills and develop an understanding of how they can be applied to live life to those values.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): A short-term, goal-oriented therapeutic approach to problem solving, CBT approaches encourage clients to recognize how what they think and how they behave impact how they feel. By changing these thoughts, the behavior changes, as do the emotional responses.
- Contextual Family Therapy: Contextual Family Therapy integrates individual psychological, interpersonal, existential, systemic, and intergenerational dimensions into family therapy. These Marriage and Family Therapists recognize family dysfunction may be the result of imbalance in giving and taking, entitlement and fulfillment, as well as caring and responsibility. By working to establish balanced responsibility, the family dysfunction dissipates and returns to a healthier state.
- Bowen Family Therapy: Focusing on the balance of two forces within a family unit, specifically togetherness and individuality, Bowen family therapy guides the correction of balance between togetherness and individuality. This balance is believed to be necessary for proper functioning, and without it, issues arise. These issues are often multigenerational and include triangulation, projection, and differentiation of self.
- Psychodynamic Family (Object Relations) Therapy: This therapeutic approach works under the principle that humans are motivated by the need to form relationships with others. MFTs believe that current problems are often caused by early mental images that now impact relationships.
- Experiential Therapy: Through role play, guided imagery, and props, MFTs that utilize an experiential approach expand their therapy to include equine therapy, wilderness therapy, and music therapy. Through these activities, the couple isn’t necessarily focused on the “therapy” and is therefore more able to experience success, identify obstacles, problem solve, improve self-esteem, and take responsibility for themselves.
- Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT): A short-term therapeutic approach that is based on the idea that human emotions are connected to human needs and attachment, some MFTs utilize an EFT approach to help clients regulate interpersonal emotions and ask for and offer comfort and support to others.
- Gottman Method Couples Therapy: The underlying principle of the Gottman Method Couples Therapy is that couples must be willing to be friends, work through conflict, and support each other. MFTs that practice from this approach focus on nine components that make relationships healthy, referred to as the Sound Relationship House.
How to Become a Marriage and Family Therapist
To become a marriage and family therapists, individuals must obtain their graduate degree in marriage and family therapy. Accredited programs will meet the requirements set forth by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE). Although this accreditation is voluntary, some licensing boards prefer and even require it. Some states accept similar degrees in social work, counseling, or psychology as long as they meet the coursework requirements. Apart from coursework and internship requirements, licensure as a marriage and family therapist requires post-graduate supervised clinical therapy hours. Individuals should check with their state’s specific requirements for more information.