A couples counselor is a marriage and family therapist (MFT), licensed professional counselor (LPC), psychologist, licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) or sometimes a psychiatrist who works with couples to help them resolve problems in their relationships. A few other people may perform couples counseling, including ministers and unlicensed religious counselors. Any of these counselors may restrict their practice to couples, but a number of them also see individuals and families, while maintaining a steady interest in couples work.
A goal of the couples counselor is to help couples identify the difficulties that have brought them into counseling and to work with the couples as a unit to hopefully solve them. Couples counselors don’t have magic solutions to problems, and much depends upon the interest of each party in resolving problems. They can’t promise a good outcome, but they can help couples realistically assess their situations and make choices based on their circumstances or their desire to change them.
It is very important to differentiate the couples counselor, when he or she is in that role, from the individual therapist. In individual therapy, a strong bond is established between one patient and one therapist. This would not be effective in a couples counseling strategy.
Couples often worry that one member will be preferred in a counseling setting, but it’s important in couples counseling to support both people. In some instances, it’s not a question of who each person is individually, though this is considered to some degree. It is more a question of looking at the couple holistically and determining who these people are together, and the issues that affect the unit of the two people in interaction with each other.
There are a number of different approaches a couples counselor might take. Some very clearly evaluate the couple unit, with theories like family systems therapy. Others are more psychoanalytic, and believe the root of the couple’s problem lies in each person’s individual past and pain. A number of couples counselors see themselves as more mediators and trainers, helping couples learn communication and relationship techniques. Many therapists have an eclectic approach, deciding what works for each couple, as therapy continues.
As with individual therapy, success of the couples counselor seems predicated on the bond he or she forms with his clients, instead of a specific method of therapy. Success doesn’t necessarily mean successful reconciliation of all couples — some come to therapy to figure out how to part instead of how to stay together, or after some therapy, a couple may conclude that ending the relationship is better.
People who specialize in couples counseling are usually interested in issues like mediation and family relationships. They may take a few classes as part of formal training, but couples therapists get the bulk of their experience as part of practical training to earn credentials. The couples counselor finds additional instruction with continuing education classes, with reading, and with continued work.