Most couples go for marriage counseling when it's way too late to save their marriages, and most marriage counselors are the kiss of death for marriages. By the time couples get to a counselor it's usually to receive last rites for the marriage.
There's a good reason most marriage counseling doesn't work, because "couples therapy may be the hardest form of therapy and most therapists aren't good at it," according to an article by William Doherty in the professional journal Psychotherapy Networker. "Surveys indicate that about eighty percent of therapists in private practice do couples therapy. Where they got their training is a mystery because most therapists practicing today never took a course in couples therapy and never did their internships under supervision from someone who'd mastered the art. From a consumer's point of view going in for couples therapy is like having your broken leg set by a doctor who skipped orthopedics in medical school," said Doherty. According to the New York Times two years after ending marital counseling twenty-five percent of couples are worse off than they were when they started, and after four years thirty-eight percent are divorced.
These grim statistics are actually not set in stone if the couple finds an experienced therapist with an effective approach. Some approaches, such as Emotionally Focused Therapy claim a success rate as high as seventy-five percent.
How do you find a good marriage counselor? "Shop around," says Dr. Michael Zentman, Director of the Adelphi University Post Graduate program for Marriage and Couples Therapy. "Ask if the person is trained in marital therapy. Meet them. Ask them about the approach they use. A seasoned clinician should be able to explain what his or her model is all about. Then think about the fit. Are you and your husband comfortable with the person, do you both feel a connection?"
Zentman explains that most counselors who aren't trained in marital therapy don't come up with a diagnosis, but work on the symptoms, such as communication. They tell the couple to do things like go out together one night a week, give each other more compliments, listen without arguing, . This might work for a few weeks or months, but if the underlying issues aren't addressed, the problems will re-emerge. He also explains that therapists miss dealing with what has changed in a relationship to cause it to fall apart. If a couple got along relatively well for twenty years, but things have gone downhill for the last ten, the therapist has to find out what happened ten years ago in order to discover why there is a problem now.
Shopping around is easier said than done when you're in crisis. It's hard to make a good decision when your marriage is falling apart and you may be falling apart with it. Zentman strongly recommends finding someone with training. How do you go about this search? Unlike finding a therapist for yourself, asking for recommendations for a marriage counselor may not be the best way. My husband and I wound up with three lame marriage counselors by asking for recommendations. I asked other therapists whose opinion I respected and they referred me to people they thought highly of. Unfortunately they didn't realize that these particular colleagues had no specialized expertise in marriage counseling.
There are a number of approaches to couples therapy that have good track records and specific theories of why marriages fail that underlie their particular method. These approaches don't just work haphazardly, but have a specific set of tools they use with all couples. A few have books written by their founders that you can read to find out about the approach before you try it. Even more important, they all have websites where you can find lists of therapists all over the country trained in the particular method.
Instead of searching the Yellow Pages, call the therapists in your community who are trained in one of the specific approaches that appeal to you and your spouse. If there are more than one, talk to a few and pick the one who seems the most personally compatible.
Which approach to pick? Dr. Zentman says it really doesn't matter. "Different theories are like swimming strokes, none are right or wrong, better or worse. The only question is, does the clinician fit the couple? If the therapist is well trained it may be a good fit.
My personal bias is towards the more insight-oriented approaches so those are the ones I'm including. I truly believe you need to understand what's going on in your marriage in order to make lasting changes.
Check out these approaches and look for therapists in your area:
John Gottman: http://www.gottman.com/48993/Private-Therapy.html
Emotionally Focussed Therapy: http://www.iceeft.com/