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Before You Begin Marriage Counseling, Ask This Question


There's an important question that you need to ask the marriage counselor you and your spouse are considering using. The question itself may surprise you, as well as the answer your potential counselor gives.

It's an often-overlooked question that hardly anyone ever talks about. Therapists don't include it in articles they write about how to select a good counselor, so you're unlikely to read about it. I've never heard of the topic being discussed on the popular daytime television shows that delve into so many varied subjects.

But the answer to this important question could save you time, money, and energy spent with the wrong therapist. It's a good question to use as a deciding factor if you narrow your search for a marriage counselor down to two or three possibilities, and all look fairly equal in education, training, and experience.

What is the question I consider so important that it could be the "deciding vote" in selecting a therapist for marriage counseling? Here it is. Ask the potential marriage counselor(s): "Have you ever participated in extensive personal therapy yourself?"

Then watch the therapist's reaction and listen carefully to what he or she says. Also pay attention to the emotional tone in the response. Consider the following responses to the suggested question. My remarks are in italics in the parenthesis:

1. "No, I've never had to go to counseling."

(Never "had" to go? Do you mean that you're "above" having to go to counseling? That only people who aren't as emotionally stable as you are "have" to go? How will you even know what it's like to go to an unfamiliar office and tell a stranger the most intimate details about your life?)

2. "Yes, I went once for several times when my father died."

(That's slightly better, but what about all that self-growth work counselors are always advocating other people do? Don't you take your own advice?)

3. "No."

(That's odd. Why the one-word answer? It's a logical question to ask. Why would I entrust you with my vulnerability and something as important as my marriage if you've never been to counseling yourself? Why haven't you been? Don't you believe in what you're offering?)

4. "I took part in some counseling when I took my courses for my degree."

(You mean you role played with other students in some of your counseling classes-that doesn't count. You weren't in a real counseling situation and were probably focused on what your classmates and professor thought of your role-playing. That's totally different from participating in therapy to look closely at your own real issues.)

5. "Yes, I have. I've had several years of intensive personal counseling, and I still see a counselor when things come up that I need to process. I know how much courage and commitment it takes to confront personal issues, avoid blaming others, and take responsibility for the quality of one's life."

(Yes, this is the one! He (or she) has gone through the counseling process himself. He won't be just talking about something he has never experienced, and he doesn't sound ashamed that he's had counseling. Instead, he sounds proud of himself for making that choice. I like that he "practices what he preaches" about counseling. He must believe that it helps in some way or he wouldn't have spent so much time and money getting counseling himself.)

Are you surprised to learn that many counselors have never participated in counseling as clients and have never faced their own individual or relationship issues? That they could get their advanced degree and become licensed without having participated in personal growth counseling? It is shocking to think that could happen, but it does-quite often.

Just think about it-would you want to go to a therapist who recommends counseling to others but has never taken her (or his) own advice? Who hasn't dealt with her own personal past and present issues that could impact the recommendations she makes to you? Who doesn't really know how vulnerable you feel as a client and how much courage it takes to make an appointment, sit in the waiting room, and then talk openly to someone you've never seen before?

I can unequivocally say that you should steer clear of counselors who haven't done their own work in counseling-either in individual counseling, relationship or marriage counseling, or both. There's a saying that you can't take other people any further than you've been yourself.

That's certainly true when it comes to counseling. The counselor needs to be very familiar with the terrain-not from only textbook knowledge but from personal experience, also. He (or she) also needs to be able to help you without getting your issues all tangled up in his own unresolved issues-something personal counseling helps a counselor to do more effectively.

So before you sign on with a marriage counselor, ask the important question--"Have you ever participated in extensive personal therapy yourself?"-and be sure that the counselor you select knows the advantages of personal counseling first-hand.

Nancy J. Wasson, Ph.D., is co-author of Keep Your Marriage: What to Do When Your Spouse Says "I don't love you anymore!" This is available at http://www.KeepYourMarriage.com, where you can also sign up for the free weekly Keep Your Marriage Internet Magazine to get ideas and support for improving your marriage.


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