What’s a Pro-Marriage Counselor & How Do You Find One?

I had the pleasure recently of interviewing a pro-marriage counselor whom I know personally and respect immensely. Timothy Heck, PhD, LMFT, is founder of Family Counseling Associates in Indianapolis. He’s a Christian counselor with a pro-marriage perspective. What’s a pro-marriage counselor, and what’s the alternative? A pro-marriage counselor is a therapist who is not neutral about the marriage—one who actively advocates for the marriage, not for one or both individuals.

If I were going to choose a marriage counselor, I would insist on someone who would fight for my marriage, not just convince me that I deserve to be happy. Too often in the U.S., that is not the type of counselor you will find.

The mental health field has been strongly influenced by the sociological movements of the last 50 years, says Dr. Heck. Some of the influences have been helpful, such as the balancing of power and respect in the relationship between males and females. Other influences have been negative, he adds, such as the widespread belief that marriage is a dispensable commodity that merely serves to meet an individual’s needs. “It has been reduced to a cost/benefit analysis,” he adds. “A lot of therapy buys into that quid pro quo.” Dr. Heck says while this strategy may work in some cases, it doesn’t work when both spouses are not motivated to do what is needed to meet the other’s needs.

Dr. Heck says when choosing a therapist, it’s important for couples to know the counselor’s value system up front. “Every therapist has a value system that needs to be considered an announced, so the client may go in with informed consent,” he explains. Many—surveys say most—therapists in the U.S. have a value system that prioritizes the health of the individual over the health of the marital relationship. Within a Christian/Catholic worldview, Dr. Heck says the marriage relationship would be every bit as important as the individuals’ wellbeing. “That’s the position I take,” he says.

Non-Christians are welcome at Dr. Heck’s Family Counseling practice, and while his faith is normally part of his work, it can be behind the scenes when the patient prefers. Most patients prefer to integrate faith into their sessions, but his worldview always shapes his work with couples, and he integrates psychology with his faith. “I’m going to work very hard to maintain and reconcile the relationship, believing that it is to the benefit of the partners and their children. It’s even best for the community—socially and economically,” says Dr. Heck.

Dr. Heck’s advice is exactly in line with the advice found in Take Back Your Marriage by William J. Doherty, PhD (one of my favorite marriage books). You can download two chapters from his web site for free here. Dr. Doherty doesn’t come at the topic from a faith-based approach, but he lands at the same point. Dr. Doherty says in his book, “If you talk to a therapist in the United States, I believe that you stand a good risk of harming your marriage.” His caveat is that is he a therapist and encourages therapy, but the right kind of therapy with the right kind of therapist—one who is committed to excellence in practice and who believes in marriage.

Dr. Doherty warns there are several big problems to watch out for in therapists: incompetent therapists who are not trained and experienced to work with couples, neutral therapists (which the majority of marriage and family therapists report themselves to be) who only help you weigh gain and loss, and therapists who see only pathology. In other words, they diagnose without helping, leading you to hopelessness or fatalism. He says a fourth type of therapist actively undermines the marriage by subtlely or overtly encouraging you to end the marriage. (“I can’t believe you’re still married to him.”) The last type of problem therapist he mentions is the one who gives direct advice, which is against the code of ethics. (“I think you need a separation.”)

Following are some of the tips for choosing a therapist from Dr. Doherty’s book:

• The therapist does not take sides, but is caring to both of you.
• The therapist actively tries to help your marriage and communicates hope that you solve your marital problems. This goes beyond just clarifying problems.
• The therapist offers reasonable and helpful perspectives and specific strategies for changing the relationship.
• The therapist does not allow you and your spouse to engage in repeated angry exchanges during the session.
• The therapist is alert to individual matters (addiction, illness, abuse, etc.)
• Although the therapist may explore your family backgrounds, the focus is on how to deal with your current marital problems rather than just on insight into how you developed these problems.

(There are more tips, but that gives you a few. I highly recommend chapter 6 in Take Back Your Marriage for more complete advice.)

Visit http://www.marriagefriendlytherapists.com for a directory established and run by Dr. Doherty that helps couples find supportive, pro-marriage therapists in your area. 

Have you had experience—good or bad—with a marriage counselor? Are you open to seeing a therapist if you feel your marriage could benefit?

Photo Credit: ©PhotoXpress.com

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13 responses to “What’s a Pro-Marriage Counselor & How Do You Find One?

  1. bentwingedbird

    My wife and I saw three marriage counselors. The first one never really connected with her, and was more focused on the crisis than how we got to where we were.

    The second counselor was the assistant pastor at our previous church, but distance and scheduling was challenging.

    Our last therapist was one that we both said we wish we’d had first. One of his very first questions to us was something along the lines of whether we believe God’s purpose in marriage was to make us happy or to make us holy.

    I didn’t always agree with our counselor’s views, especially when we got into the area of what was and wasn’t valid reasons for divorce (from a scriptural perspective) – in fact, IIRC, I told him point blank that he was getting very close to a slippery slope there.

    But that was one of the things I appreciated about him – I (or my wife) could disagree with him, even strongly, on something, and he would hear us out and not condemn us.

    I do think that finding the right counselor is critically important, and couples shouldn’t be afraid to “shop around”. A counselor that you are both comfortable with is extremely important (by comfort, I don’t mean a counselor who will always take your side or molly coddle you – that does no one any good but the counselor’s pocket book).

    I have done marital counseling with my wife in the past, and would do so again in a heartbeat, but its just not an option now.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences. Your insight is valuable and underscores the need to find the right fit.

  2. In our culture of throwing things out marriage can just be tossed aside. Marriage is something that you must work at it just doesn’t just happen.

  3. I totally agree that you have to find the right counselor or you can end up with devastating results.

    My ex-husband and I started going to a counselor that his insurance covered for free. Well, you get what you pay for…

    She was young and inexperienced and even though I told her I had caught my husband in several lies lately and I was positive he was having an affair (which he was). Instead of confronting him on it, her advice to me was that I should trust him and believe that he was telling the truth. (Even though he wasn’t.)

    We finally determined that she wasn’t working out, and I wanted to go to a Christian counselor who would fight for our marriage. We selected a counselor at our church, thinking that since he was a Christian counselor, saving our marriage would be his #1 priority.

    But I was totally shocked when his advice to me was to get a lawyer and get out of the marriage asap! He didn’t even want to consider helping us make our marriage work! He was pro-divorce.

    The whole process was baffling to me! I seemed to be the only one who didn’t want a divorce, yet I was the one that had every reason to ask for a divorce!

    So just b/c a counselor says they are Christian, doesn’t mean that they are pro-marriage. Make sure you know what you are getting into before you select a counselor.

    Sadly, my ex-husband filed for divorce shortly thereafter and our marriage did end. That was 7 years ago, and life is good for me again, now that I am remarried to a wonderful Christian man.

    But to anyone reading this and considering divorce, please know that working on a marriage is MUCH easier than the aftermath that divorce brings to both husband, wife and especially to any children that are involved.

    God’s intent is for couples to stay married. Not to just throw the marriage in the trash when the grass looks greener on the other side. Frequently the grass isn’t greener at all on the other side.

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  5. Hey Lori
    I would suggest that you explore marriage coaching. Tradtional marriage counselors have a horrendous 75% failure rate whereas coaches have a 75% success rate. There is a quiet revolution going on in the counseling industry where they are moving to the coaching paradigm.

    You are doing a wonderful job and I have reposted some your posts on my blog including this one.

    Blessings on you and yours
    John Wilder

  6. As a marriage friendly therapist and a huge fan of Dr. Doherty’s, I appreciate this post. Please let people know about http://www.marriagefriendlytherapists.com. It is a directory established and run by Dr. Doherty that helps couples find supportive therapists in their community. It’s an excellent resource for those wanting a therapist who will fight for their marriage.

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  9. I am “The Pro Marriage Counselor” lol .

    All kidding aside, this is a great article. As I write about on my popular blog, too many so called “marriage counselors” actually harbor an anti-marriage bias, that they themselves may not be aware of.

    From out-dated pet-theories from social constructionism and moral relativism to a complete ignorance of the hefty evidence-base in effective marital therapy, these guys can really harm or even destroy a marriage.

    Still many other therapists have no clue as to the vast body of research which has validated the incredible social, psychological, economic and spiritual protectiveness of a healthy marriage; – let alone how to build and maintain one.

    Again, great article. Thank you!

  10. Pingback: How to keep a daily connection in your marriage | Marriage Gems

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