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?
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