The Blessing of Competence in Marriage Counseling

Recently, the former First Lady Michelle Obama sat down with Oprah Winfrey to talk about her life as an empty nester. With both of her daughters off to college, she and her husband, former President Barack Obama, are enjoying their lives and rediscovering what led them to fall in love with each other.

Yet, with their public persona of a having great marriage and life together, things have not always been that way. Indeed, during the interview, the former First Lady opened up about the difficulties she and her husband faced after becoming parents. In fact, those “tough times” were so taxing on their marriage that they eventually participated in marital therapy. Thankfully, the therapist helped Mrs. Obama discover a very profound truth about marriage: no one can make her happy but herself.

“Marriage is hard and raising a family together is a hard thing,” said Obama. She did not need a therapist to help her comprehend the difficulties she was facing, but to help her better understand how to approach them. Apparently, the therapist was competent enough to assist her with what she needed. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

Sometimes those who counsel others do not possess the skills needed to effectively assist clients experiencing marital distress. Surely, many people who position themselves as counselors may have experience working with people facing troubling times. Yet, learning how to counsel an individual, let alone a couple, requires proper education, professional experience, and even supervision from a licensed (i.e. competent) therapist (American Counseling Association, Code of Ethics, C.2.a.). It is presumptuous to provide counseling to couples without competently understanding the nuances of marital conflict and how to address them. Indeed, more is needed to develop the competence necessary for effective marital counseling practice. When that which is needed is neglected, the counselor can end up doing more harm than good.

There are at least three elements to demonstrate competence in counseling: 1) the therapeutic approach is evidence-based, 2) methods are based on the counselor’s positive experiences with previous clients, and 3) the methods are tailored to each specific client. Inherent in these elements is the expectation that the counselor is, as Mrs. Obama stated, “objective.” That is, one way incompetence can be recognized in marriage counseling is when the counselor either directly or indirectly favors one client over another. To avoid this tendency, professional counselors are forbidden from counseling family members or close friends if they cannot be objective (American Counseling Association, Code of Ethics, A.5.b.).

Being objective is not being callous or indifferent. Rather, objectivity leads the counselor to view the couple’s troubles independently from any bias. In other words, it allows the counselor to be neutral, not taking sides with either party, while focusing on a common goal for both parties. When a counselor demonstrates his/her competence via an objective approach, it facilitates the kind of therapy that can strengthen a marriage the way the Obama’s was.

Have you experienced competent marital counseling? If so, your marriage is probably in a healthier place as a result. If not, rest assured that there are counselors available who possess the competence needed to help your marriage thrive if you and your spouse are committed to that pursuit.

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