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 —Married 12 years, age 38, New York

The Little-Known Question
You Must Ask a Marriage Counselor

By Nancy Wasson, Ph.D.

Are you looking for a marriage counselor? Don’t settle for just any one that you find in the phone book.

Why? Because whether you’re looking to stop divorce, or merely improve the quality of your troubled marriage, you deserve the best possible advice you can get.

There is an important, yet little-known question that could make a world of difference to you and the results you get from your therapist

The question itself you should ask the counselor might surprise you as well the answer the person gives. And it’s a little-used query that is rarely mentioned, yet it could be a key to avoiding a broken marriage.

What A Typical Marriage Counselor Won't Tell You

You don’t see it in articles that marriage guidance experts write about how to choose the right marital therapist. Popular daytime television programs go into a vast range of subjects, yet I’ve never heard of this topic being addressed.

But the right answer to this critical question could save you money, time, and energy that you would spend with the wrong marital counselor. It’s an excellent question to ask to help you decide if you have to choose between two or three people, and they all seem to be fairly equal in training, education, and experience.

So what is this question I believe to be so important that it could well be the “deciding vote” in choosing someone for marriage counseling? Here’s the question: “Have you ever had much personal or relationship counseling yourself?”

Then watch the counselor’s reaction and pay careful attention to what she or he says. Also note the emotional tone in the answer.

These Responses Will Identify A Marriage Counselor To Avoid

Consider the following answers to the above question. My comments are in the parenthesis in italics:

1. “No, I never found it necessary to go to counseling.”

(Never “found it necessary” to go? Does that mean that you’re above having to get counseling? Do you mean that only those who are not as emotionally centered as you “have” to go? How will you understand what it’s like to walk into a strange office and open up to a stranger the most personal details regarding your life?)

2. “Yes, I had therapy a few times when my mother died.”

(That’s a little better, but how about all of the self-growth work therapists are always telling other people to do? You don’t take your own advice, do you?)

3. “No.”

(That’s strange. Why the short answer? The question is logical to ask. Why should I place my trust in you to handle my vulnerability and something as important as the future of my marriage if you’ve never been to therapy yourself? Why haven’t you been to counseling before? It doesn’t sound like you believe in what you’re offering, does it?)

4. “When I took my courses for my degree I took part in some counseling.”

(You mean that you role played with some other students in a few of your counseling classes — but that doesn’t count. You never were in a real counseling session and you were probably self-conscious of what your professor and classmates thought of your role-playing. That’s very different from seeking counseling to closely examine your own real issues.)

5. “Yes, as a matter of fact I have. I’ve had some years of intensive personal therapy, and I still see a therapist when issues come up that I have to process. I know from personal experience how much commitment and courage it takes to avoid blaming others, look at personal issues, and take responsibility for the outcomes in one’s life.”

Yes, this last response indicates the one you want in a good marriage guidance counselor!

What Makes A Good Marriage Counselor?

A good marital counselor has been through the counseling process herself (or himself). She won’t be just lecturing to you about something she has never experienced herself, and she doesn’t seem ashamed that she’s had counseling. Instead, she sounds proud of herself for taking responsibility for that choice. I want a person who “practices what she preaches” about therapy. She must believe it helps in some way or she wouldn’t have spent her time and money getting counseling herself.)

You may be surprised to find out that many counselors have never had counseling as clients and consequently have never faced their own relationship or individual issues. Are you shocked that they could get their graduate degree and therapy license without participation in personal growth therapy? It is astonishing to think of that happening, but it does happen—quite often.

When you think about it—would you want to go to a counselor who recommends therapy to others but has never taken his (or her) own advice? Who hasn’t had to deal with his own personal present and past issues that could influence the recommendations he makes to you?

Do you really want to trust someone who doesn’t really understand how vulnerable you feel as the client and how much fortitude it takes to set an appointment, sit in the waiting room, and then open your soul to a person you’ve never seen before?

Stay Away from this Type of Marriage Counselor

I can unequivocally recommend that you steer clear of counselors who haven’t worked on themselves in counseling—either in individual therapy, marriage or relationship counseling, or both. There’s an old saying that you can’t take someone else any further than you’ve been yourself.

That’s very true when it comes to personal or relationship therapy. The marriage counselor must be very familiar with the terrain—from personal experience as well from textbook knowledge. She (or he) also has to be able to guide you without getting your problems all tangled up in her own unresolved issues—which is something personal counseling helps a therapist do more effectively.

So before you agree to see a marital guidance counselor, ask the important question--“Have you ever had personal therapy yourself?”—and make sure that the counselor you choose knows first-hand the advantages of personal counseling.

*  *  *  *  *

Copyright © Nancy Wasson.  All rights reserved.  Nancy Wasson 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 help with your marriage problems.

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