It was an all-too-familiar conversation. Jody went to see a marriage counselor hoping to receive guidance for getting her marriage back on track.
"After seeing the counselor twice, he told us, 'You have three choices. You can separate for a period of time, file for divorce or keep on working,'" says Jody. "We were looking for someone to work with us on a specific plan for our marriage. Instead, we got a totally neutral counselor who didn't seem to care whether or not our marriage survived. We weren't neutral about wanting to save our marriage. He was."
According to Dr. Willard Harley, psychologist and author of numerous books including the international best-seller "His Needs, Her Needs," this is not unusual.
During one woman's first visit with a therapist, she specifically said that divorce was not an option. However, at the end of the 50-minute session, the therapist told her he thought she really should consider divorce. There was no violence in the marriage — simply love gone cold.
"People who seek help from marriage counselors usually assume that the goal of therapy is saving the marriage," says Harley. "Unfortunately, most marital therapists are specifically trained to be nondirective or neutral. They see themselves as someone couples can talk to, but not someone who will coach them into changes that will ultimately save their marriage.
"How can a plan possibly achieve its goal when there is no goal?" Harley asks. "It's no wonder that most marriage counseling is so ineffective."
This does not mean that couples should not seek help. In fact, Harley encourages troubled couples to find a marriage counselor to help save their marriage.
"Couples need to understand that there are times when even the strongest of marriages needs additional support and motivation. Frequently, only a professional marriage counselor or marriage educator can provide that," Harley says. "An effective marriage counselor or educator will help you avoid or overcome intense emotional trauma associated with a failing marriage, create a plan that will help your marriage and motivate you to complete that plan."
Whether your marriage is in significant distress or just in a tough spot, Harley's tips can help you pick an effective marriage counselor.
Before setting up the first appointment, ask certain questions to make sure the counselor will help you accomplish your goals of making the marriage mutually fulfilling.
Ask to schedule a 10- to 15-minute phone interview. If the counselor is not willing to have an initial phone conversation, eliminate that counselor from consideration.
During the interview, ask about the following:
» What is your goal for our marriage? (Answer: To help you both achieve marital fulfillment, and save your marriage).
» What are your credentials and years of experience in marriage counseling? (Answer: a graduate degree in mental health (master's or doctorate in psychology or social work, with clinical supervision in marriage counseling).
» This is our problem (briefly explain). Do you have experience helping couples overcome that problem, and what is your success rate? (Answer: Experience helping couples overcome that particular problem with more than 75 percent success.)
After both spouses have a chance to speak to a few potential counselors, Harley suggests choosing the one that answers those questions appropriately. Then set up your first appointment.
Jody and her husband ultimately decided to divorce. Looking back at the whole scenario, they question if divorce should have even been an option. At the time, they both felt hopeless about their marriage. Without a recovery plan, divorce seemed to be the only answer for them.
If the counselor had given them a plan to save their marriage, they might be happily married today. They will always wonder if a more encouraging counselor would have helped change the course of their family's life.
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Contact her at email@example.com.