Even the best relationships can become strained. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to have a long-term relationship and not at least occasionally have conflict. Differences in personality can lead to some relationship troubles. Although differences between individuals can be a positive thing, it can also lead to issues in a relationship. There can be times when it is difficult to navigate through the complexity of relationships alone, which is why the field of relationship counseling was born.
What is Relationship Counseling?
Relationship counseling involves working with the parties involved to improve troublesome issues that are putting stress on the relationship. Relationship counseling is often used to help people in an intimate relationship, such as romantic partners. But individuals in other types of relationships may also utilize and benefit from relationship counseling.
Various techniques are used during relationship counseling to help the parties involved improve intimacy and promote better communication. Relationship counseling can also help individuals make sense of what is going on in their relationship.
Sometimes people get to a place where they feel disconnected or angry with their significant other, and they are not even sure why they feel like they do. Relationship counseling helps the individuals involved identify their feelings and needs. Counseling can also help both parties learn to stay calm when resolving issues.
Whether clients need help identifying issues or talking through problems, relationship counseling facilitates the process and can be beneficial for both parties. The focus of relationship counseling is the relationship itself. But each partner may develop more self-awareness and better communication skills.
What is a Relationship Counselor?
Relationship counselors, classified as Mental Health Counselors or Marriage and Family Therapists by the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, help people with their relationship problems with family and others. To help clients understand the nature of their problems and develop effective strategies that improve their lives, relationship counselors listen to clients and probe by asking questions. They treat mental and emotional disorders and may work with individuals, but an emphasis is placed on the client’s interaction with others.
Counselors may work with couples, families or groups. Treatment involves employing techniques for family systems, such as improving communication among family members and changing negative behavior and perception.
How Does Relationship Counseling Work?
Relationship counseling works with both parties in a relationship, usually together, and aims to help them find appropriate solutions to any issues or conflict they may be dealing with.
First and foremost, relationship counseling works by trying to improve communication within the couple. It aims to provide couples with strategies for being more open and honest with each other as well as being more supportive of their partner when seeing that honesty displayed. As part of improving communication, relationship counseling requires couples to share thoughts and feelings that they may previously have kept from their partner for fear of causing hurt or conflict. Counseling looks to provide both parties with improved listening skills and the ability to discuss areas of conflict in a way that is not offensive or confrontational.
Counseling of this sort also tries to give both parties a more objective view of their relationship. It aims to demonstrate to each partner how the other may see their common issues differently and how this might lead to conflict. It also aims to show that the relationship is taking place in a wider context, that circumstances have a hand in the couple’s issues. This is ultimately to give the couple a greater understanding of their relationship and some of the problems they may be experiencing.
The final, and possibly most important way in which relationship counseling works, is by allowing a couple to reflect upon their strengths. Couples usually seek counseling during difficult times when it is likely that they have lost perspective about their relationship. As well as providing mechanisms for improving areas of conflict and weakness, relationship counseling will also ask couples to consider what their strengths are and put a focus on those. This is especially relevant towards the end of relationship counseling when couples are looking to build longer term stability.
What Does a Relationship Counselor Do?
Relationship counselors work with people having problems like marital conflict, chronic illness, juvenile delinquency, child and elder abuse, substance abuse, adoption and chronic illness. They evaluate family roles and deal with issues including stress and low self-esteem, and they help their clients adjust to changes like divorce and job layoffs. Often, a relationship counselor will use a goal-oriented approach and encourage clients to replace harmful beliefs and feelings with positive ones. Through cognitive behavioral therapy, the counselor encourages clients to change damaging behavior into productive behavior.
Related Reading: How to Become a Marriage Counselor
A relationship counselor may coordinate a client’s treatment with professionals including social workers and psychiatrists, or refer a client to a community resource like a support group. Some problems can be overcome with the help of a relationship counselor, while others require management skills to minimize the effect of the disorder or illness.
Where Does a Relationship Counselor Work?
A relationship counselor may work in private practice, or in settings including mental health centers and colleges. They may also work in Employee Assistance Programs (EAP’s) provided by some employers to assist their employees in dealing with their personal problems.
According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, in 2012 25 percent of Marriage and Family Therapists worked in individual and family services, 24 percent worked in outpatient care centers, 22 percent worked for the government, 8 percent worked in the offices of health practitioners, and 5 percent worked in nursing and residential care facilities. Some mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists work evenings and on weekends to accommodate clients.
What are the Requirements to Become a Relationship Counselor?
A relationship counselor will generally need to have a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from an accredited college or university. Individuals may also pursue a general counseling degree with a specialization in marriage and family therapy. Candidates interested in performing research might look into a Master of Science (MS) degree, rather than a Master of Arts (MA) degree.
Counseling and marriage and family therapy master’s degree programs typically require up to 60 hours of coursework. Topics include family dynamics, healthy and dysfunctional relationship patterns, and communication within relationships. Students will learn both theoretical approaches as well as practical therapeutic techniques, and will experience hands-on, experiential learning opportunities like planned visits to family service agencies and fieldwork. Candidates will also complete supervised clinical experiences.
While licensing is issued on a state by state basis, all 50 states require a license. Common requirements are completing a master’s degree program in a relevant field with a prescribed number of supervised clinical hours. This commonly translates into two years or up to 4,000 hours of clinical experience beyond the master’s degree requirements. Candidates for a license in relationship counseling are also required to pass an examination. Once a license is granted, yearly continuing education credits are required to keep the license.
Relationship Counselors may consider earning a National Certified Counselor (NCC) designation bestowed by the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), and they may join a professional organization like the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT).
What Skills are Needed for a Relationship Counselor?
A relationship counselor needs many of the same skills as counselors in other fields but there are a few skills which are particularly important to this specialty.
A relationship counselor works with both members of a couple to explore their issues and find resolutions. It is absolutely imperative that the counselor remain impartial, they must be able to give both parties the same time and opportunity to discuss their thoughts and feelings. They cannot be seen to ‘take sides’ or have either party feeling like they are being ‘ganged up on’ by their partner and the counselor. Counselors have to be able to dismiss any personal feelings about the issues that the couple is facing and instead focus on the individuals and helping them to reach a resolution.
Couples often seek relationship counseling in times of difficulty within their partnership. This often means that there may be ongoing areas of conflict. The relationship counselor has to be able to guide the couple to explore those areas of conflict without allowing the sessions to become dominated by arguments. Counselors have to exercise judgment to allow open and honest communication about the issues and make sure that both parties feel heard without allowing conversations to become dominated by one small area of conflict. They have to ultimately guide a couple through that discussion to a point where they can find a resolution and be able to move on.
Finally, relationship counselors must retain the ability to remain detached, they have to allow the session be directed by the couple. Counselors in this area cannot make determinations about the strengths and weaknesses of a couple – they should simply guide a couple to decide for themselves what these things are and help them address them. A relationship counselor can also not let any issues of their own personal relationships affect the help they give couples.
How Much Does a Relationship Counselor Make?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, the median annual salary for marriage and family therapists in 2019 was $54,590. The top 10 percent earned over $87,700, while the lowest 10 percent earned under $32,000.
Marriage and family therapists who worked in government had a median annual wage of $72,520, while those who worked in the offices of a health practitioner earned $50,590. Therapists who worked at outpatient care centers earned $58,170, and those in individual and family services averaged $50,780. Those who worked in nursing and residential care facilities earned the least, at $46,500.
What is the Job Outlook for Relationship Counselors?
The Occupational Outlook Handbook states that employment of mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists is projected to expand by a whopping 22 percent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations. More people are expected to take advantage of services like relationship counseling as these services become covered by insurance.
In addition, more people are now covered by health insurance as a result of federal legislation under the Affordable Care Act, and the law now requires insurance policies to cover mental health treatment the same way as other chronic diseases are treated. Also, an increasing number of military veterans is expected to seek treatment in the coming decade.
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