Updated: Nov 6, 2018
We all know that oft-quoted statistic that 50% of marriages end in divorce. A marriage and family therapist can help to prevent you from being a part of this frightening statistic. But what does a marriage and family therapist do? Do we need one? If we do, how do I choose the right one? We will answer all these questions, and more, in our “Beginner’s Guide to Finding the Right Family Psychologist”!
Finding the right family psychologist or marriage psychologist can be a very challenging task. In the following guide I will help and empower you with the tools and information that you will need in order to know how to find the best family/couple psychologist for your family.
Questions I’ll answer:
What is a Family Psychologist?
Do I need Family/Marriage Therapy?
Where do I start?
What should I look for?
What should I expect in therapy?
Treatment -- what are the different approaches to family therapy?
What should I ask a potential family therapist?
What is a Family or Marriage Psychologist?
MFT stands for Marriage and Family Therapy, which is a specific form of psychotherapy that places emphasis on the emotions and actions of all members of the family. It looks at how certain behaviors affect relationships among members of the family, the individuals and the entire family unit. This type of therapy usually includes one-on-one time as well as sessions with all members. MFT can also be referred to as couples therapy, couples counseling, marriage counseling or family therapy.
Do I need Family/Marriage Therapy?
Have you ever wondered about the percentage of marriages that end up in divorce? For a while it was popular opinion that 50% of marriages end in divorce. You’ve probably heard people quote this stat, in fact. The truth is, there are mixed studies on the topic -- and it’s definitely a topic that has been widely researched. Many studies today are actually estimating that the rate is dropping. (If you want to read up more on the argument, check out this article from Psychology Today.)
Despite what the actual rate is, the point remains the same: Marriages can be very difficult and many couples find themselves at a breaking point. But many aren’t sure what couples therapy could really do for them. So I talked to one of our Bespoke consultants, Dr. Ella Lasky, who has her PhD in psychology and specializes in Couples’ Therapy.
Here’s what she had to say:
I love working with couples. About 80% of the couples who’ve consulted with me believe they have improved their relationships. In the process of couples’ therapy, people learn about the patterns they have created with one another and their own contribution to these patterns.
Research has found that if couples wait more than 6 years from the time they become aware of a problem in their relationship to get help, they have a reduced chance of repairing their relationship. It is more difficult for couples who have been in a strained relationship for a long time because the longer they wait the more rigidified their dysfunctional patterns become. The hurts, angers and resentments have time to grow and fester.
When couples wait until they are on the verge of separation, the odds of success are low. One such couple contacted me recently. They each in fact had retained a divorce lawyer and had several settlement proposals on the table. They had been unhappy for many years and had been unable to self-correct. I was able to help them to resolve some of their issues so that they could work together as a parenting team for the sake of their children. They did divorce, but on more amicable terms than when they first began counseling.
Couples’ therapy works best when both partners are motivated to repair the patterns in their relationship that do not work well. When a couple comes into therapy after they have been off track for a shorter period, it is easier to help them understand where and when they got stuck. I work to help the couple understand how they hurt one another and how to build on the patterns that work well in their relationship, to re-establish trust and the feeling that they can rely on one another.
Ella Lasky, PhD
Adults, Couples, Financial Psychology
If family or couples therapy is on your mind, I wouldn’t wait. Your well-being is inevitably tied to your closest relationships and a professional can help you work through problems before they become worse. But not any therapist will work, so keep reading for more on what to look for.
Where to start/ Overall Recommendations
As a married woman with three kids, I can attest to the fact that challenges inevitably arise when you have a family. Marriage alone is challenging and when you bring kids into the pictures there are new problems that you must confront together (along with lots of exciting things, of course).
Knowing how to pick the right family psychologist/couple therapist could mean the difference between staying happily married or even staying together at all. Here are a few things I think everyone should look out for when searching for a family psychologist.
Tip # 1
Make sure to do your homework before meeting with a family psychologist.
Deciding to work with a family psychologist is an important first step, but now what? Before you turn to Google or even friend recommendations, know the specific type of family psychologist or therapist that will best suit your needs. Educate yourself about basic family theories and strategies so that you are an informed consumer when shopping around for a good fit. If you know a little bit about different approaches (which you can read about further down), you will be better able to ask questions and make comparisons between potential options.
Tip # 2
Assume that most therapists are not specialized in family therapy.
While this is a big generalization, I have extensive experience working with therapists who claim that they are family therapists, but they have no training in working with families. You need to find a therapist who is best equipped and properly trained to help you and your family.
When seeking a family psychologist it is important to understand the different professionals that can provide you with the support you need. You can read a little more about licensing qualifications below, but a good place to start is with The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
Additionally, if the issues that you are dealing with are specific, such as dealing with a child with an eating disorder or drug or alcohol abuse, you want to prioritize that within your search for a family psychologist.
Tip # 3
MAKE SURE that your therapist is a good team player
Working with a family psychologist for an hour or two a week is helpful, but it might also require other providers that will help support you. For example, this week we got a request from a family for a marriage psychologist who could help a couple who is on the verge of divorce. After speaking with the couple for five minutes, it was obvious that they are having challenges with their three boys, who, according to the dad, are out of control. The older son, who is 13, is acting out in school, the 7-year-old has a lot of behavioral issues, and the 5-year-old seems to be learning behaviors from his older brothers. The dad told me he is ready to give up because they had met with three couples therapists and none of their issues had gone away. The truth is, sometimes couples therapy is not enough. Sometimes it’s necessary for the entire family to attend sessions to better treat the family unit as a whole, or for certain members of the family to receive specialized behavioral therapy.
What should I look for in a family psychologist?
First and foremost, you want to look for a licensed therapist, which means he/she will hold a master's or doctoral degree, have completed a minimum of two years or 30,000 clinical hours of supervised experience, and completed a state licensing exam. This person should be a provider who has a certificate in marriage and family therapy, or who has studied couple and family therapy from a two year program.
What to Expect from Your Marriage/Family Psychologist?
Marriage and Family therapy is typically more short-term focused, but the length of time will vary. On average, it tends to take about six months to one year, with sessions that are usually focused around finding a solution to a specific problem. If you are talking about marriage or couples counseling, most likely the therapist will begin by meeting with you together, followed by one-on-one time. The same goes in family therapy. The first session is designed so that all parties can get informed. This is when you will identify the specific problems/issues you wish to work through and it also gives the therapist time to observe the way in which you interact with your partner and/or members of your family. It’s also a good idea to establish how the sessions will run for the duration of the treatment. Things like who should attend and when, what are the basic guidelines for what can be discussed in/out of sessions and confidentiality between therapists and members of family/couples should all be outlined in the first meeting. Each session that follows should provide clear and active steps toward conflict resolution.
Approaches to Family Therapy
In order to best understand how to find the right family psychologist and educate yourself regarding family therapy, it is important to be aware of the two most popular approaches. First is Family System Therapy based on Murray Bowen, and the second is called Internal Family System (IFS).
There is so much to write about Bowen, but I’ll try to give you a brief overview that will at least give you a basic understanding and get you to start thinking about your options more critically. I find Bowen’s theory so valuable because it’s based on years of research on family patterns, meaning it’a all evidence-based. Bowen’s family system theory holds that individuals are inseparable from their network of relationships. Bowen believed that it was important for therapists to have an awareness of the challenges each member of the family experiences within the unit as a whole in order to normalize human behavior for their clients. While individual therapy addresses the individual and their own psyche, family therapy addresses the structure and how each member affects one other. Take a moment to think about your own family structure (either your current nuclear family or your family growing up). Think about how your experience within your family was different than that of your mother or father or a sibling. How did you family structure affect how you saw the world?
Bowen used something called a genogram, which is a basically an illustration that represents a family’s medical history and interpersonal relationships and can be used to showcase psychological influences, heredity and significant events that may impact a family member’s mental health and well-being. Bowen found it important to talk to each family member individually and construct a family history that extended back at least three generations. He then identified any recurring behavioral or mental health problems across generations. (For example, at first, he thought it took three generations for schizophrenia symptoms to present themselves within a family, but later, he changed his hypothesis to 10 years.)
In addition to the genogram, Bowen’s approach is based off of eight interlocking concepts. I won’t give you too much detail, but you can start to see how the family unit is complex and how it can affect the psyche of each of its members. These are things a family psychologist will address and help you understand even more clearly.
Differentiation of self -- this is central to Bowen’s theory and has to do with the individual’s ability to separate him/herself from the group in regards to feelings, responses to problems, etc, while still pursuing their own personal agenda. It’s essentially the ability to maintain an emotional connection to the group while keeping a separate identity.
An emotional triangle -- this refers to a three-person relationship, what Bown considered the smallest stable relationship system.
The family projection process -- how parents impact their own emotional issues onto their kids
The multigenerational transmission process -- this has to do with how the levels of differentiation of self between parents and their children evolve over multiple generations
An emotional cutoff -- members of the family completely cutting off emotional contact
Sibling position -- this theory asserts that people who grow up in the same birth order position in the family (i.e. oldest child, middle child, youngest) will have similar characteristics
The societal emotional process -- this refers to how societal organizations (outside the family) are affected by the emotional processes within a family
The nuclear family emotional process -- Bowen believes four basic relationship patterns affect the problems that develop within a family: marital conflict, problems or concerns in one person, emotional distance, impairment of one or multiple children.
Concept Two: Internal Family System
IFS refers to a concept known as the Internal Family System. It was developed in the 1990s by family therapist Richard Schwartz, Ph.D. He came up with the idea of an undamaged “core self,” which is the essence of who you are, along with three sub-personalities that reside within each person alongside the core self. The sub-personalities are exiles (aka, the wounded and suppressed parts of the self), managers (the protective parts of the self that do the suppressing) and firefighters (which provide distraction when the pain is caused due to suppressed parts being released). Common firefighters are things like alcohol abuse or other forms of addiction, which might be hiding the suppressed pain of the exiles, which could be something like past abuse. The goal of IFS is to heal and better manage these parts so there is more harmony with the core self. IFS is used with individuals, couples and families. It has been proven to help treat symptoms like depression, anxiety and other phobias.
A List Of Questions To Ask A Potential Family Psychologist
Where did you get your training? Are you certified?
How long have you been practicing?
What is your general approach to working with families/couples?
What are your recommendations for how we can the most out of each session?
Do you work with other providers/have a network you can make referrals to for more specialized problems should they become evident?
Finding a family psychologist is a detailed process, but the more educated you are, the better success rate you will have. Admitting you need help is not something to be embarrassed about or put off to a future date. Our families are so important, and the investment in the well-being of these relationships should could first and foremost in our lives.
If you would like me to connect you with one of our expert therapists or dietitians, please contact me. I look forward to hearing from you!