I see it all of the time, licensed mental health counselors (LMHCs) doing couples therapy, when they probably shouldn’t be. Now, before I get lots of hate mail, I’m not saying that they are unqualified. But what I AM saying is that there is no guarantee that they have received proper training. Only licensed marriage and family therapists or therapists otherwise certified by their state board can guarantee via their title that they are qualified. And this is something all students should consider when planning their academic studies and forming their professional identities.
I am sure there are lots of LMHCs and professional counselors doing a great job at couples therapy. But what the public, and therefore you, probably doesn’t understand is how different couples therapy is from individual therapy. It doesn’t mean you can’t do both, but it does mean that you should plan your studies accordingly.
Let me start by explaining why they are different. In individual therapy, you are only dealing with one person in the room. You are not necessarily concerned with the dynamics between people, but rather with the intrapersonal issues of the individual client. Most of the individual counseling theories, such as Rogerian, CBT, Psychodynamic, etc., really don’t take into account the effects of the partner or family member. Rather, these theories are mostly concerned with what is going in inside the individual.
Contrast this with couples therapy. Here, you have another person present in the counseling relationship, and whenever that happens the relationship between those two clients becomes your client. So, your client now includes interpersonal as well as intrapersonal dynamics. The level of complexity just rose significantly. This requires a special set theories and techniques; which are fundamentally different from the individual counseling theories. Unless you have received training on these theories, you really shouldn’t be doing couples therapy.
Therefore, while it may be legal for individual counselors to do couples therapy, it may not be in the best interest of the client because the therapist may not be properly trained. Don’t let this happen to you. Decide at the beginning of your program which (or both?) you would like to do and plan your studies accordingly. Not only will you be practicing in the most ethical way possible, but you will be experience greater professional satisfaction and less frustration. Couples therapy is extremely rewarding, but due to the increased complexity and generally higher levels of emotion in the counseling room, it can feel like stepping in front of a roaring train. If you aren’t properly prepared you will be run over. For example, you will need to be much more active and directive as a therapist, otherwise couples will just argue in front of you and that’s not effective. They can do that at home for free.
Yours in the Joy of Knowledge,