Do Marriage Counselors have Better Marriages?

This is a follow up post to Why You Should Probably Marry an Optometrist - Part 1.  You can read that article here

Recently, I wrote an article that raised some questions about the divorce rates of therapists, specifically Marriage and Family Therapists. As a MFT, I wanted to learn more about this topic.  I decided to dig a little bit deeper, and see if I could make sense of these statistics in existing research. There are many studies about psychotherapists, but not as many specific to MFTs.

Duncan and Duerden (1990) published a study focused on the stressors and enhancers of the marital and family relationships of family professionals. The sample of 44 couples was obtained from a family professional membership list and their spouses. Couples were sent packets by mail, and had a response rate of 24%. Surveys included the following questions: “How has your work (or your spouse’s work) as a family professional uniquely strengthened your own marriage/family?” and “How has your work (or your spouse’s work) as a family professional uniquely stressful to your own marriage/family?” (p. 212). The surveys contained a list of eleven response items and a fill-in-the-blank item. Respondents were instructed to check the item if it applied to their situation, and rank it by strength.

The enhancer that family professionals most often checked was “Greater potential to prevent marital/family problems” (p. 212). The next three enhancers (in order of frequency) were “Greater awareness of problems as normal although stressful,” “Greater ability to solve marital/family problems,” and “Greater appreciation of our own marital/family strengths” (p. 213).

When family professionals were asked to rank enhancers, the highest was “Greater ability to communicate effectively,” trailed by “Greater acceptance of our own part in marital/family problems” and “Greater sensitivity to each other’s needs” (p. 213).

The stressors most often checked by family professionals were “Little time left for my own marriage/family” and “Little energy left for my own marriage/family” (p. 213). “Family professional sets unrealistic standards for marriage/family” was ranked third (p. 213). The same three items were also ranked the three highest, in the same order.

Results were also reported for the spouses of family professionals. The three most frequently checked enhancers for spouses were “Greater appreciation of own marital/family strengths,” “Greater awareness of some problems as normal, though stressful,” and “Greater sensitivity to each others’ needs.” The top three ranked enhancers were “Greater ability to communicate effectively,” “Greater sensitivity to each others’ needs,” and “Greater acceptance of our own part in marital/family problems” (p. 213).

The checking and ranking scores of the most important enhancers of both spouses and family professionals seem to be in agreement. Furthermore, the most commonly checked stressors for spouses were “Little time left for own marriage/family,” “Little energy left for own marriage/family,” and “Difficulty switching roles from family professional to family member” (p. 213). The first two stressors were also the most highly ranked. “Little energy left for own marriage/family” was ranked highest by the spouse group. This was followed closely by “Little time left for own marriage/family” and “Concern about job security due to shifts in funding” (p. 213). Once more, it seems that family professionals and their spouses had comparable checking frequencies and strength rankings in this area.

After further analysis, family professionals and their spouses reported significantly more enhancers than stressors (p < .001). Also, family professionals reported a significantly larger number of enhancers (p < .01) and stressors (p < .05) than the spouse group. The overall strength rank ordering of stressors and enhancers between family professionals and their spouses was significantly correlated for both stressors (p < .001) and enhancers (p < .05).

Duncan and Goddard (1993) completed a similar study and reported somewhat similar findings. This study again used a mailing to randomly sample family professionals from three different family related council membership lists. The sample size was 59 couples, with a 21% response rate. Surveys included exactly the same two questions: “How has your work (or your spouse’s work) as a family professional uniquely strengthened your own marriage/family?” and “How has your work (or your spouse’s work) as a family professional uniquely stressful to your own marriage/family?” (p. 436). The participants then were given eleven ranking response items, and also a written response item.

“Greater awareness of problems as normal although stressful,” “Greater ability to communicate effectively,” and “Greater appreciation of our own marital/family strengths” were the three most checked marital enhancers by the family professionals (p. 437). “Greater sensitivity to each other’s needs,” was the highest ranked marriage enhancer for family professionals (p. 437). Moreover, “Greater parenting skills” was the highest ranked family enhancer by family professionals. The most checked marriage stressors by family professionals were “Little time left for own marriage/family” and “Little energy left for own marriage/family” (p. 437). The family professional rated unrealistic standards set for the marriage/family as most stressful for the marriage. Finally, lack of respect for the family professional’s role was reported to be most stressful for family life by the family professional.

The spouse group reported, “Greater sensitivity to each other’s needs,” “Greater ability to communicate effectively,” and “Greater appreciation of our own marital/family strengths” as the most frequently reported enhancers (p. 437). These enhancers also had the three highest rankings. Parenting skills were also the most highly ranked family life enhancer in the spouse group. The spouses most often reported little time, little energy, and concerns about job security as marital and family life stressors. These were also the top three ranked stressors, in the same order. The family professionals and their spouses both reported significantly more marital enhancers than stressors (p < .001) and more family enhancers then stressors (p < .001). Family professionals, however, reported a significantly larger number of marital and family life enhancers (p < .001) and marital and family life stressors than their spouses (p < .05).

I think the good news here is these studies suggest that Marriage and Family Therapists do experience marital and parenting enhancements. The bad news is that those enhancements also appear to come with a set of problems. Now, we have some data to begin to explain the high divorce rates for Marriage and Family Therapists. There are still many unanswered questions.

How does this research compare with your experiences? Please take a moment and leave a comment below.

 References

  1. Duncan, S. F., & Duerden, D. S. (1990). Stressors and enhancers in the marital/family life of the family professional. Family Relations, 39(2), 211-215.
  2. Duncan, S. F., & Goddard, H. W. (1993). Stressors and enhancers in the marital/family life of family professionals and their spouses. Family Relations, 42(4), 434-441.