Don Paglia | Marriage and Family Counseling. Constellations Workshops


Q: Why is it important to find a well-qualified counselor?

A: Finding a well-qualified counselor, especially on who is marriage friendly, when your relationship is suffering can be challenging and sometimes even overwhelming. It might be outright hazardous to have a therapist who lacks the training and experience to work with couples, as opposed to individuals. Many counselors treat marriage as lukewarm in supporting life-long commitment.

Q: What should I/we look for?

A: Things to consider: years of training and experience in marriage and couples counseling, values marriage as a life-long commitment, and is dedicated to helping marriages succeed. Obviously, a personal referral from a family members or friend who has found the counselor effective is a great plus.

Q: Is it appropriate to try out a counselor?

A: It is important that both of you feel good about a counselor. Therefore it is perfectly appropriate that you may choose to set an initial appointment and see if the three of you – you, your partner, and the counselor – can work together, before you set up a treatment plan. At this initial session, typically the counselor will interview you and your spouse, and then offer a possible plan of action.

Q: What do you mean by “marriage friendly?”

A: As a member of the National Registry of Marriage Friendly Therapist, we counselors on the Registry support a values statement that holds marriage as an important personal, professional, and social value. These therapists believe in helping couples restore their marriages to health if that is possible. Most couples assume this is what all therapists believe. But it’s not so. Because of their professional training, many therapists hold a “neutral” value orientation towards whether a marriage survives or whether the couple divorces. In fact, this is the most common stance even among therapists who identify themselves as marriage and family therapists. In a national survey of over 1,000 marriage and family therapists, over 60 percent indicated that they are “neutral” on marriage versus divorce for their clients. Only one-third said they “I am committed to preserving marriage and avoiding divorce whenever possible.” Disturbingly, 2.4% said they frequently recommend divorce.

The bottom line: most therapists are neutral when marriages are in trouble, whereas therapists on the Registry aim to directly support the viability of troubled marriages. This is a big difference, and it’s why we use the term “marriage friendly.”

Q: Is a “marriage-friendly” therapist anti-divorce?

A: Life is filled with tragedy. Not all marriages can survive, and some marriages are so destructive to health and human dignity that they should be dissolved. Sometimes couples come to therapy when one spouse has made an irrevocable decision to divorce. In other words, there are times when every experienced marriage therapist knows that the cause has been lost and that the best approach is to help minimize the damage of an inevitable divorce. There are responsible divorces, and therapists can assist in that process. But that does not mean that we hold the view of one prominent therapist who says, “The good marriage, the good divorce—it matters not.” Like a surgeon facing a wounded limb, we first want to find a way to save a marriage, even if at first a spouse is demoralized and feels like giving up. A good marriage therapist, in our view, offers hope and works hard to help couples succeed in their marriage, and then accepts their ultimate decision on the future of their relationship.

Q: Is individual therapy safer for marriages?

A: Individual therapy may undermine more marriages than even poor couples therapy. Because relationship problems are the main problem people bring to individual therapists, individual therapists are treating marriages whether or not they realize it. Unless the therapist has values that support marriage and is careful not to turn the non-present partner into a villain, individual therapy can undermine a marriage. Every experienced marriage therapist has heard these stories: a spouse goes into individual therapy, receives support for a one-sided view of the marriage problems, and becomes increasingly pessimistic about the marriage. The therapist then questions why the person stays in an obviously bad marriage. The other spouse is clueless that the marriage is unraveling in therapy, and is not informed until it’s too late. These therapists do not intend harm, but often their orientation is to the personal happiness of their individual client who is distressed in a marriage, without enough regard for the welfare of the other spouse and the children—and for the lifelong commitment that the client once made to the marriage for “better and worse.” Sadly, it is not uncommon for therapists to recommend divorce after a few individual sessions without a real assessment of the marriage and its possibilities for survival and renewal.

Q: Are non-married people excluded from Marriage Friendly Therapists? Back to top

A: Anyone can access a therapist on the Registry and learn about whether there is a good fit between the client’s needs and the therapist’s practice. Nearly every marriage therapist sees people at various stages of relationships, from considering commitment to long-term married, from first-married to many-times-married. Some therapists on the Registry work with all kinds of couples, including cohabiting couples and same sex couples, while others limit their practice to married husbands and wives. Some see individuals who are part of couples when the spouse will not go to therapy, while others will work only with both spouses together. It’s up the consumers of the Registry to look at therapists’ practice descriptions and to inquire about the right fit for their circumstances.

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