How to Become a Marriage Counselor

Jonathan Swinton has been a family and marriage therapist for six years. He currently runs his own practice, Swinton Counseling, in Salt Lake City, Utah. 

Prior to opening his practice, Jonathan spent several years at the Community Abuse Prevention Service Agency as a victim advocate. There, he was on call for 24-hour periods to respond to victims of abuse, meet them at the hospital or police station and provide resources to them and their children. This gave him some real experience helping people with some really difficult situations. It also helped him realize he could handle hearing such difficult things, and that he found enjoyment helping people with their struggles. 

Jonathan earned his PhD in marriage and family therapy from Kansas State University, as well as a Master of Science in marriage and family therapy from University of Nebraska, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Utah State University. Jonathan and his wife have an adopted son from Taiwan.

What is a family and marriage therapist?

A marriage and family therapist is a mental health professional that has specialized training in assisting couples and families with a wide range of mental health and relationship issues. The training is very similar to psychologists and social workers, but has additional training in assisting with relationship issues.

Why did you decide to become a family and marriage therapist?

I have always loved helping people through their problems. I have always been a big believer that relationships are important to individuals. I have found that the marriage and family therapy field is a great meshing of these things.

Are there common misconceptions about your profession?

A common misconception is that we only do marriage counseling. While that is a common thing we do, we are licensed and trained to treat every major mental disorder as well. This means I do a lot of work with mental health issues as well, treating things such as depression, anxiety, and other mental health difficulties. Also, people think that we make people lie down on a couch and recount all their childhood problems. That is not generally what I do. I focus more on the current situation and ways to resolve what is currently causing problems.

What is a typical day like for you?

A typical day for me has around five or seven appointments with clients. Each appointment ranges from 1-1.5 hours in length. I do specialize in working with couples on their relationship problems, so I spend most of my time helping couples overcome a wide range of problems. The most common issues I deal with are infidelity, extended family problems, communication problems, and lack of emotional connection in relationships. During each session I have the individual or couple sit in my office. I sit on a couch, and they sit on a couch. I ask them lots of questions, give them lots of advice, and help them understand how to improve their problems. I work four days a week. Most in my field only work four days a week because it can be emotionally difficult to work a full five to six days when dealing with difficult relationship and mental health difficulties.

What are your favorite aspects of your job?

I love seeing individuals, couples, and families improve. Seeing people find happiness again in their relationships and lives is very fulfilling. Helping families avoid divorce really helps a lot of people, and I love being a part of that.

What are your least favorite aspects of your job?

It can be difficult sometimes to listen to so many difficult problems day in and day out. The burnout rate can be high if therapists don’t take good care of themselves. I only work four days a week as a means to ensure I can happily do my job for the rest of my life. I then try to not think about my job the other days. This helps me feel rejuvenated each day when I go back in to work.

Is there anything you would have done differently while studying to become a family and marriage therapist?

Made sure I got more sleep. I worked a little too hard in graduate school. I did very well, but I could have taken better care of myself physically. Make sure you relax, sleep, and spend time with friends and family.

What classes did you take in college that are the most relevant to your job?

Classes on human development, marital and family relationships, and abnormal psychology were very helpful for me.

What personality traits do you think would help someone to be successful as a family and marriage therapist?

Someone that is approachable. Research has found that the greatest predictor of success in therapy is actually the nature of the therapist-client relationship. Clients that feel comfortable with their therapist, and confident in their therapist’s abilities generally progress more quickly. So, having a personality that is comfortable interacting with all types of people will really help.

What personality traits do you think might hinder someone’s success as a family and marriage therapist?

Being too direct, firm, or rude. Or, someone that is so shy they can’t discuss difficult things with strangers.

What advice, or words of caution, would you give to a student who is considering studying to become a family and marriage therapist?

Make sure you go to a COAMFTE-accredited marriage and family therapy program. Going to a program that is not COAMFTE accredited will make it much more difficult to get licensed when you graduate. Visit www.aamft.org for a list of graduate programs that are COAMFTE accredited. The programs can be quite competitive, so make sure you apply to many of them. I applied to seven different programs. This also helped me learn about various programs to find the one that was the best fit for me. Also, make sure you take any prerequisite courses that are required. A statistics class, a human development class, an abnormal psychology class, and a human sexuality class are often required for entrance to a graduate program. Last, I would encourage you to get some volunteer experience before applying. This will help you know if you can deal with listening to the struggles people face. It will also look good when you apply for graduate school to have that experience.