Monthly Archives: July 2011

Payback time

Lynne Shallcross July 12, 2011

Ask Don W. Locke what his motivation was for becoming president of the American Counseling Association, and he’ll answer quite simply that it was “payback time.”

“ACA has been so much a part of my life professionally, I feel I owe it. Being president is a way I can give back to the profession,” says Locke, who began his term as ACA’s 60th president on July 1. Locke, who serves as dean of the School of Education at Mississippi College, says that during his 45 years in the field, he has seen the profession grow, and he has grown along with it. “It’s been a privilege to be part of that growth process. With my knowledge of ACA’s history and an understanding of where we’ve come from, I hope I can help us focus on the future.”

What spurred Locke’s involvement in ACA from the beginning of his career was the guidance of his mentor, Charles W. Scott, who taught the first counseling class that Locke ever took. “Dr. Scott told me if I was ever going to be a professional counselor, I needed to join and be active in my professional association,” Locke says.

Scott had big dreams for Locke. “He told me early in my career, ‘Don, you’re going to be president of ACA one day, and when you do, I want to sit on the stage with you at ACA’s opening session.'” Scott has since passed away, but Locke plans to have an empty chair on the platform at the opening session of the 2012 ACA Annual Conference & Exposition in San Francisco to honor his mentor.

Scott’s guidance of Locke went well beyond persuading the fledgling counselor to get actively involved in his professional association. In fact, Scott was a major influence on Locke entering the counseling profession. Scott was the dean of students during Locke’s undergraduate years at Mississippi College, and Locke admits with a laugh that he spent a good deal of time in Scott’s office for a variety of reasons.

Scott encouraged Locke to take a course in counseling before he graduated. Locke complied, despite the fact he was headed to law school after graduation. But the weekend after Locke completed his final semester, he was in a car accident, which ended up delaying his law school plans. While he healed from the accident, Scott advised him to take some additional counseling graduate classes. Again Locke listened, but after one semester, he decided to follow through on going to law school.

As it turned out, law school wasn’t the right fit for him. One of his professors who was a sitting judge made that point abundantly clear when he told the class, “It’s not really about the law. It’s about what the judge had for breakfast.” That was all Locke needed to hear. He headed back to Mississippi College and earned a master’s degree in school counseling.

Locke has packed varied experiences into his four-plus decades in the field. In addition to his master’s degree from Mississippi College, Locke earned a doctorate from the University of Mississippi. He has taught and coached at the junior high level, served as a high school counselor and coach, and worked in higher education for more than 40 years, including serving as professor, program coordinator, department chair, assistant and associate dean, and dean.

Locke has also taken on many leadership roles throughout his career, including a term as president of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, a division of ACA. He is also a past president of both the Student Personnel Association for Teacher Education and the Southern Association for Counselor Education and Supervision. In addition, he has served as vice chair of the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), on the ACA Governing Council, on the Board of Directors for the American Personnel and Guidance Association and the American Association for Counseling and Development, and on the Board of Examiners for the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

United we stand

As a result of his experiences, Locke believes he has a sense of what has worked for ACA and what has not. One approach that works is when members of the association speak with one professional voice, he says. Locke points to the success of the licensure effort, which was accomplished, he says, because professional counselors in each state came together to move the effort forward. “For professional counselors to be a contributing part of the mental health profession, it’s going to be necessary to be united and not fractured,” Locke says. “For us to truly advocate for the profession, we need to have numbers, and we need to be together. If we’re going to advocate and have legislation that supports professional counselors in all venues, then it’s going to be necessary to speak with a single voice.”

The divisional structure has served ACA well, Locke says, because divisions allow for smaller groups to focus on specific concerns within the field. However, he says, it’s important to guard against divisions or interest groups separating too much from the greater overall mission of professional counseling.

Locke questions whether the current makeup of the ACA divisional structure works as well as it once did. Divisions were at one time extremely viable, he says, but in recent years, membership in divisions has declined, so he wonders if the time has come to determine whether some groups should continue functioning as divisions. Locke suggests that some current divisions might function better as interest groups or could merge with each other to create more viable entities.

Locke says four items will stand out on his to-do list during his time as ACA president. First, he’d like to undertake a reorganization of the governance structure to better reflect the membership. Second, he would like to address the portability of counselor licensure, an issue the “20/20: A Vision for the Future of Counseling” initiative is working on and one that Locke says he plans to actively support.

Third, Locke wants to revitalize the divisions and dormant branches. And fourth, he’d like to work toward greater involvement of student members throughout the ranks of ACA, whether on committees, task forces or in other roles, so they will see the value of membership and continue on as professional members. That might also mean working to meet student needs by offering additional student programs and a stronger network of job opportunities, Locke says. “We want to continue to make ACA viable enough so that students see this is where they want to keep their professional membership.”

Other current issues Locke anticipates needing to address include the sunset of licensure laws in many states, third-party payment for counselors, increased emphasis on counselor training models that focus on the clinical aspect of training and opportunities for influencing international counseling.

Making things happen

Brian Canfield, professor of counselor education at Southern Arkansas University and a past president of ACA, has known Locke for more than 25 years and calls him a “true mentor.” Their paths first crossed when Locke was a professor and associate dean in the College of Education at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and Canfield was an assistant professor. “Part of Don’s success as a leader is his tenacity,” says Canfield, who is also ACA treasurer and director of international education and development for IAMFC. “As is true of most capable leaders, he has a strong personality. He does not shy away from a challenge or let obstacles impede progress when he is committed to a course of action. One of the things I have always admired about Don is his vision. Whether it is creating a new Ph.D. program or building a new counseling clinic, Don knows how to make things happen.”

Locke has already contributed significantly to the counseling profession, even before stepping into his new role as ACA president, Canfield says. “Don has served in many leadership roles. He has had a strong influence on the development of IAMFC and other ACA divisions, as well as various state branches and state branch divisions. His greatest contribution to the counseling profession, in my opinion, has been his keen ability to recognize and cultivate the talents and abilities of others. Don has been, and remains, a mentor for many in our profession.”

Canfield says he can’t predict what Locke’s ultimate legacy as president will be, but he knows it will feature a high level of professional integrity and competent stewardship. Locke is one of the most knowledgeable and experienced people ever to serve as ACA president, Canfield says, adding that he is confident Locke’s tenure will center on “true service to the counseling profession.”

Service was an ideal with which Locke grew up. His maternal grandfather and several of his uncles were ministers, and Locke admits his mom initially assumed he would become one, too. Although he followed a different path, Locke says his mother was pleased with his career choice, especially after he explained that he thought he could serve more effectively through counseling.

Locke calls his father, who also dedicated his life to service as an officer in the Army, his greatest inspiration. “My dad always impressed on me to be all you can be,” Locke says. His father told him to “be willing to accept positions, but always assume the responsibility that goes along with that choice.'”

When Locke is not busy assuming responsibilities in the counseling profession, he is a husband to wife Judy, a father to grown children Mark and Laura, and “Paw Paw” to granddaughters Grace and Meredith. Married for more than 40 years, Locke says he and Judy enjoy doing activities together, especially gardening and yard work. As for other passions and interests, Locke is also active in his church, spends about an hour a day deepwater running in the campus pool and is an avid collector of vintage baseball cards — his favorite being a 1954 Bowman Ted Williams.

Stand up for counseling

As Locke embarks on his year as president, he isn’t naïve about the obstacles ahead. It’s easy to get caught up in small issues or concerns, he says. “The challenge as president is not to get bogged down in the minutiae and triviality and to really focus on some of the broader issues that we have in our profession.”

In leading an organization with more than 46,000 members, Locke says it is important to understand and accept ahead of time that opinions on any given topic will vary widely. His goal is to listen to everyone before reaching a decision. “The challenge as president is to speak for the entire group and not from isolated or smaller pockets,” he says.

Locke offers a nod of respect to ACA Immediate Past President Marcheta Evans, saying that he’ll work to be as facilitative and understanding a leader as she proved to be. “She’s a great people person, and she’s done a great job in understanding the membership,” he says. “I would like to continue on as she has done.”

By the time his year as president ends, Locke says he hopes to see that ACA membership has continued to increase, that ACA has made further inroads in using technology to deliver services to members and that divisions will have experienced more vitality and perhaps even undergone some mergers.

Looking further into the future, Locke would like to see increased focus on clinical training. “If every client you work with increases your skills, then the more experience and supervision we can give someone, the stronger the person will be as a counselor,” he says.

Locke also desires for counselors to continue building their identities as counselors, not “identify ourselves using someone else’s template,” he says. Professional identity is something that other helping professions perhaps have in more abundance than counseling, Locke says, so he’d like to witness the counseling profession continue to strengthen its singular identity.

Although acknowledging there is always room to grow, Locke says he is deeply honored to be part of such a strong and admirable profession. Three things that he takes special pride in are the rigorous training of counseling students, the connections counselors make with their clients and the observable results that make counseling a performance-based profession. “I’m proud of our profession,” he says. “I will stand up in any group, anywhere, and tell them I’m a professional counselor.”

Lynne Shallcross is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at

Letters to the editor:

Transitions, volunteering and looking ahead

Richard Yep

Richard Yep

Each July, ACA experiences the transition from one leadership group to another. We have done it this way for many, many years. Although some volunteer leaders carry over into the new year, most have fulfilled their terms and have moved on. To all those serving this year, I say welcome and thank you in advance for your service.

As someone who has volunteered for many other groups over the years, I know the type of commitment and dedication it takes to share your precious time with a profession you love so dearly. I will thank you now, and I will thank you again when your service is complete. But please know that I appreciate all that you do throughout the entire year! The projects, services and issues all of you will deal with during the next 12 months will help to move the counseling profession forward. Your expertise will be called upon, and we are lucky to have you in our cadre of committed volunteer leaders.

I know we all wish Don W. Locke, our new ACA president, a productive year. I have the privilege of working with the ACA presidents during their time as president-elect, and Don brings a great deal of experience and enthusiasm to the leadership table. He is very open to new ideas as we all work collectively for the good of the counseling profession. The ACA staff and I look forward to working with President Locke.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ask all of you to think about the profession’s next generation of leaders. We need more people to volunteer their time and energy to ACA. Our tent is quite large, and we are inviting and welcoming to those who want to get involved in the association. Some ACA members have already indicated their interest in participating on committees and task forces and in other projects, but I know many others of you are likely interested in sharing some of your valuable time. We definitely look forward to your involvement as well.

Volunteers for ACA can be at any point in their careers: graduate students, midcareer professionals, retirees and even those taking a break from full-time work as counselors but still maintaining their membership in ACA. You could have several hours per month to volunteer, or you might have just a few hours to dedicate to a project-specific activity. I hope you will consider getting involved and share this invitation with your colleagues and students as well. The phrase “the more, the merrier” really does apply in this case.

ACA is on a roll. We completed our fiscal year on June 30 in very good shape. Our membership continues to grow compared with the previous 12 months, and our annual conference this past March was our highest-attended event in more than a decade. And on May 22, ACA even made the front page of The New York Times in an article about the dwindling number of males in the mental health professions.

But, just as is the case with many of you, our success does not allow us to rest on our laurels. Over the next 12 months, we will be celebrating ACA’s 60th anniversary. During this time, we will continue to roll out new products, services and resources designed with our members in mind. Our success is tied to your input, and I appreciate those of you who have contacted me with suggestions. I also want to express a special debt of gratitude to the ACA staff, which comes up with terrific ideas for enhancing your membership and advancing the counseling profession.

I know it seems early, but I do hope you will look at your calendar and mark March 21-25, 2012, as a great time to be in San Francisco. Why? Because we will be convening the 60th ACA Annual Conference & Exposition. With hundreds of sessions from which to select and the chance to interact with thousands of your colleagues, visit exciting exhibits and experience the City by the Bay, how can you go wrong? Visit for more information and to obtain the best rates on registration. This is one conference you will not want to miss!

As always, I hope you will contact me with any comments, questions or suggestions that you might have. Please contact me via e-mail at or by phone at 800.347.6647 ext. 231.

Thanks and be well.

Changing distorted thinking

David Kaplan

Judith S. Beck, president of the famous Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research, was a keynote speaker at the 2011 American Counseling Association Annual Conference in New Orleans this past March. ACA Chief Professional Officer David Kaplan recently followed up with Beck to discuss current aspects of cognitive behavior therapy.

David Kaplan: Thank you for being a keynote speaker at the ACA Conference in New Orleans. What was it like to be on stage looking at 4,000 professional counselors?

Judith Beck: It was wonderful because it was one of the first opportunities I’ve had to address so many counselors at once. We’ve always had counselors who have come to the Beck Institute for our training programs, but they’ve been part of a larger group. I think many counselors have a much harder job than I do, so it was wonderful to speak to those in the trenches who are making a difference every single day.

DK: During your keynote, you used two labels for your approach: cognitive therapy and cognitive behavior therapy. Are these terms interchangeable?

JB: They used to be different. Originally, cognitive therapy referred to the specific kind of psychotherapy that my father, Aaron Beck, developed in the early 1960s, and cognitive behavior therapy was more of an umbrella term that originally referred to integrating cognitions into behavior therapy. But now they’re becoming more and more interchangeable. ACA members might be interested in the fact that we are changing our name from the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy to the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy because people now seem more familiar with the term CBT.

DK: During your keynote, you emphasized that cognitive therapy focuses on more than just cognitions. Why do you think the prevailing wisdom says that cognitive therapy is only about cognitions?

JB: I think it’s just a misunderstanding about what cognitive therapy is. It’s true that an important part of treatment is helping people change their distorted or dysfunctional thinking. But the whole reason we want them to do that is to bring about a lasting impact on their mood and behavior. We don’t want to change cognition just for cognition’s sake. It’s all in the service of helping people feel better and move toward their goals. And I’d like to add that cognitive therapy requires the same good, basic counseling skills to develop a strong therapeutic alliance as any other kind of psychotherapy.

DK: It was really interesting to hear you talk about all the additional things that you attend to in addition to cognitions, even going so far as talking about psychodrama.

JB: That’s right. An intellectual focus is not enough for some people, and they need more experiential exercises or activities in session and between sessions to change their cognitions at the gut level. One way to do this is through using methods such as imagery and psychodrama, which seem to tap into a different part of the mind than simply the intellectual part.

DK: You focused on personality disorders during your talk, and I think ACA members would be interested in knowing how you got interested in Axis II diagnoses.

JB: From the very beginning, some of my clients with common presenting problems such as depression and anxiety didn’t seem to make enough progress with standard cognitive therapy treatment. As it turned out, it was often because they had some significant personality pathology that I wasn’t attending to. When I was able to understand their underlying beliefs, treatment went much more smoothly.

I find that many Axis II clients hold beliefs in one or more of four areas. The first area has to do with engaging in treatment, such as, “If I engage in treatment, I’ll have to make myself vulnerable to my therapist. I’ll have to acknowledge that I have problems, and I’ll have to change. If I listen to my therapist, it will mean that she’s strong and I’m weak.”

Another area involves beliefs about negative emotion. “If I start to feel badly, I’ll start crying and I won’t be able to stop. I’ll lose control. I’ll end up in the hospital.”

A third area is about problem solving. “If I even try to solve my problems, I won’t be able to. I’ll just fail, so what’s the use of even trying?”

A fourth area has to do with getting better. “If I get better, something bad will happen. I’ll lose my therapist. I’ll have to go back to work. People will have higher expectations of me. I’ll have to face the fact that I’m in a bad relationship.”

DK: Changing the topic from psychopathology and personality disorders to a more developmental focus, many ACA members are school counselors. I know CBT is as applicable in schools as it is in any other setting and thought you might want to speak to that.

JB: Sure. In fact, my father and his colleagues have just published a new book, Cognitive Therapy for Adolescents in School Settings. A number of research studies have demonstrated that CBT is effective in working with children and adolescents. One study, for example, showed that when you give CBT in a group format in schools to kids at risk for depression, they’re less likely to develop depression.

CBT is also relevant for working with teachers. Teachers often have certain ideas that lead to burnout or to less than optimal relationships with their students. Cognitive therapy can be helpful in identifying and changing these maladaptive ideas.

DK: What are some of the common cognitions that you see associated with teacher burnout?

JB: It’s similar to professional burnout in general and related to putting unrealistic demands on themselves: “I should be able to help every child. I should do a perfect job [and] never make mistakes with my students. If I show any weakness to my colleagues or the administration, then they’ll think very badly of me.”

DK: What cognitions might teachers have about students that interfere with their performance?

JB: Sometimes, teachers not only have unrealistic expectations of themselves, but they also have unrealistic expectations for their students: “Students should always do their best. They should appreciate what I do. They should listen to me. They should never give me a hard time.”

DK: What specific cognitions have you seen in students that impair or affect their school performance, grades and attendance?

JB: Some students are highly sensitive to control. They have the idea, “It’s terrible if anyone tries to control me.” It’s all-or-nothing thinking. We see it show up in therapy, and it can show up in classrooms: “If I do what the teacher tells me to do, it means that she’s in control and I’m weak, and that’s intolerable to me.” The student may then develop conduct problems. Of course, we see lots of kids with anxiety, too. “I have to do a perfect job. What if the teacher evaluates me negatively? What if my peers evaluate me negatively?”

DK: It certainly seems like school counselors could benefit from training at the Beck Institute.

JB: We’ve had quite a number who’ve gone through one of our programs. We’re actually having a special workshop on CBT for children and adolescents in October 2011 and another in 2012.

DK: How do you see CBT being relevant for diversity and multicultural populations?

JB: A number of studies have shown that CBT is effective with different cultures. Sometimes, the therapist has to vary the relationship or adapt some techniques, but the basic conceptualization stays the same. When counselors are unfamiliar with a particular culture, it’s important that they find out whether maladaptive ideas are idiosyncratic to the individual or whether they actually represent a belief of the culture.

For example, in the Chinese culture, there is a belief that it’s very important to always show the utmost respect to one’s parents and not do anything that would make the parents unhappy. A counselor who is unfamiliar working with the Asian culture might not recognize that at first and be surprised to find the belief pretty intractable. Understanding that it’s also a cultural belief is helpful.

DK: In that situation, how do you help Chinese clients deal with that cognition, when to stop pleasing their parents might cause their parents to get upset because of a violation of cultural norms?

JB: We have to look for evidence in a specific case that the feared outcome is likely to happen, and if it did happen, how the client could cope. We might see whether the client is having all-or-nothing thinking about the situation. We might talk about whether some other people in the same culture might have a more moderate idea. We might examine the advantages and disadvantages of upsetting parents. Ultimately, one individual might be willing to do a behavioral experiment to see what happens, but another individual might make the decision, “I’m not going to upset my parents. Let’s see how else I can reach my goal.”

DK: So you find that the concept of faulty cognitions applies to virtually any culture?

JB: We suspect it might. That’s what research is showing so far.

DK: During your keynote, you emphasized recording with clients and talked about the research that shows 40 percent of what physicians say to their clients goes in one ear and out the other.

JB: Forty to 70 [percent], actually.

DK: I thought it might be interesting to hear a little bit more about that and how you think that applies to counselors.

JB: Anything we want a client to remember is recorded in some way. Either we take notes for clients, have them take notes, or we have them make a short recording that they can listen to every day. What is contained in these notes, whether they’re verbal or written, are the most important things for the client to remember.

As an example, let’s say a depressed woman has isolated herself. We’ve talked about her automatic thought: “My friends don’t want to spend any time with me.” When we evaluate that thought, it turns out that there’s very little evidence that it’s accurate, and there seems to be another, more realistic explanation: that her friends are very busy and she actually has not — because she’s been so depressed — reached out to them at all. The client gains this new understanding in the session and she feels better.

Now we want her to remember it during the week so that she’ll be willing to go ahead and call her friends. We might ask, “What do you think would be important to remember this week from what we just discussed?” If she comes up with a good summary, we’ll say, “That sounds important. How about we record that?”

DK: Do you use any particular guidelines for how often clients should listen to the recording or read therapy notes?

JB: We try to get people to do it daily. We want them to look at these changes in thinking every single day. Otherwise, you can have a wonderful session and the client can really have changed her thinking and feel better … but by the next day, she has forgotten everything.

She’s also probably been having these negative thoughts for quite a long time, so it’s very important for her to be rehearsing these new ideas on a daily basis. One of the things we tell people is that it’s not enough just to come to therapy and talk. You’re going to learn things in therapy: new ways of thinking and new ways of behaving that you’re going to practice every day. That’s how people get better — by making small changes in their thinking and behavior every day.

DK: Another really interesting thing you said during your talk was, “We want clients to become their own therapists.”

JB: That’s right. Not only do we want to help clients change their thinking, we want to teach them how to do it themselves. We aim to be as short term as we can. That’s another reason to send them home with notes or recordings that they can refer to a year from now or five years from now.

DK: Switching gears, you talked during the keynote about CBT and weight loss. Do you see this as an area counselors can get into?

JB: I think it’s a really great area for counselors.

DK: What would the keys be for counselors in helping people who are overweight to lose weight?

JB: As I described in several self-help books on dieting and maintenance, dieters need an emphasis on changing their cognitions, such as “It’s bad to be hungry.” “It’s unfair that I have to restrict my eating.” “It’s OK to eat this food I hadn’t planned to eat because I’m tired/I’m stressed/it’s free/no one is watching.” “I cheated. Oh well, I might as well eat whatever I want for the rest of the day and start again tomorrow.”

To make permanent changes in their eating, people need to change their thinking. Counselors need to anticipate dieters’ dysfunctional thinking and help them practice adaptive cognitions so they can maintain functional eating habits for the rest of their lives.

DK: What is a typical day like at the Beck Institute?

JB: We are primarily a training institute. We have a clinical practice, but we spend much of our time planning workshops on a variety of topics onsite in Philadelphia or sending speakers to organizations worldwide. We are developing an online program, and we’ve gotten very involved in social media through Facebook and Twitter and blogging.

We also have a supervision program. Mental health professionals send us an audiotape or, if they’re doing therapy in another language in another country, a translated transcript every week or two and then receive supervision either by phone or e-mail. We get therapists from all over the country and all over the world: Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Australia, South America — every continent but one.

DK: If ACA members want to find out more about how they could get involved in training at the Beck Institute, how would they do that?

JB: We would be very pleased for them to visit our website at and, if they want, to sign up for a complimentary quarterly e-newsletter.

David Kaplan is ACA’s chief professional officer. Contact him at

Letters to the editor:


Finding a way forward together

Lynne Shallcross

Finding a way forward togetherWhen Kim Olver set out to find 100 happy couples to profile for a book, it turned into a much tougher task than she had ever anticipated. It also affirmed for her the genuine need for a book about making relationships work.

“It took me two years to find 100 happy couples willing to take my anonymous online assessment,” says Olver, whose book Secrets of Happy Couples was published earlier this year. “I believe there was a lot that contributed to that challenge. I think there are a lot of couples out there who are merely existing. They aren’t particularly happy, but they stay together. I also think people are busy and didn’t want to get involved. Some were interested until they saw the personal nature of the questions and then dropped out. And I think trust was a factor. Could their partner find out what their responses were?”

The theme of Olver’s book turned out to be that each of us holds the key to our own happiness in our relationships, which is a premise of William Glasser’s choice theory. In Olver’s opinion, counselors can boost couples’ happiness levels by helping them embrace and practice that lesson. “When people stop looking to their partner to change so their life can improve and instead start looking inside themselves to decide what needs to be adjusted, then they can be much happier. They are focused on something they control — themselves — instead of something they have no control over — their partner,” says Olver, a member of the American Counseling Association who runs a private practice in Chicago and serves as executive director-in-training for the William Glasser Institute.

Helping clients find happiness and fulfillment in relationships isn’t relevant only to counselors who specialize in couples counseling, says Thelma Duffey, professor and chair of the University of Texas at San Antonio Department of Counseling. “People don’t live in a vacuum, and problems rarely exist in isolation,” says Duffey, a member of ACA who also runs a private practice in San Antonio. “It is helpful when counselors have an understanding of the dynamics that affect people in their various relationships, particularly their important ones. Couples counseling training can be useful in this regard. Also, it is helpful when counselors working with individuals can look at a larger context. A couples counseling perspective supports this focus.”

Also required of effective counselors is an open-mindedness to the ever-changing dynamics that define who today’s couples are and what they look like, Olver says. “Research shows the younger generation is saying they are more ready to be parents than to commit to a marital relationship. I think couples counseling will need to evolve more in the direction of relationship counseling than marriage counseling. A therapist needs to be flexible enough to think of all possible relationship choices.”

Jill D. Duba, associate professor and coordinator of Western Kentucky University’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program, agrees. Acknowledging diversity in relationships and remaining open to hear every client’s story is key, she says, no matter the life stage, disability, sexual orientation or other difference from couple to couple.

When Duba, a member of ACA, became program coordinator, she revised the program so that courses on couples counseling and family systems were required. “My belief is that every individual is a relational being, period — whether they’re struggling to be in a relationship or they’re [already in one],” says Duba, who is also a member of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, a division of ACA. “It’s imperative that a therapist knows something about how relationships work, how they don’t work and what are some things to look for.”

Duba points to Glasser’s reality therapy, which contends that people’s problems and unhappiness can almost always be traced back to their struggles in relationships. “[Relationships] are a function of who we are, and if we’re going to go out there and help people become whole, we have to know something about how [clients] perform and get along with others,” Duba says. “We have to be able to do that kind of counseling.”

A question of commitment

Olver says the issues that bring couples through a counselor’s door are wide ranging. Sometimes, there are power struggles over finances, with one person desiring to spend a little more and the other wanting to pull back. The recent recession and accompanying job losses have made issues involving household finances that much more volatile,
she says.

“I also find that the sex issue is on the table still,” Olver says. “Often, one person in the couple would like to have more sex than the other person would.” Outside relationships are another common point of contention, Olver says, whether one member of the couple has a close relationship with a coworker of the opposite sex or maintains connection with a former boyfriend or girlfriend via e-mail or social media. The tension most often springs from one partner feeling threatened by the romantic potential of the other partner’s outside relationship, Olver says, even if that friendship is strictly platonic.

An overarching theme Olver sees in her work with couples is that people enter into relationships and then often begin trying to mold or change their partner’s behavior or character. “Instead of learning how to accept that as the total package, they either consciously or unconsciously work over time at getting the person to become who they want them to be,” she says. “It’s really about not accepting the other person as they are.”

No matter the specific issue plaguing the couple, Olver’s first order of business is asking both partners if they are truly committed to working on the relationship. Many people come to counseling in a last-ditch effort to fix long-term problems, Olver says, and they aren’t always committed to doing what is necessary to save the relationship. If only one of the individuals says she or he is committed to salvaging the relationship, Olver will work with that person because she believes strongly that one partner’s efforts can ultimately change the relationship for the better.

Olver next educates the couple on whose behavior each person can control. People spend much of their time trying to change the behavior of others, Olver says, but in counseling, she aims to help clients realize they need to focus on making self-adjustments because they are the only ones they are directly capable of changing. “The idea is the only person you can control is yourself,” she says. “It takes the idea off of, ‘If [my partner] would just …'”

Next, Olver asks the couple what brings them into counseling. She lets each person have the floor to speak, then asks the person to listen to his or her partner, and then gives the person a chance to rebut. It’s crucial that the counselor remain neutral in this part of the process, Olver says. “There can’t be an ‘Oh, yeah, that sounds logical’ to what someone says. Neither one of them is right or wrong. They’re both right from where they come from, and that’s really critical.”

After all the complaints are on the table, Olver asks the couple to flip things around and tell her what’s right with their relationship and why they’d like to see it survive and thrive. The underlying goal, Olver explains, is to help the couple get in touch with their internal motivations for working on the relationship. Olver has the couple address the negatives in their relationship first before moving into the positives because she wants these positive aspects to be more present in the couple’s mind as they move through the session. “That’s where I want their attention focused as we move forward,” she says.

Olver then asks each person to think of one thing he or she could do in the upcoming week that would greatly benefit the relationship and then tells the couple to commit to following through on that action every day. She points out that this technique is different from traditional marriage counseling, in which the counselor might offer a recommendation to the couple based on the information they have provided. Olver stays out of the process, allowing the couple to decide what the next steps will be.

Olver uses Glasser’s choice theory in her work with couples because it steers clear of external control and encourages clients to make changes based on their own motivations. If the counselor makes a recommendation to the couple, it might sound as if the counselor is subtly siding with one partner or the other, even if that is not the counselor’s intention, Olver explains.

When Olver meets with the couple the following week, she says it’s immediately apparent whether both followed through on their “homework.” If they did, it frequently seems as if a “magic” change has taken place, Olver says, and the couple is often “good to go” after that. She explains to the couple some of the steps and techniques she used with them in the first counseling session so they will have them at their own disposal in the future if need be.

If only one partner completed the homework, Olver again raises the question of commitment to the partner who didn’t follow through. If the person isn’t committed to working on the relationship, Olver says she will move forward and work with the other half of the couple who is.

According to Olver, that invested client has three options moving forward: change, acceptance or leaving the relationship. Unless safety is an issue for the client, Olver recommends that leaving be the last resort. Oftentimes, clients have spent many years trying to change their partners. In working with the one person, Olver turns the focus on how that client can change himself or herself in order to change the relationship.

Olver recalls one client who was very frustrated with her husband’s workaholism and felt unloved because he worked such long hours. Through therapy, she was able to see that her husband was working hard and giving up his free time to get them out of debt because he loved her. “Once she was able to shift her perception from ‘That behavior means he doesn’t love me’ to ‘He really does,’ their relationship really changed,” Olver says.

Clients can also choose to come to terms with whatever is bothering them about their partner, accepting that it’s part of the whole package of the person whom they love. Part of acceptance, Olver says, is taking off the “complaining lenses” and putting on “appreciation lenses.” Sometimes, Olver asks clients to write down the things they don’t like about their partner. Then she asks them to consider how those “bad” things might potentially be helping them in some way. Clients achieve that acceptance when they can recognize that their partner is a whole person. Even when it feels like one bad aspect makes up 95 percent of that person, in reality, it’s only a small part of who that person is.

Although acknowledging that it’s wonderful when both members of a couple do their homework and work out their problems together, Olver says much can be accomplished even when only one person is invested in improving the relationship. Oftentimes, she says, one person in the couple is unhappy, while the other person minimizes those feelings or is oblivious to them. That’s not necessarily because the person doesn’t love the partner who is unhappy, Olver says, but rather because that person doesn’t perceive the relationship as being in trouble.

“This is when seeing one part of the couple is appropriate,” she says. “One person can adjust his or her behaviors, expectations and desires, and/or perceptions, all of which will significantly change a relationship. A relationship is a system. Change any part of that system, and the rest must adjust to compensate for the new change.”

Identifying blind spots

One of the tools Duffey relies on in couples counseling is the Enneagram personality typology. In helping describe the various ways people perceive the world and automatically respond to stressful events, the Enneagram can increase clients’ awareness of their thought patterns, beliefs and behaviors, she says. “I like using the Enneagram in couples counseling because it offers a neat way for people to gain insight into themselves and to learn more about their partners,” says Duffey, the Association for Creativity in Counseling’s representative to the ACA Governing Council and editor of the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health. “It can help couples identify the strengths, challenges and motivating beliefs that often drive each person’s choices and behaviors. One of the significant markers of successful couples counseling is the willingness of both people to invest in their relationship. When two people are invested in maintaining their relationship, this understanding can go a long way in helping to make that happen.”

As described by Duffey, the Enneagram is a typology consisting of nine personality types, three subtypes and nine levels of psychological development, with people falling on a continuum within each type. The relevance of the Enneagram to couples work lies in its ability to move couples out of their automatic way of responding during conflicts and to look at situations from another’s perspective, she says. “When we are able to step outside of ourselves and consider the other person’s experience of the situation, we are better able to see our impact on others. This can only be a good thing for couples wishing to invest in their relationships,” Duffey says. The Enneagram also provides a framework for counselors to assess and plan interventions on the basis of the couple’s types and levels of development.

Assessing each person’s current level of functioning is a key component to the tool, Duffey says, because it influences the individual’s response in challenging situations. “The Enneagram can help people identify their blind spots and Achilles’ heels and develop more productive ways of thinking and responding to situations that affect both people in the relationship.”

“Couples counseling is not typically smooth or easy,” Duffey continues. “There are many variables that contribute to its success.” For one, she says, clients need to possess enough self-awareness to tell themselves the truth about the role they play in certain situations. They also need to care about their impact on the other person and develop empathy. Partners capable of reflecting on their behaviors and motivations are generally able to make adjustments that communicate to the other person that they care. “I have found the Enneagram to be a helpful tool in this work,” Duffey says. “Couples report the good feeling that can come when they become more personally accountable, generous and, at the end of the day, more satisfied in knowing they are doing their part to make their relationship a good one.”

In Olver’s office, clients take a compatibility survey that highlights areas in which the couple is alike — and not so alike. Couples answer questions geared toward determining how high each person scores on the five basic needs: survival, love and belonging, power, freedom and fun. “Then couples look at where they are compatible and where their challenges may come in and work at negotiating the problem areas,” she says.

Another exercise Olver finds helpful involves two large rubber bands knotted together in the middle. Olver then asks the couple to place a piece of paper between them and to draw a dime-sized dot on their respective ends of the paper. She next instructs the couple to center the knot of the rubber band over the dot closest to them. “As you might imagine, there are many possible outcomes,” Olver says. “Some people will pull hard to win, some give up and let their partner win, and some cheat. Occasionally, they work out a compromise, but that doesn’t usually happen until I ask them to think of as many ways as they can to come up with a way they both could win.”

“Some solutions involve taking turns, folding the paper so the dots come together, opening the knot on the rubber band to encompass both dots or creating a third dot that’s in between the original two,” she continues. “After couples see how many solutions there are when they decide to work together for both their good, I ask them to brainstorm a way for both of them to be satisfied in an area where they have been experiencing disagreement. They can often move past blocks in this way. I call this the win/win/win solution. Both partners win because they are happy with the solution, and their relationship becomes stronger for going through the process.”

The genogram is another helpful tool that Duba uses with couples. One couple with whom Duba worked had been married approximately 35 years. Their marriage had gone well but then suddenly started turning in a negative direction, complete with high anxiety and numerous arguments. In talking with the couple, Duba keyed in on how the wife repeatedly brought up stories concerning her childhood and feelings of insecurity. So Duba turned to the genogram for help.

As the wife worked through the genogram, it became clear that much of her anxious behavior as an adult — which would in turn upset her husband — was rooted in circumstances she had experienced as a child. The husband watched and listened intently as his wife shared these stories, and he mentioned afterward that the exercise helped him to better understand his wife and her triggers. Duba was also able to work through some of those issues with the wife, including encouraging her to develop self-soothing strategies so she could remain present for her husband even when she began feeling anxious.

Theoretical approaches

Counselors point to a variety of theories that guide their work with couples. Olver tends toward choice theory and reality therapy. With reality therapy, she says counselors can help clients assess whether their behaviors are moving them toward the things they really want. “Ask them, ‘What do you want, what are you doing to get it, is there anything you’re doing that’s getting in the way, and is it going to work?'”

Olver describes choice theory as an internal motivation psychology as opposed to something the counselor imposes on the client. With this approach, she says, counselors can “go under the surface to find out what does the person want that they’re using this behavior to get? They may not be honest about it with the counselor or they may not be sure what it is, but when someone is misbehaving, I always ask myself, ‘What is this person trying to get?'”

Stemming from choice theory, Olver developed another model she calls Inside Out Empowerment that deals with subconscious motivations. Counselors can use the approach to get at the subconscious material that might be holding clients back from happiness, she says. “Sometimes, it simply involves asking clients to be still enough to listen to that little voice inside their head,” she says. “We all have this voice that talks to us and, often, it is not a supportive one. This subconscious voice carries messages of how we are not good enough for the things we want. One question I use a lot is, ‘If you stopped doing the destructive things in your relationship you have been doing, what do you think will change that you might not like?’ Another way is to ask, ‘If you make the changes you say you want to make, what would you have to give up?’ These are not common questions, and sometimes the answers are surprising and seem to come from a place deep inside ourselves.”

Duffey was trained in systems theory, which she says assists counselors in conceptualizing the dynamics of couples and families. Through the years, she has also incorporated relational-cultural theory (RCT). “RCT, which is in some ways a philosophy of human development, offers a helpful perspective when working with couples,” she says. “It discusses how we all have a desire to form connections with others. Still, many of us behave in ways that keep us from enjoying the very connection we desire. RCT theorists describe this as the central relational paradox.” The theory acknowledges that all relationships suffer disconnections, Duffey says, but problems arise when those disconnections become chronic. “The good news is people can develop more supportive ways of relating to one another, and couples are able to move out of isolation and into reconnection,” she says. “This is the thrust of couples counseling from an RCT perspective.”

Duba uses John Gottman’s “Sound Marital House” model, which emphasizes friendship as an essential piece of the marital foundation. Gottman’s research has found that couples will likely struggle with problems perpetually throughout their time together, Duba says, but the health of the relationship is based in how the couple talks about those problems more so than in finding a solution to them.

Duba is certified in reality therapy and is pursuing a certification through the North American Society of Adlerian Psychology, but she is also very systemic in how she sees couples. “It’s very important to understand how each individual developed from childhood, how they came to know their reality as a child and how that fits into this new system of the relationship,” she says. This is pertinent especially in situations in which couples are experiencing values-driven conflicts. Those values have developed over time, she says, so to expect immediate change or compromise is unfair. Instead, Duba invites conversations with couples in which each person can express his or her point of view and where that view originated. “Having clients develop insight is really important,” she says.

Safety first

Domestic violence is clearly a difficult and tragic situation for clients to find themselves in. It can also prove to be a difficult and confusing situation for their counselors. Ryan Carlson, associate director of the Together Project at the Marriage and Family Research Institute at the University of Central Florida (UCF), says the topic is controversial in counseling circles because, on the one hand, advocates often believe that any violence within a relationship context centers around issues of power and control and, therefore, that counselors shouldn’t be working with the couple. “From the opposite perspective, counselors want to help everyone,” says Carlson, a doctoral student in counselor education at UCF. “We don’t like the idea that there might not be any hope for the couple.”

A possible solution, Carlson says, lies in creating partnerships between counselors and domestic violence experts so that each couple is assured of receiving the appropriate treatment for their specific situation. This idea was an integral part of the Together Project, a federally funded study geared toward providing relationship education to low-income married couples. From the start of the study, Carlson and his colleagues used a domestic violence screening protocol, which they had developed, with each couple. Whenever the protocol indicated a couple might be dealing with domestic violence, a local domestic violence expert would intervene and recommend whether safety concerns needed to take precedence over counseling.

The decision was often based on whether power and control were intertwined with the violence, Carlson says. When power and control issues are present, the first priority has to be safety, he emphasizes. But when the violence isn’t tied to power and control — when it is related instead to a lack of anger management or poor conflict-resolution skills — there’s a greater possibility that counseling can help alleviate the couple’s problems. In carrying out the study, the path forward was a collaborative decision between Carlson’s colleagues and domestic violence experts.

Although the protocol and attention to domestic violence were part of a study, Carlson says the project also has relevance for counselors working in private practice. “The point is to be aware. There is always the chance that [violence] exists within the couple, and if you don’t ask about it, they’re probably not going to tell you,” says Carlson, a member of ACA and IAMFC. If a counselor is working with a couple and doesn’t know about the threat of domestic violence, the counselor is likely to treat both individuals as if they are on a level playing field in the relationship. If a true power differential exists in the relationship, Carlson warns that the counselor could place certain clients at risk by asking them to talk honestly and openly in session, possibly inciting a violent reaction from their partner outside of session.

Counselors must inquire about violence within the relationship, preferably asking each partner separately if possible, Carlson says. If one of the partners acknowledges domestic violence, the counselor needs a plan of action and, here, collaboration is key, he says. Counselors should attempt to form relationships with local domestic violence providers who can offer assistance and guidance concerning whether persons being victimized in relationships need safety and shelter more than they need counseling. If that isn’t possible, Carlson recommends that counselors ask supervisors or colleagues to provide another perspective.

Carlson admits that uncovering violence in a relationship is tricky for the counselor. Particularly if power and control are involved in the situation, the counselor doesn’t want the perpetrator to know the victim has disclosed any information. And if client safety is the greatest need, the counselor must be careful in how he or she suggests that counseling be terminated. To avoid alerting the aggressor that the victim has disclosed information, Carlson says a counselor might explain to the couple that the presenting issues are more individual in nature and that the best route would be individual counseling before continuing with couples counseling.

In situations in which the violence isn’t a product of power or control and the counselor has collaborated with someone else in determining to move forward with the couple in counseling, Carlson recommends talking openly with the couple about instances of violence. He also advises asking the aggressor to acknowledge that violence is never a healthy or appropriate way to resolve conflict.

A variety of exercises can help couples resolve conflict more peacefully, Carlson says. Sharing the simple tool of a time-out with couples is useful, he says, as is educating them about their escalation signs so they can take a break and address issues later on when they’re not feeling overheated. PREP (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program) and PAIRS (Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills) are two curricula that Carlson recommends to help couples reconnect, hear and understand each other better.

Family of origin can also play a role in how couples deal with anger, Carlson says. “For example, one member of the couple may have grown up in a family where conflict was handled by yelling, screaming, threatening and other escalating behaviors. Therefore, this person may not know how to handle conflicting points of view any other way. Counselors can help couples identify and share with each other how anger was handled in their families and discuss how each member of the couple would like to see anger and conflict handled in their own relationship.”

Lessons from marriage veterans

Although research exists on couples who have been married for 25 years, Duba says there is very little research that addresses couples who have been together for 40 years or more. So, about five years ago, she decided to conduct a study focused on that population. Duba believes the successful relationship characteristics — and the unavoidable bumps in the road — she gleaned from those couples can offer valuable insight to counselors.

Duba interviewed 30 couples within an approximately 30-mile radius of Bowling Green, Ky. Each individual filled out a marital satisfaction inventory that covered topics such as marital interaction, communication, gender orientation, children and finances. After the questionnaires were mailed to her, Duba went to each couple’s home to conduct an oral history review.

Something that stood out from the interviews was the importance each couple placed on faith, which Duba acknowledges could be due to the fairly religious makeup of the area. But it’s also possible, she says, that faith might genuinely be an integral component of enduring marriages, regardless of where couples reside. The couples she interviewed credited their faith with helping them persevere through child rearing, financial struggles and adjustments to marriage, Duba says. She also found that happiness with gender role orientation was significant and highly related to marital satisfaction.

The most challenging times for the couples tended to be the first year of marriage, the years when they were raising children and when a spouse first retired, Duba says. The couples recalled the initial year of marriage being tough both financially and because they were often leaving their families of origin for the first time. Although admitting the first year of marriage was stressful, Duba says the couples also thought that period of their lives brought them closer together as spouses because they had to rely on each other. “Many of them said, ‘He or she was all I had,'” Duba recalls.

The couples also talked about how child rearing allowed them less time to spend together and put stress on their relationship, especially when the children became teenagers. The transition into retirement presented another common rough patch for couples. Duba heard complaints of how the husband’s return home disrupted the wife’s routine. Or in other cases, the wife had returned to work after the children left home, and she didn’t want to quit her job just because her husband had retired. “It was definitely an adjustment period,” Duba says.

Commonalities Duba uncovered that seemed to keep the couples’ marriages going included humor, praying together, a commitment to giving and taking, hard work and a determined mind-set. “Many of them said, ‘I promised I would marry him, and I was determined to keep my promise.’ It may have been related to religious values, but the word promise was a common thread.” The presence of hope was another factor, Duba adds. Many of the couples told her that even during the challenging times, “I knew we would get through it.”

In conducting the research, Duba found it especially poignant that even 40 years into marriage, all of the couples spoke fondly of how they met. “I thought that was phenomenal,” she says. “Despite any struggles, they still saw the good stuff. They didn’t lose sight of those great memories. That was apparent.”

Lynne Shallcross is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at

Letters to the editor:

Couples counseling on campus

About two years ago, Christopher Adams conducted an informal poll of college counseling center directors to see if they offered couples and family counseling. Almost 90 percent of those who responded said they offered couples counseling, but most weren’t sure if students and campus staff members knew of its availability, possibly due to poor marketing and advertising, says Adams, who will be starting as an assistant professor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Fitchburg State University in Fitchburg, Mass., in the fall.

Couples counseling is increasingly needed on college campuses, Adams says, because the student body is changing, with more students seeking postsecondary education later in life and more students who are already cohabitating with partners. “I think [college] counselors need to have some awareness of that and realize students might benefit from different treatment modalities, including couples counseling,” says Adams, a member of ACA who has worked in college counseling centers for about four years.

Adams knows from personal experience how important couples counseling can be to a student. He was already married when he began his graduate studies and understands the difficulty of juggling classes with existing work, family and relationship responsibilities. “You can have a married or dating couple doing fine, but if school gets stressful and you don’t have an outlet for that stress, it can spill into the relationship,” Adams says. “And then that stress from the relationship can spill into school, and it can become a cycle.”

Although the specific technique used will depend on the problem each couple brings to counseling, Adams says thinking systemically and taking into account contextual issues is important when working with couples on campus. He also advises college counselors to draw from behaviorally oriented theories to strengthen couples’ communication skills, solution-focused approaches to assist couples in figuring out where they want to go and emotion-focused theories to help partners understand and validate each other’s emotional experiences.

Adams recommends that college counselors who want to offer couples counseling get additional training and seek supervision, in addition to remaining mindful of how cultural variations might influence what is considered appropriate counseling. College counselors must also make sure they are operating within their school’s guidelines, he says, because some schools require that all clients be students at the school.

To college counseling centers that are already providing couples counseling services, Adams offers some straightforward advice: Advertise and let as many members of your campus as possible know that this valuable resource is available to them.

— Lynne Shallcross

Leading from the middle

Don W. Locke

Don W. LockeFor years, I have read the president’s message in Counseling Today. With each article, I felt I came to know about and understand more clearly the direction of our profession and the individuals chosen to lead us for short periods of time. I hope that with these monthly columns, I can continue that tradition.

I must confess that when the call came informing me that I was the successful presidential contender, I felt much like the dog who chases the car and then looks puzzled when the vehicle actually stops. My service and leadership within state branches and several ACA divisions, as well as many years as part of the ACA governing structure, had led me to believe that I might be able to provide the leadership needed by our professional organization. I first sought the office of ACA president as a young professional more than 25 years ago, then again 12 years later as a more seasoned counselor educator and department head. Upon seeking the office this time, many of my colleagues asked me why, at this point in my career, I was still interested in serving. My response was and is that I feel it is “payback” time for me — time to give back to ACA. I believe my rationale for seeking the presidential position on previous occasions was valid, but looking back, I am just as firmly convinced that those were not the proper times for me to take office. I needed additional seasoning, maturity and experience. I needed to learn to be more patient and a more active listener. I needed to develop a leadership style reached only by experiencing both success and failure.

I hope I will be able to represent our profession and each of you in a manner that you can accept and respect over the next 12 months. I am convinced of several facts about us. We are a very diverse group of professionals. We have different ideas. We have different personal and professional needs. We have different backgrounds. We work in a variety of job settings. We approach issues with passion and conviction. We discuss politics, religion and life in general with a wide variety of beliefs and with a certainty of our opinions. It is that diversity that will either make us strong or cause us to become divisive.

I have learned through the years that my passion often has interfered with my ability to recognize that someone else might possess an equal level of passion. I have talked when I should have listened. At times, I have been unwilling to even consider other points of view. It is because of those and other experiences that I hope to lead “from the middle” over the next 12 months.

When I first heard that term applied to leadership, I was skeptical. I interpreted the middle as a cop-out. My skepticism changed when I began looking at the difference between advocacy and leadership. The skill sets for advocacy and leadership differ when you are the representative of a group as diverse as ACA. The president of ACA must speak for and represent all members, and if advocacy becomes necessary, those efforts must reflect a strong majority of members. Your leader needs to be made aware of what you, as members, want and what actions you would prefer taken.

I hope you will jot down this e-mail: This is your direct contact to me at any time. For ACA leadership to be successful over the next year, we need to have input from you regarding what ACA is doing that you like and what else you would like to see done. As professional counselors, we have many challenges that can be resolved when we truly work together within ACA. I look forward to hearing from you and leading you from the middle.