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Ask A TFI Expert: What Is Couples Counseling?

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It's_Your_FaultCouples counseling seems to be everywhere these days–from reality shows to tabloids we see the concept tossed around and listed as a possible solution to a couple’s issues. But are these depictions and portrayals of couples counseling reflective of an actual couple’s experiences?  Despite this increasingly ever-present idea, what do we actually know about couples counseling?

Today we turned to Family Institute Postdoctoral Fellow Adia Gooden, PhD, for her expert insights on what couples counseling is.

Many couples often feel intimidated by the idea of going to a stranger for help with their relationship problems. Fears about what couples counseling is can sometimes keep couples from engaging in counseling at the time that it might be most helpful. The following are some things you can expect from couples counseling:

A safe space

Couples counselors work to provide a safe space for each partner to share their thoughts and feelings and to be heard. Couples often find that it is easier to talk about issues with their counselor because they are able to share things that are difficult to express at home. Couples counselors actively work to develop a relationship with each partner as well as the couple overall. The counselor’s goal is to get to know each partner and understand and help them express their concerns.

A better understanding

Couples often enter counseling gridlocked in arguments about disagreements that they have had for a long time. Couples counselors do not serve as judges who decide which partner is right and which is wrong. Instead, couples counselors work to help partners really hear and understand each other. Couples counselors often help each individual partner to gain a better understanding of their own thoughts and feelings about situations in addition to helping partners get a sense of where their partner is coming from. Additionally, counselors provide couples with educational information about to address issues and what kinds of behaviors generally help relationships to function better.

A place to learn

Many times partners have good intentions for their interactions but lack some of the skills that would help them to communicate and interact effectively. Couples counselors work with partners to develop skills that help them to listen attentively, express thoughts and feelings clearly, and manage conflict effectively. Couples counselors might use a specific activity in session to help partner’s practice listening to each other or calm down during an argument. The couples’ counselor also serves as a model for how partners can respond empathically to each other. Counselors often assign “homework” to partners to help them practice the skills that they are learning in therapy. Examples of homework could include partners spending 10 minutes a day talking to each other about how their days went and practicing providing empathy while listening to each other.

A way forward

Couples often come to counseling unsure about whether or not to stay together or separate. Couples counseling does not help all couples stay together (in some cases it can be better for partners to part ways) but it does help partners to figure out what they would like to do with their relationship. Couples counselors can help partners identify the strengths and weaknesses in their relationship as well as ways to address the problems. Couples counselors also help partners to clarify their commitment to the relationship. If a couple decides to stay together the therapist can help them develop a road map to guide them as they continue to move forward together. If partners decide to split up, a couple’s counselor can help them to separate in a way that is best for each partner and any other people the relationship might affect.

Seeking couples counseling can be a courageous step for partners who are having difficulty in their relationship. Although it can be hard work, extensive research has shown that couples therapy is effective for approximately 70% of those couples who engage in it. People in long-term relationships face a number of challenges related to life stressors and navigating differences. The high divorce rates in the United States (approximately 50% for first marriages) points to the difficulties many couples have in navigating these challenges. If you are having trouble in your relationship we encourage you to talk to your partner and consider seeking couples therapy.


Adia Gooden, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Fellow at The Family Institute at Northwestern University receiving advanced training in the treatment of couples and families. One of Dr. Gooden’s primary foci for her fellowship is specializing in working with couples for premarital issues and counseling, couples conflict, and difficulties with marital satisfaction and intimacy issues. Dr. Gooden enjoys supporting couples in reflecting on their relationships and helping partners to engage each other in constructive and positive ways. As a member of The Family Institute’s Couple’s Program Dr. Gooden is involved in reviewing research, developing presentations, and consulting about couples and couple therapy.

To read Dr. Gooden’s full bio, please visit our website.

Dr. Gooden is a part of The Family Institute’s couples therapy services, where we believe that if we are able to help couples from all walks of life have stronger, healthier relationships that we are doing our part to make our society stronger. The members of the Couple Therapy Program is a subset of The Family Institute’s staff practice who meet on a weekly basis to discuss the latest research, to provide case consultation on complex cases, and to disseminate our knowledge through providing trainings to other professionals as well as engaging in scholarly writing on how to alleviate couple distress. Visit our website to learn more about the couples counseling and therapy services we provide.

“I’m So OCD About My Room Being Clean:” Jennifer Welbel, LPC, On the Myths of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Todaquestiony’s insights come from Institute staff therapist Jenny Welbel, LPC. Jennifer runs the support group The Anxiety Network, a place for young adults who are struggling with OCD and/or anxiety disorders. Today, she discusses the myths surrounding Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), how those myths are perpetuated, their consequences, and how they can be combated.

What OCD Myths Sound & Look Like

There are many myths that perpetuate the misunderstanding of OCD. Often times, individuals confuse a desire to be neat, clean or organized with obsessions and compulsions.

For example, it is not uncommon to hear:

I have OCD because…
I like things to be really organized and neat.
I am a perfectionist.
I have a specific morning routine.
I like my chores to be done in a specific way.
I am obsessed with a certain TV show.
I am superstitious.
I don’t like germs.

Additionally, there are a few television shows and movies that come to mind, including As Good As It Gets and Monk. Although both the movie and television show, respectively, depict aspects of OCD, they fail to reflect the pervasive anxiety that underlies the disorder and the constant struggle that individuals with OCD encounter on a daily basis.

Why They’re Myths

OCD is so much more than counting, checking and hand-washing—it consists of persistent and uncontrollable thoughts and images and excessive physical and mental rituals that significantly impact an individual’s functioning.

In order to be diagnosed with OCD, an individual must have obsessions and/or compulsions. Obsessions are recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges or images that make the individual anxious or cause the individual great distress that the individual tries to ignore or suppress. Compulsions are repetitive behaviors or mental acts that an individual feels driven to perform in response to an obsession. The compulsion must be aimed at preventing or reducing anxiety or preventing a dreaded consequence from occurring and, if not done, the individual will experience great anxiety.

It is important to note that it is not uncommon for many individuals to have specific rituals or routines. However, the problem arises, and a diagnosis of OCD considered, when they start interfering in an individual’s life, causing the individual significant anxiety.

OCD is a neurobiological disorder that can be diagnosed in individuals as young as six and usually has onset before 25. The best treatment for individuals with OCD is Exposure and Response Prevention. In Exposure and Response Prevention, individuals learn to repeatedly confront their anxiety provoking thought, situation, or image, and to stay in those anxiety situations until their anxiety decreases. By doing so, individuals learn that when they stay in the situation, their anxiety will naturally decrease and that what they fear happening typically does not occur. However, telling a person to just stop doing their compulsion does not work. The individual’s compulsion is driven by anxiety and fear and although it may seem illogical to someone else, it feels absolutely necessary to the individual.

What Myths Do

In addition to television shows and movies, the biggest way that these myths and misunderstandings are perpetuated is in how individuals speak about themselves and others. For example, when individuals say, “I am so OCD about my room being clean” or “She is so OCD about her grades,” it significantly diminishes the severity of the disorder and contributes to the misconceptions about OCD. It also stigmatizes the disorder and, for some individuals, makes it more challenging to seek out help. For example, imagine if you confided in a friend that you had OCD and the friend said, “Well, so do I—I always check to make sure my hair straightener is off.” That type of statement makes it challenging for the individual to feel understood and then potentially less likely to seek treatment.

How It Can Change

The most important thing for individuals and families dealing with OCD to do is to educate others about OCD and their struggles. Silence about OCD only contributes to its misunderstanding and perpetuation of myths. Individuals can help to reduce the sigma and educate others by directing them to OCD websites such as, and Families can also attend support groups and work with the schools to get their child the appropriate accommodations, if necessary.

Jennifer Welbel, LPC, is a Staff Therapist with The Family Institute at Northwestern University in the Anxiety and Panic Treatment Program and the Depression Treatment Program. Ms. Welbel specializes in using cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and exposure therapies (ERP) to treat children, adolescents, and adults with obsessive-compulsive and related disorders, such as trichotillomania and hoarding, anxiety (e.g., social anxiety, school refusal, panic disorder, agoraphobia, generalized anxiety, and driving phobia), and depression.

Click here to read Jennifer’s full bio and to make an appointment.

Click here to learn more about the psychoeducation group for young adults, The Anxiety Network.

The Family Institute offers affordable counseling for families, couples and individuals. Visit our website to learn more.

Alcohol Awareness Month: How Does Alcohol Abuse Impact Families?

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This month, TFI Talks will feature a number of posts about alcohol in commemoration of Alcohol Awareness Month.

Every year, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) sponsors Alcohol Awareness month in an effort to increase public understanding of alcohol, to reduce the stigma of alcoholism, and to draw attention to the impact that alcoholism can have on kids, families, couples and communities.

At TFI Talks, we’ll be posting information, insights and tips from one of our expert staff clinicians, Leah Brennan, LMFT, CADC.


At The Family Institute, we believe that the family is the singular most significant factor influencing human identity.

In honor of Alcohol Awareness Month, today Leah Brennan gives insights into the ways in which alcohol abuse impacts the individuals within families, and the families themselves.

Alcohol abuse can impact family functioning in a number of different ways.

A likely consequence of problem drinking is that the drinker’s behavior becomes unpredictable, making it difficult for the family as a whole to plan anything in advance or to stick to familiar routines. Will he or she be okay to pick up the kids from school? What time will he or she come home, and in what state? This sort of constant uncertainty can be highly disruptive, and it helps to explain a commonly found paradox in the families of problem drinkers: that while the problem drinker may be withdrawing from the family by no longer playing the role within it that he or she did previously, he or she nonetheless appears to dominate it as the family starts to organize itself around the drinker and his/her behavior patterns.

Alcohol misuse tends to change the roles played by family members in relation to one another, and to the outside world. Most families operate with some form of division of labor – one person managing the family’s finances, the other supervising the children, one doing the gardening, the other doing the cooking, and so on. But as one member of the family develops more of a drinking problem, the other members are likely to find themselves having to take over his or her role themselves. Eventually, one member may be performing all the roles – finances, disciplining, shopping, cleaning, household management, and so on.

Another area of family functioning which is often affected by alcohol and alcohol misuse relates to the kind of communications that takes place between family members. It may be that the partner with the problem refuses to talk about it, even though it is clearly beginning to dominate his or her life, as well as the family’s organization. Or again, alcohol can itself become the main topic of conversation – has he/she been drinking again, if so how much and with what effect, and who is going to help the individual or the family manage the consequences of the family member’s drinking?

Social Isolation
Many people who have a parent or partner with a drinking problem find talking about it to others to be extraordinarily difficult. The problem is often simply seen as being too shameful to admit. As a result of their reluctance to discuss or expose their situation to the outside world, the family tends to withdraw into itself. The degree of social embarrassment and unpredictability associated with drinking problems constrains family members from extending invitations to others to visit the family home, accepting invitations to visit someone else’s home or other social gatherings. The family thus tends to become increasingly socially isolated.

To learn more about Ms. Brennan or to make an appointment, visit her page on our website.

The Family Institute offers affordable family, couples and individual counseling at our Evanston, downtown Chicago, Lagrange Park and Northbrook locations. Visit our website to learn more.

TFI Alumni Spotlight: Heather J. Bates

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It is our pleasure to spotlight some of our distinguished Family Institute alum! Our first spotlight is on 2006 graduate Heather Bates.

Heather graduated from The Family Institute’s Marriage and Family Therapy program in 2006.Heather Pic Prior to getting her master’s degree she graduated from DePaul University with a major in Psychology. After graduating from The Family Institute she worked for a DCFS contracted program for substance exposed infants and in an outpatient community mental health center. She is currently in private practice in Evanston & Northfield and is an affiliate therapist at The Family Institute.

We asked Heather a few questions about her experiences at The Family Institute, her current career path, and how her time in our MFT program impacted her life as a clinician.

TFI: What brought you to The Family Institute for graduate school?

HB: I knew I wanted to get my masters in Marriage & Family Therapy because I connect with systems thinking. I narrowed it down to a couple programs and said that if I got into The Family Institute that I would go there because I thought (and still do) it is the best program in the country. Luckily, I got in!

TFI: What are three words you’d use to describe your overall graduate school experience at The Family Institute?

HB:         Collaborative



TFI: When you think about your experience here, what stands out the most?

HB: The classes and readings were incredibly valuable; however, what really stands out in my mind was the focus on experiential learning. I thought it was brilliant how they were able to give us a solid enough foundation to start seeing clients as early as November of the first year, and from then on apply what we were learning in the classroom in our sessions with clients. It really made the classroom work feel relevant and much more interesting, and ultimately made us more effective clinicians.

TFI: How would you describe your first experience seeing a client? Did it change over your time as a graduate student?

HB: I was SO nervous before meeting with my first client! I probably went over the initial paperwork 100 times before meeting with him. But after the session I remember thinking, I did it! And it wasn’t that bad!

After that I was able to calm down a bit and slowly gained more confidence in my abilities.

TFI: Tell us a bit about your current practice and career.

HB: I’m currently in private practice and have been for the last four years. After graduating I worked in a community outpatient mental health clinic and also for a DCFS contracted program doing in-home therapy. Both jobs were great experiences and I was ready to transition to private practice after about three years, as it was difficult for me to work with such a large system.

Private practice is a great fit for me right now as I’m enjoying the flexibility of being in charge of my own schedule and I find the work to be very rewarding.

TFI: How does your Family Institute graduate school experience impact your current position?

HB: Tons! It is my foundation. I got incredible training and felt very prepared to launch into the real world after the hands-on experience and phenomenal education I received.

Beyond that, I’ve made wonderful connections with my old professors and staff at The Family Institute and frequently utilize them as resources if I’m stuck on a case or need some suggestions.

TFI: How would you describe your transition from graduate school to your current career?

HB: The most difficult transition was getting that first job. I felt prepared and as though I had quite a bit to offer but convincing others of that was tough. I was not aware that many people had not heard of an MFT degree so I spent quite a bit of time explaining that my degree with similar to that of a counseling degree or social work degree. Once I got that first job it was easier to navigate, but getting my foot in the door was hard. It took a lot of phone calls, a lot of “informational interviews,” and a lot of networking.

TFI: Do you have any advice for people considering The Family Institute’s MS in Marriage and Family Therapy program?

HB: I may be biased but I think it’s a great program and, depending on how you want to use it, has great career potential. If I had to do it over again I would attend The Family Institute’s MFT program without a doubt.

The Family Institute offers two graduate programs, an MS in Marriage & Family Therapy and an MA in Counseling.

Our Alumni are active in the mental health field, and within the Institute. To learn more about our Alumni Association, visit our webpage.

At The Family Institute, Stories Matter

Every client at The Family Institute is unique.

The families, couples and individuals who come through our doors bring their complex stories with them. We recognize the nuances and complexities of life, and treat the whole person and their loved ones in deeply impactful, effective ways.

Join us over the next several month as we share three families’ stories.

Read how The Family Institute helps these families navigate change, strengthen their bonds, and heal their relationships, as well as themselves.


Ryan&Sharon1       Kathleen&Dave

Meet John & Rita, Ryan & Sharon, and Kathleen & Dave on our Building Stronger Families webpage. Follow along over the next few months as we share their stories and their paths to healing.

The Bette D. Harris Family & Child Clinic: Where TFI’s Three Pillars Meet

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At The Family Institute, we aim to strengthen and heal families from all walks of life through clinical service, education and research.

These three pillars work together synergistically: Our clinical services and research programs continuously inform our graduate and post-graduate education programs, which in turn further the development of our psychotherapeutic interventions. This synergy creates a dynamic through which we not only enhance the lives of our clients, but the field of family therapy as well.

No place better demonstrates that synergy than our Bette D. Harris Family and Child Clinic. At the Clinic, clients receive our expert care regardless of their ability to pay or access to insurance — our sliding-scale fee structure gives families of all income levels access to our high quality care, with fees starting at as little as $5.

The Clinic is uniquely impactful because of how we blend our mission’s three pillars: clinical service, education and research. The Clinic is staffed by graduate student therapists-in-training who are closely supervised by Family Institute staff therapists. All graduate students at The Family Institute take part in this mentoring relationship, allowing our clients to benefit not only from qualified therapists-in-training, all of whom meet rigorous academic and professional service requirements, but also from supervising staff therapists and their years of expertise.

Our therapists-in-training work with their supervising staff therapists to treat whole family systems, providing the deeply impactful, integrative and collaborative care that The Family Institute is known for.  To provide this care, our therapists-in-training are educated in our systems model of therapy, allowing them to look not only at individual issues, but also at the intricate ways those issue impact and are impacted by entire families.

Additionally, all clients at the Clinic take part in the STIC (Systemic Therapy Inventory of Change), which is the key component of The Family Institute’s groundbreaking Psychotherapy Change research project that tracks change throughout the therapy process. The first of its kind, the STIC monitors weekly changes in our clients’ personal and relationship functioning, allowing therapists and their clients to monitor progress and make informed, research-based treatment choices. The use of the STIC at the Clinic allows our therapists to apply research directly to their work with some of our community’s most vulnerable families and individuals.

Our approach combines the three pillars of our mission to treat entire families in systemic, effective ways. One family recently shared their success story with us: The family had recently moved to the US from another country and the transition did not go as smoothly as planned. The family of five — dad, mom and three daughters — came to the Clinic when their family structure became noticeably off-balance, and the children were having difficulties adjusting. Their treatment focused on helping the parents become more consistent, and to establish boundaries and a routine. After working with their therapist-in-training, one family member stated that they “got great support to reorganize our family, to change, to live in the community and be safe.”

This is just one instance of our impact through the Clinic. Last year alone, The Family Institute provided over 73,000 hours of clinical services, 1/3 of which were possible with our sliding-scale fee. 

To learn more about The Bette D. Harris Family & Child Clinic, visit our website.


Institute News Online: Monthly Updates on Clinical Service, Education & Research

The Family Institute’s mission is to strengthen and heal families from all walks of life through clinical service, education and research.

These three pillars work together synergistically: Our clinical service and research programs continuously inform our graduate and post-graduate education programs, which in turn further the development of our psychotherapeutic interventions. This synergy creates a dynamic through which we not only enhance the lives of our clients, but the field of family therapy as well.

Each month, The Family Institute sends an eNewsletter to our subscribers highlighting what’s new in these three pillars of our mission. Here are a few of the things we highlighted this month:

To stay up-to-date on The Family Institute’s three pillars, fill out our online subscription form.

The Family Institute offers a wide variety of affordable counseling care that treats whole individuals and their loved ones. Find out more at our website.

Search for a therapist with our Find a Therapist function.

We’re nearby! See our four Chicagoland locations.

Got questions? Visit our FAQ page for more information.

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