marriage and family therapy


I wanted to call this post “advice for taking and passing the LMFT exam” but it turns out, having passed last week, that I don’t have much advice to give. The problem is that the ways the exam is hard are not things you can prepare for. I’ll describe that situation, for what it’s worth, then describe the process of taking the test, and give the few pieces of advice I can offer. Take that advice with several grains of salt, though, because when you pass, they don’t tell you your score. I have no idea if I passed with flying colors or barely scraped by. For reasons I’m about to get into, I wouldn’t be surprised either way. I really can’t say if I over-prepared and rocked it or underprepared and got lucky.

The material you have to know is not that hard. With a few exceptions, it’s the same stuff you learned in your grad school program, the same stuff you’ve been drilling in your internship. The test is hard mostly because the writing is terrible. Have you ever read something that has been passed through several languages in a translator program, then back into English? That is how the questions, and especially the answers, read. Most of them. They often barely make sense and some of it is complete nonsense. I doubt they used the translator trick, so it may be that they looked up the most obscure synonym for each word and then garbled up the grammar a bit to top it off. I would be ashamed to be associated with the writing of that exam. I do not consider it an ethical way to make an exam difficult. Unfortunately, that is the situation.

The second reason it is hard is that you have to read and comprehend all of that garble at lightning speed. I read at a slightly above average speed with high comprehension and I had twelve minutes left at the end to review my marked questions. Twelve minutes left at the end of a four hour test.

So that’s my first piece of advice: If you’re a slower than average reader, see what you can do for special accommodations on time, and definitely if English is your second language. I don’t know what’s available in that way, but look into it and take what you can get.

The third reason is that it’s just difficult to sit and concentrate that hard for four hours without stopping. Your body will hurt, if it has that tendency. If you have body or pain issues I would look into what accommodations they have to offer.

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The process of taking the test: I took mine in Riverside, so this may vary, and because you have to take the ethics exam right away now, you probably know all of this stuff already. You can skip this and the next paragraphs. PSI, the testing company has a suite in an office building. You walk into their lobby and the staff signs you in, takes your photo, and you wait a bit. The staff is very nice and professional. There is a rack to hang your coat and you can get a locker. (The PSI materials say that you don’t get a locker, but you can.) They let me take my migraine meds in on a tissue, but you can’t take anything else. I wished I’d worn a long sleeve shirt because it was a bit cool for me and I couldn’t take my sweatshirt in. They provide a pencil and scratch paper. You sit in one of fifteen or twenty cubicles with a PC computer, mouse, and keyboard. It’s pretty quiet. They offer you earplugs but I didn’t need them, and I’m pretty sensitive to noise. You run through some instructions and practice questions to get the hang of it. It’s pretty easy. Then you start the test and have four hours to finish 170 questions. That’s less than 90 seconds per question. There are three or four counters at the top of your screen, counting questions, up and down, and time. I can’t remember if the timer counted up or down or both, but I remember it being pretty easy to use. I would occasionally multiply my number of questions answered by 1.5 to make sure I was on track to get through every question. For example, after answering question 40, I could check that I was well under one hour into the exam. You can take breaks whenever you want, but the clock won’t stop. I took two breaks. The first was about a minute, to eat a few bites of a date bar I left in my coat pocket, about an hour and a half into the exam. The second was to pee, at about three hours in. That took five or six minutes, because the bathroom is down the hall and the staff has to escort you. I’m glad I took the breaks. I imagine that seven or eight extra minutes at the end of the exam would not have been very useful after hours of low blood sugar and holding pee.

If you have any time left, you can go back and look at questions you marked. I had time to look at a few and changed one answer. Then you finish. They make you click “yes” on a few versions of “Yes, I understand this will end my test and I can’t go back” before ending, so you can’t end the test accidentally. You walk back out into the lobby, grab your stuff, and get your results. I think if you fail they tell you your score, but I’m not sure. There is also the possibility that the BBS is re-analyzing how the exam is performing and you won’t find out if you passed for another month or so. That happened to me for my ethics exam, and it’s much nicer to know immediately how you did. I was in a bit of a daze after the exam and walked around the roads near the test center for a while before I felt like driving.

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To prepare for the exam, I bought the Therapist Development Center’s MFT Clinical Exam package and did their 65 hour (versus 110 hour) track. I can’t say how it compares to Grossman or AATBS because I’ve never seen those packages. I can say that I used a Grossman practice-test package to study for the ethics exam and passed, but I’m pretty sure that I spent too much time studying that way. I basically tried to reverse-engineer the test using the practice tests plus the legal statutes and CAMFT Code of Ethics, which took a long time—a little over 70 hours of dedicated studying. The TDC package helped me avoid rabbit holes and working too long. TDC’s 65-hour track took me 68 hours to complete, plus I did an extra eight hours of study on the DSM-5, having been trained exclusively on the DSM-IV-TR. I made two outlines of the DSM-5, one of timeline information, like how long you need symptoms for each diagnosis, and one for age limit information. (I put those up here and here.) I also spent about four hours reading (and rereading) the CAMFT Code of Ethics, California statutes, and legal/ethics articles from CAMFT’s Therapist magazine archives.

Again, I have no idea how I would have done without studying that way, but I went in feeling as well-prepared as I could have. I barely studied the last couple days before the test because I felt like I knew the material. I remember thinking, “If I don’t pass, I’m not sure what I will do for the next four months, because I already know this stuff.”

So I can recommend the Therapist Development Center material. The extra DSM study didn’t help me that I remember on the exam—the TDC coverage would have been enough. I could probably say the same for the Code of Ethics and statutes reading. I don’t recall the test getting very nit-picky about any of that stuff. That’s not how they made the exam difficult, though I would have preferred it that way. Even if it was extra studying, I feel good about having done it. We MFTs should know that stuff cold.

That was likely the last multi-hour multiple choice exam I’ll ever have to take. I’m fine with that. Now it’s time to focus on setting up my private practice!

It has been four years of sitting in hundreds of hours of lectures, reading thousands of pages of theory and research, writing hundreds of pages, and seeing clients for hundreds of hours. It has been long weeks, late nights, steep learning curves, and lots and lots of thinking. It is amazing how much learning you can do in four years of 60-80 hour weeks!  In 2009 I finished a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology, with a research assistant position in Sara Hodges’ social cognition lab, a practicum position at a residential treatment facility for teenage sex offenders, an honors thesis entitled “Differentiating the Effects of Social and Personal Power,” and a GPA of 4.23. Yesterday I graduated with a Master of Education degree, Couples and Family Therapy specialization, 455 client-contact hours at the Center for Family Therapy and Looking Glass Counseling Services, one term as a counselor for the University of Oregon Crisis Line, four terms volunteering for the UO Men’s Center, a GPA of 4.19, and a “Pass With Distinction” on my final Formal Client Presentation. It has been a wonderful, exhilarating, exhausting four years.

It has also taken a bit of a toll on my health, but the major loss was in community. If you do not live in Eugene and we have not made a point of a regular visit, I probably have not spoken or even written to you much, if anything, since 2007. For that I sincerely apologize. It is not how I prefer to live but I could not seem to do this any other way. Know that I miss you. Let’s reconnect. Call me up, write, send me your unfinished song, your idea for a book, something to read and talk about. Let’s go for a walk, go swimming, have lunch, see a show. I am looking forward to it.

Couples & Family Therapy 2011 Cohort

Me & My Dad, June 14, 2011

One of the ways that John Gottman says people talk themselves out of their marriages is “rehearsing distress-maintaining attributions” in between arguments. That is, instead of making up stories about how their troubles are passing and circumstantial, they make up stories about how their troubles have to do with permanent flaws in their partner’s character. Over time, this version of the story solidifies and they reinterpret the entire history of the relationship using that filter.

This is another of Gottman’s gendered findings; it is mostly a problem because the men (in heterosexual marriages, at least) do it. It’s a problem when women do it, too, they just don’t tend to as much.

The alternative to rehearsing distress-maintaining attributions is rehearsing relationship-enhancing attributions, and this is exactly what Gottman found that the people in marriages that ended up happy and stable did. It’s probably a good idea, then, to practice rehearsing relationship-enhancing attributions if you can. Try thinking about the strengths of your relationship, good times, things you are proud of, ways that current conflict is passing and circumstantial. If that is difficult to do, think instead about couples counseling.  If you want to keep your relationship, you probably need help.

I am going to start seeing clients in a few weeks in the clinic at the University of Oregon. Part of that process is beginning to “date a model.” That means I have to choose one of the many styles of family therapy and try it out to see if it’s really my thing. I’m a born generalist and integrator, so this is a difficult choice to make. Below, I typed up the “In a Nutshell: The Least You Need to Know” sections for each family therapy model in Diane Gehart’s excellent book, Mastering Competencies in Family Therapy. (Actually, I’ve left out one–collaborative therapy–because I know almost nothing about it, so it’s not one of my active choices.)

Those of you who know me (and I believe that’s pretty much all of you, readers) and have the stamina to read these eleven paragraphs, I would love to know which of these models you think sounds the most like me.

Systemic and Strategic Therapies: Using what most therapists consider the classic family therapy method, systemic family therapists conceptualize the symptoms of individuals within the larger network of their family and social systems while maintaining a nonblaming, nonpathologizing stance toward all members of the family. Systemic therapies are based on general systems and cybernetics systems theories,  which propose that families are living systems characterized by certain principles, including homeostasis, the tendency to maintain a particular range of behaviors and norms, and self-correction, the ability to identify when the system has gone too far from its homeostatic norm and then to self-correct to maintain balance. Systemic therapists rarely attempt linear, logical solutions to “educate” a family on better ways to communicate–this is almost never successful–but instead tap into the systemic dynamics to effect change. They introduce small, innocuous, yet highly meaningful alterations to the family’s interactions, allowing the family to naturally reorganize in response to the new information. Because this method effects change quickly, systemic therapies were the original brief therapies.

Structural Therapy: As the name implies, structural therapists map family structure–boundaries, hierarchies, and subsystems–to help clients resolve individual mental health symptoms and relational problems. After assessing family functioning, therapists aim to restructure the family, realigning boundaries and hierarchies to promote growth and resolve problems. They are active in sessions, staging enactments, realigning chairs, and questioning family assumptions. Structural family therapy focuses on strengths, never seeing families as dysfunctional but rather as people who need assistance in expanding their repertoire of interaction patterns to adjust to their ever-changing developmental and contextual demands.

The Satir Growth Model: One of the first prominent women in the field, Virginia Satir began her career in family therapy at the Mental Research Institute working alongside Jay Haley, Paul Watzlawick, Richard Fisch, and the other leading family therpists in Palo Alto. [These were the folks who came up with the “systemic and strategic therapies,” above.] She eventually left the MRI to develop her own ideas, which can broadly be described as infusing humanistic values into a system approach. She brought a warmth and enthusiasm for human potential that is unparalleled in the field of family therapy. Her therapy focused on fostering individual growth as well as improving family interactions. She used experiential exercises (e.g., family sculpting), metaphors, coaching, and the self of the therapist to facilitate change. Her work is practiced extensively internationally, with Satir practitioners connecting through the Satir Global Network.

Symbolic-Experiential Therapy: Symbolic-experiential therapy is an experiential therapy model developed by Carl Whitaker. Whitaker referred to his work as “therapy of the absurd,” highlighting the unconventional and playful wisdom he used to help transorm family. Relying almost entirely on emotinal logic rahter than cognitive logic, his work is often misunderstood as nonsense, but it is more accurate to say that he worked with “heart sense.” Rather than intervene on behavrioral sequences like strtegic-systemic therapists, Whitaker focused on teh emotional process and family structure. He intervened directly at the emotional level of the system, relying heavily on “symbolism” and real life experiences as well as humor, play, and affective controntation.

For the astute observer, Whitaker’s work embodied a deep and profound understanding of families’ emotional lives; to the casual observer, he often seemed rude or inappropriate. When he was “inappropriate,” it was always for the purpose of confronting or otherwise intervening on emotional dynamics that he wanted to expose, challenge, and transform. He was adamant about balancing strong emotional confrontation with warmth and support from the therapist. In many ways, he encouraged therapists to move beyond the rules of polite society and invite them selves and clients to be genuine and real enough to speak the whole truth.

Bowen Intergenerational Therapy: Bowen intergenerational theory is more about the nature of being human than it is about families or family therapy. The Bowen approach requires therapists to work from a broad perspective that considers the evolution of the human species and the characteristics of all living systems. Therapists use this broad perspective to conceptualize client problems and then rely primarily on the therapist’s use of self to effect change. As a part of this broad perspective, therapists routinely consider the three-generational emotional process to better understand the current presenting symptoms. The process of therapy involves increasing clients’ awareness of how their current behavior is connected to multigenerational processes and the resulting family dynamics. The therapist’s primary tool for promoting client change is the therapist’s personal level of differentiation, the ability to distinguish self from other and manage interpersonal anxiety.

Psychoanalytic Family Therapies: These therapies use traditional psychoanalytic and psychodynamic principles that describe inner conflicts and extend these  principles to external relationships. In contrast to individual psychoanalysts, psychoanalytic family therapists focus on the family as a nexus of relationships that either support or impede the development and functioning of it’s members. As in traditional psychoanalytic approaches, the process of therapy involves analyzing intrapsychic and interpersonal dynamics, promoting client insight, and working through these insights to develop new ways of relating to self and others. Some of the more influential approaches are contextual therapy, family -of-origin therapy, and object relations family therapy.

Behavioral and Cognitive-Behavioral Family Therapies: In the general mental health field, cognitive-behavioral therapies (CBTs) are some of the most commonly used therapeutic approaches. They have their roots in behaviorism–Pavlov’s research on stimulus-response pairings with dogs and Skinner’s research on rewards and punishments with cats–the premises of which are still widely used with phobias, anxiety, and parenting. Until the 1980s, most of the cognitive-behavioral family therapies were primarily behavioral: behavioral family therapy and behavioral couples therapy. In recent years, approaches that more directly incorporate cognitive components have developed: cognitive-behavioral family therapy and Gottman method couples therapy approach.

Cognitive-behavioral family therapies integrate systemic concepts into standard cognitive-behavioral techniques by examining how family members–or any two people in a relationship–reinforce one another’s behaviors to maintain symptoms and relational pattern. Therapists generally assume a directive, “teaching,” or “coaching” relationship with clients, which is quite different from other approaches of “joining” or “empathizing” with clients to form a relationship. Because this approach is rooted in experimental psychology, research is central to its practice and evolution, resulting in a substantial evidence base.

Solution-Based Therapies: Solution-based therapies are brief therapy approaches that grew out of the work of the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto (MRI) and Milton Erickson’s brief therapy and trance work. The first and leading “strength-based” therapies, solution-based therapies are increasingly popular with clients, insurance companies, and county mental health agencies because they are efficient and respectful of clients. AS the name suggests, solution-based therapists work with the client to envision potential solutions based on the client’s experience and values. Once the client has selected a desirable outcome, the therapist assists the client in identifying small, incremental steps toward realizing this goal. The therapist does not solve problems or offer solutions but instead collaborates with clients to develop aspirations and plans that they then translate into real-world action.

Narrative Therapy: Developed by Michael White and David Epston in Australia and New Zealand, narrative therapy is based on the premise that we “story” and create the meaning of life events using available dominant discourses–broad societal stories, sociocultural practices, assumptions, and expectations about how we should live. People experience “problems” when their personal life does not fit with these dominant societal discourses and expectations. The process of narrative therapy involves separating the person from the problem, critically examining the assumptions that inform how the person evaluates himself/herself and his/her life. Through this process, clients identify alternative ways to view, act, and interact in daily life. Narrative therapists assume that all people are resourceful and have strengths, and they do not see “people” as having problems but rather see problems as being imposed upon people by unhelpful or harmful societal cultural practices.

I just read in Brock & Barnard’s Procedures in Marriage and Family Therapy about Wolin and colleagues’ research into rituals in alcoholic families. Apparently, the negative effects of an alcoholic parent were predicted better by the amount that family rituals were disrupted by the alcoholism than by the presence of alcoholism itself. For example, if the family continued to eat dinner together every night, continued with their bedtime rituals, etc, children remained about as well off as those in non-alcoholic households. But if the family rituals were destroyed, the children were much worse off, including much more likely to become alcoholic or marry an alcoholic themselves.

I haven’t read any of the original research, so I don’t know for sure if it is that these rituals actually provide resiliency or if the presence or lack of rituals served as a proxy measure for how bad the alcoholism was. It could also be a combination of the two. It does look like the family therapy literature considers that rituals promote resiliency in general, providing structure and comforting predictability for kids, and resulting in better outcomes. (I doubt they are bad for the adults, either.)  Something to think about, parents!

I’m reading Virginia Satir’s Conjoint Family Therapy. She was this amazing, giant, super-loving woman, one of the founders of the field of family therapy–kind of the Julia Child of family therapy. I’m learning her style of therapy, possibly in part because I was introduced to her work very young, maybe 11 or 12. My mom bought me Elgin’s The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense. It was my first introduction to going meta on communication–thinking and talking about communication, a very useful skill, possibly the central skill of a therapist.

I’m really enjoying reading the original Satir. One of her (many) assertions is that pretty much any time you say anything you are making a request. It could be a request for any number of behaviors, but ultimately they are all requests for some kind of validation. The difference between functional and dysfunctional communication is how overt your requests are. Here’s one of her examples (p. 86):

Functional:

“Let’s see a movie,” or even better, “I would like to see a movie with you.”

Dysfunctional:

“You would like to see a movie, wouldn’t you.”

“It would do you good to see a movie.”

“If you want to see a movie, we’ll see one.”

“We might as well see a movie. It’s Saturday night.”

“There’s a new movie house down the street.”

“My voices are ordering me to see a movie.”

Dysfunctional requests require decoding. If both the sender and receiver of the communication are clear about the codes they use, this is fine, but in general, the more decoding required, the more trouble you get into.

The problem is, if you make a clear request, you can be clearly denied your request. You make yourself vulnerable by saying “Let’s see a movie,” or “Do you like me?” because the answer could be “No.” Unless your self-esteem is quite high, a “No” hurts.

If you send a code, say, “There’s a new movie house down the street,” you can pretend that you’re not putting yourself out there. If your receiver says, “I don’t want to see a movie,” you can say, “What do you mean? I was just commenting on the new building.” Or your receiver can say “No” in code, maybe, “Yeah, that place looks like a dump.” Then things are really fuzzy. You don’t know if they decoded your message accurately, and they don’t know if your message was coded in the first place. It might feel like protection–it might even be protection–but it’s confusing and it lacks intimacy.

Why do we code our requests? We learn to. Maybe we’ve learned not to trust our receiver with a vulnerable request–the way they responded to such requests in the past have been painful. Or maybe it’s just habit, left over from accumulated painful experiences from our younger years. It could be part of your family’s culture, and uncoded requests seem harsh or demanding.

Try watching your communication. How coded is it? How do you feel when you imagine speaking in less coded requests? And try being vulnerable. Try to do even better than Satir’s, “I would like to see a movie with you.” Unpack it more. If you can say with honesty, “Hey, I really like you and I’d like to spend time with you tonight, watching a movie. What do you say?” then do it!

One thing I will have to assess in the families I see is possible drug/alcohol abuse, because substance abuse is pervasive, problematic, and interpersonal. One of my texts, Procedures in Marriage and Family Therapy, recommends using “objective” measures such as the Michigan Alcoholism Screening Test (25 items), or the MacAndrew Alcoholism Scale of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (49 items), to give weight to the assessment. However, it also says that there is a correlation of .89 (that’s very high) between answering yes to two or more of the following four questions  and alcohol abuse (p. 47):

1) Have you ever felt you ought to cut down on your drinking?

2)have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?

3) Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?

4) Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover (eye opener)?

Also, they list Heilman’s eight symptoms of alcoholism:

1) Thinking or talking a lot about drinking or getting high.

2) Increased tolerance. This is not a sign of health!

3) Drinking or taking a drug in a way that speeds up the onset of its effects.

4) Non-social use.

5) Drug/alcohol starts to seem like a medicine. Thoughts of drug/alcohol immediately upon a stressful event.

6) Blackouts. “How did I get home last night?”

7) Taking care to always have a supply of alcohol/drug.

8) Using more than planned.

Finally, Heilman says that anyone who answers yes to the question “Is your drinking ever different from what you would like it to be?” is very likely suffering from alcoholism (p. 48)

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