Bad guidance?: Confessions of a trainee marriage counsellor - How do they teach marital therapy? Not very well, says Joanna Gibbon

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'I STILL don't know what is meant to be happening in my 'awareness' group. What are we supposed to be doing, exactly? Is this man qualified to lead a group? We know nothing about him.' We were a few weeks into the London Marriage Guidance Council's six-month Foundation Course - and some of us were beginning to ask questions.

We'd been told that the weekly 'awareness groups', where trainees were supposed to discuss their feelings about counselling and themselves, were a vital part of the course. So we were fighting off embarrassment and trying to get talking about deeply personal matters - mothers, fathers, partners, children. The man - our 'facilitator' - sat in silence, reporting back to our tutors but not taking part apart from occasionally grimacing. I felt uncomfortable and under pressure. Looking back, I think this was when my doubts about marriage guidance training really began.

IT is exactly two years since I decided I wanted to be a marriage guidance counsellor. My plan was to combine the counselling with my career as a freelance journalist, hoping the two would complement each other. My husband was interested and supported the idea (we had been married for two years). Friends either gave me dark, questioning looks (was there something wrong with my marriage?) or were terribly impressed. 'How useful, I could do with a bit of counselling myself,' lots of them said.

I phoned the London Marriage Guidance Council (LMGC - one of the most respected marriage guidance organisations) and a friendly middle-class voice told me about their new diploma course which, she said, led to a professional qualification. On the face of it, the course seemed well organised, so I filled in an application form and sent off the requested cheque for pounds 50.

Some time later a 'selection conference' for would-be counsellors was held at LMGC's pretty Queen Anne-style headquarters, off Harley Street. I turned up at 9am to join a rather anxious-looking bunch of other applicants - 19 women and one man - waiting in the director's office. We were introduced to the small band of enthusiastic, knowledgable- sounding women who were running the day, and within moments I felt as if I had gone back to school. The feeling never disappeared.

In spite of the impression given by the publicity material - counsellors were apparently wanted from all kinds of backgrounds - we were a strikingly homogeneous group: middle class, mostly married, fairly well educated, well-dressed. 'It was like being in a time warp,' said Mary, a well-travelled American in her late thirties. 'Here was provincial little England in a cosmopolitan capital city. I was very surprised.'

After some general discussion there were individual interviews, during which I began to feel as though we we were discussing a mythical job with no specifications. I was interviewed by an external counsellor from a student counselling organisation, and I simply repeated the contents of my application: that I wanted to help people in a more direct way than journalism could. Academic qualifications seemed to play no part.

'I had no idea what they were looking for and I think they didn't either,' said Mary afterwards, summing up my own impression. 'My interview was very uncomfortable,' she added. 'I felt as if I was in court being judged.' Within two days, however, I got my acceptance letter - with a request for pounds 100 to secure my place.

The foundation course was held at a girls' school down the road. Having forked out pounds 495 for the six-month course, I was a bit surprised at the choice of venue. We met once a week on Monday evenings for a 90-minute teaching seminar, followed by the 90- minute 'awareness group'.

The LMGC trains people in 'psychodynamic counselling', in which the counsellor aims to help the clients understand their relationship, without making judgments or influencing their decisions. It draws on the ideas of various theorists, including both Freuds, Jung, Adler, and Klein. We were given book lists, but but no real guidance: the message seemed to be that we could read as much or as little as we wanted. The reading issue highlighted the wide differences in our educational backgrounds. Sarah, an intelligent woman in her mid-forties, pointed out: 'We're all at different levels. Anyone with no qualifications or job skills could get on this course, so it's no surprise there's a muddle in how to teach us'.

A supervisor told me: 'I think your criticisms are connected to something you dislike about yourself. Perhaps you are thinking too much and not listening to your emotions.'

In general, I found the teaching highly uneven, sometimes superb and sometimes shoddy. 'A nursery school child wouldn't put up with this,' muttered someone after one session, when a guest speaker fumbled over her notes, failing to cover all the material. Sometime later, another guest, on finishing a speech about Jung, asked the course director: 'Was that the sort of thing you wanted?' We began asking about the tutors' qualifications and were told, in chilly tones, that they were very experienced marital counsellors; but some did not have teaching qualifications.

As the course progressed I increasingly felt we were not being treated as adults who could contribute. However, I became more deeply concerned about one point in particular. When we asked what research the LMGC had done about the effectiveness of its counselling, we were told that none existed. While they did keep records of all counselling sessions, no follow-up research was ever done. Had they, we asked, ever contacted past clients to discover if they were still together?

No, LMGC felt it was too intrusive to contact people and counterproductive to remind them of their unhappy times . . .

It seemed that, as counsellors, we would have no way of ever knowing whether our efforts were working in the long term. And that LMGC has no way of proving its methods, either to itself or to the outside world.

I PASSED the foundation course and fully intended to stop. I was nervous. Quite apart from my reservations about the teaching, I could imagine myself shrieking at some quivering wreck: 'Oh, for heavens sake just leave him/her. And make sure you get the money.' Or 'Go and get drunk with a good friend, that'll help.'

In spite of this, I could not let go. I was accepted on to the full three- year diploma course, costing pounds 5,700.

As the first term galloped on, I became increasingly worried about counselling real-life clients the following January. The final nail in the coffin for me was discovering that LMGC has a problem making its clients pay, and that often the issue of money was used in the counselling sessions.

It is a complex situation. The LMGC is a charity and can't refuse people because of their lack of money, but at the same time, its counsellors want to be paid properly. Clients are told about the charges - pounds 35 an hour - before they go to the first session but, according to a 1992 annual report, only about 12 per cent pay the full amount, and 70 per cent pay half or less.

The counsellors get a percentage of what each of their clients pay. 'Oh heavens, I've had five sets of people who can only pay pounds 5 or pounds 10 recently, I'm not going to make anything' said one counsellor, forlornly. Sales techniques were not part of the course.

The implications came home to me when I watched a counselling session in action. The couple were young, deeply unhappy and poor, and they could not afford the fee. In such cases, counsellors were advised to ask for pounds 1 for every pounds 1,000 a person earns or receives in income support.

The look of amazement on the overwrought faces (they had been in tears throughout the session) when asked for pounds 12 on the spot, was extraordinary. The man became furious and looked as though he was going to attack the counsellor. In the end they paid pounds 6 and never returned.

Another trainee told me that pupil counsellors were asked not to tell clients that they were in training because it might put them off. 'I felt very unhappy about this, it was pulling the wool over their eyes,' she said. Trainees are required to do 450 unpaid hours of counselling before getting their diploma certificates.

I quit the course just after Christmas 1993. I felt guilty about failing and wasting the money - forfeiting the year's fees of pounds 1,800 - but I was tremendously glad to leave. The course director was kind, advised me to think about having psychoanalysis and hoped that I might return.

MARRIAGE guidance counselling started in Britain in 1938, and the demand for it is now massive. The main counselling organisations are attempting to shed their amateur image, and grow into more professional bodies. The LMGC, which was originally the London branch of Relate, is trying to take a step in this direction with its foundation and diploma courses over three-and-a-half years. (Relate's training - which is free - is two-and-a-half years.)

LMGC's training costs a considerable amount of money. Yet I felt that the teaching I got waspatchy, the guidance woolly, and the tutors patronising. The high fees, too, will always mean trainees come from a narrow middle-class band.

LMGC receives those 450 free hours of counselling from trainees, but it has not tackled the problem of getting its clients to pay the fees it sets. This obviously has implications for counsellors wanting to earn a living from their work.

Counselling in all its forms is under attack at present - there are no overall controls over training and practice. Established bodies such as LMGC should have a duty to offer more information about the effectiveness of the help they offer, and to research and follow-up their work thoroughly. Being open to some criticism and being prepared to discuss it - instead of advising those who quit the course to have psychoanalysis, or telling them it's the course's emotional content they cannot cope with - would be a big step forward.

(Photograph omitted)