Quitting CAMFT

CAMFT’s LPCC “gap exam” lawsuit against the BBS is a waste of resources that, if CAMFT “wins,” would eliminate California’s legal recognition of the distinctiveness of the MFT license. I refuse to let my member dues support it.

As I reported here recently, the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT, which is independent of AAMFT and its California Division) has filed suit against the Board of Behavioral Sciences, alleging that their decision to require a “gap exam” for MFTs seeking grandparenting into LPCC licensure amounts to an illegal restraint of trade.

If CAMFT loses, it would mean they wasted thousands of dollars of member dues on outside counsel and court fees.

But if they “win,” the outcome would be far worse: It would eliminate legal recognition of any distinction between the practices of MFT and professional clinical counseling — and pave the way for the MFT license to disappear completely. (Here’s why.)

And either way, CAMFT’s conduct around the issue has already damaged the organization’s ability to work collaboratively with the BBS. [Page 50, item III on the linked PDF.]

Why CAMFT would want to win this argument, I do not know. But I know my member dues cannot support it.

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I have been an active and supportive member of CAMFT for several years. As I have talked with students and colleagues around the state, I have been able to honestly say that there is much to be proud of in the work CAMFT has done — even this year, legislation CAMFT sponsored to clarify MFTs’ roles and responsibilities around child abuse reporting has been good for the profession. Their in-house attorneys are wonderful resources, available any time. And at the chapter level, the overwhelming majority of CAMFT members simply want to be able to make a living providing providing the most effective services possible to their clients. They’re great people and often outstanding therapists.

The organizational decisions CAMFT has made, though, have too often been in direct conflict with the best interests of the profession. CAMFT’s struggle around same-sex marriage is well-worn territory here, and it speaks to larger structural problems that were apparently never meaningfully addressed. CAMFT has stopped publicly advocating for the complete elimination of the MFT license, but they continue to make decisions that lead in that direction — like this lawsuit — and I do not believe most members know just how close they have come to making it happen.

This lawsuit over a gap exam, if successful, would put the state on the record as determining there are no differences in practice between MFT and LPCC. Not only is that fundamentally wrong, but it also would virtually force the BBS to consolidate the MFT and LPCC licenses. (If there is no difference in practice, there is no need for independent licensure.) It would not happen immediately — the process would take years — but with a CAMFT “victory” in this case, it would be almost impossible to prevent.

I am a marriage and family therapist. Not a professional clinical counselor. There is a difference. Even the counselors say so. [See currently-third item, “AMHCA lauds…”] I should never have to remind a professional association of MFTs that this is true. And I cannot support one more dime of my money being used to chip away at what makes this profession unique and valuable.

So I am, with a great deal of disappointment, resigning my membership in CAMFT. I hope they get back on the right track at some point in the future. My letter resigning my membership, which largely repeats these same points, follows in its entirety.

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November 1, 2010

Dear CAMFT,

Effective immediately, please cancel my membership.

Over the past several years, I have gradually lost my faith that the organization’s goals and actions are truly in the best interest of the MFT profession. Your lawsuit against the BBS over the “gap exam” for MFTs seeking grandparenting into LPCC licensure only confirms that you are actively working against what is best for the field of marriage and family therapy.

If unsuccessful, this lawsuit will be a massive waste of members’ dues in a misguided cause. If successful, the outcome would be even worse: A legal determination that there is no difference in practice between MFT and LPCC (and perhaps LCSW as well) would pave the way for license consolidation. While this may be in the best interest of CAMFT as an organization (you could add LPCC members under one umbrella), it is quite clearly not in the best interest of marriage and family therapy as a profession. Independent licensure provides valuable legal recognition of the distinctiveness of our skill set and body of knowledge. A short “gap exam” for grandparenting appropriately balances the need to recognize this distinctiveness with the desire among some experienced MFTs who are otherwise prepared for LPCC licensure to obtain that distinct license.

Regardless of its outcome, the lawsuit has harmed CAMFT’s ability to effectively work collaboratively with the BBS. This was made clear when, at the September BBS meeting, several board members openly and publicly expressed their disappointment with CAMFT’s conduct.

I cannot in good conscience allow my dues money to be used for efforts that work against the best interests of the profession of marriage and family therapy. I will happily rejoin if and when CAMFT (1) drops this misguided lawsuit; (2) makes a clear and public statement that it recognizes the practice of marriage and family therapy is distinct from other mental health professions; and (3) outlines and follows through on clear steps to protect, preserve and advance the distinctiveness of our profession.

Sincerely,

 
Benjamin Caldwell, PsyD

CAMFT sues California licensing board

CAMFT is suing the Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS), demanding a ruling that the practice of marriage and family therapy has nothing unique to offer.

See updates below: The court sided with the BBS on two out of three legal questions and CAMFT on the other. The ruling required the BBS to consult with the state’s Office of Professional Examination Services prior to determining whether a gap exam was necessary. OPES recommended doing the exam, and the BBS voted unanimously to do a gap exam.

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The California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT) followed through on an earlier threat and filed suit this week against the state’s licensing board, the Board of Behavioral Sciences (BBS). CAMFT is seeking a ruling that marriage and family therapists who wish to be grandparented into licensure as Professional Clinical Counselors (LPCCs) will not need to take an exam on the differences in practice between those professions. But the issue is bigger than it may sound: Such a ruling would require the BBS to first determine that there are no differences in practice between the professions, a ruling that would have major implications for the future of professional licensing in mental health.

But let’s start with where this is now. The law that brings the LPCC license into the state is quite clear (emphasis mine):

The board and the Office of Professional Examination Services shall jointly develop an examination on the differences, if any differences exist, between the following:
   (A) The practice of professional clinical counseling and the practice of marriage and family therapy.
   (B) The practice of professional clinical counseling and the practice of clinical social work.
– California Business & Professions Code section 4999.54(b)(1)

CAMFT argues in its suit, as it has in BBS meetings, that there may be differences between the professions, but that these do not amount to differences in practice. So they do not believe that an exam on differences between MFT and LPCC (a “gap exam”) is necessary. That argument has now lost twice: The BBS ruled on July 28 that there should be a gap exam, based on the language of the law. CAMFT threatened to sue (page 6), and the BBS vacated all earlier discussion and took the issue up again on September 9. Again they ruled that there must be a test. In a suit filed on Monday, CAMFT argues that requiring a gap exam amounts to an unlawful restraint of trade for MFTs seeking LPCC licensure. They ask to have the BBS decision again vacated, and an injunction issued preventing the BBS from requiring a gap exam.

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While I am trying to present these facts as neutrally as possible, I am hardly an objective observer. I co-signed AAMFT-CA’s letter to the BBS encouraging them to revisit their initial decision in May that no gap exam would be needed. And, fundamentally, I believe there are significant differences between the professions — that’s why we have distinct educational programs and are distinctly licensed. Arguing that the professions may be different but their practices — the doing of the professions — is the same is a giant leap of both language and logic. Indeed, as Dean Porter, head of the California Coalition for Counselor Licensure, has said, proving LPCCs’ distinctiveness [currently-third item, “AMHCA lauds…”] was one of their biggest challenges in achieving licensure in California.

There is no need for a separate license if the professional group in question has nothing new or different to offer. That is why this is such a concern for me — if CAMFT gets their way, and the BBS or a court rules that there are no differences in practice between the professions, it is an extremely short logical walk to an argument that MFTs and LPCCs (and even LCSWs) should not be separately licensed. I worry that that’s the idea. CAMFT has stopped publicly advocating such a shift (they openly projected such a “one-license future” to members and to the California legislature in 2007), but they still seem to be walking down that road. Having earlier removed their opposition to LPCC licensing legislation, they appear to have taken no action when a 2008 version of the LPCC bill proposed to study eliminating the MFT license entirely (see Section 6, at the bottom of the next-to-last page; that version of the bill, thankfully, failed). This week’s legal action seems to be a continuation of the “we have nothing unique to offer, so let’s all combine licenses” philosophy. Why an association of marriage and family therapists would continue taking stances that appear to act against keeping the MFT license distinct is beyond my understanding.

I would love a different explanation, but cannot seem to come up with one.

The legal complaint and related documents can be downloaded here *. They are referenced by case number (34-2010-80000689).

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I know I say this over to the right, but it bears repeating: On this blog, I speak strictly for myself, and not my employers or contractors or anyone else. It also bears repeating, for those of you from outside California, that CAMFT is an independent organization with no ties to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) or its California Division (AAMFT-CA).

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* Updated 1-11-2011: Updated link.

Updated 2-3-2011: The court has issued its ruling, which sides with the BBS on two out of three legal questions and CAMFT on the other. See this post for details: Ruling mixed on CAMFT-BBS “gap exam” lawsuit.

Updated 2-27-2011: OPES recommended doing the exam, and the BBS has voted unanimously to do a gap exam.

Insights from 5 1/2 years of California MFT license exam data: Part II

In part one, we learned that there are huge differences between programs in how their graduates perform on California’s MFT licensing exams. Here, we’ll see how for-profit programs measure up. You may be surprised.

For-profit universities have come under scrutiny in the past few years for aggressive recruiting practices and high costs. While the overwhelming majority of marriage and family therapy graduate programs are non-profit (either public or private), here in California a few programs are in the business of education to make money.

Some of the scrutiny faced by for-profit universities revolves around whether they are so eager to bring in new students that they accept unqualified students who cannot succeed in their fields. Since MFT licensure requires an examination that every applicant takes, we have a handy, easily-measured research question:

How do graduates of for-profit MFT programs perform on state licensing exams, compared to graduates of non-profit programs?

From this list of for-profit colleges and universities, we can identify at least four for-profit MFT programs in California:

  1. University of Phoenix – San Diego
  2. University of Phoenix – Sacramento
  3. Argosy University
  4. California Southern University

These programs, as it turns out, are widely varied when it comes to their graduates’ exam performance.

Table 1: Pass rate, CA Standard Written Exam, Graduates of for-profit MFT programs

Considering the better-than-average performance of Argosy graduates and the worse-than-average (but by no means abysmal) performance of Phoenix graduates, it seems that little can be safely concluded about an MFT program simply on the basis of its for-profit/non-profit status. So here are three money-centered things I would ask any program, for-profit or not, about if I were a prospective student:

  • A true accounting of costs. For-profit programs may be expensive, but non-profit programs can be too. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as asking “How much is the tuition?” Availability of financial aid should be a factor, particularly the question of how much aid comes in the form of loans (which need to be paid back) versus scholarships or grants (which do not). It also may be wise to ask about additional costs separate from tuition (books, fees), and whether the program will make you eligible for various stipend and loan reimbursement programs offered at the county, state, and federal levels. Students at for-profit universities appear to have particular difficulty repaying their loans.
  • Graduation rates. If programs (for-profit or not) are, in fact, admitting students who cannot succeed, that may not show up on licensing exam data; the students simply would never get that far. A key criticism of for-profit programs has been that they suffer high dropout rates, leaving students with additional debt but no additional job qualifications to show for it. Ask how many students actually complete the program relative to those who start.
  • Where your money goes. You want the bulk of your tuition money to support your learning. How much does the program spend on faculty salaries, learning technology, and other support for student learning, as opposed to administration, investments, or other costs? Naturally, some other costs are needed for any program to function. But as a general rule, the bulk of your tuition money should be going toward those things that most directly impact your educational experience.

Elsewhere on this blog I’ve described some other factors that may help you choose the best MFT graduate program for you. The questions here are more financial in nature. They’re all worth asking about.

Ultimately, I would not dismiss any of these programs simply because of their for-profit status. Any of them may be the right fit for you. Ask questions, and make sure any decision you make on a graduate education is a well-informed one.

Should you pursue a doctorate in MFT?

Have you considered pursuing a doctorate in marriage and family therapy? There are at least three good reasons why you should.

Like many programs, where I teach (Alliant) we offer both masters and doctoral degrees in marriage and family therapy. Many of our masters students spend significant time in their second year weighing out this question:

Will pursuing a doctoral degree in MFT be worth the time, energy, and money it takes to get all the way through it?

Obviously, it is a decision that needs to be made with careful consideration of individual circumstances. Not everyone will benefit the same way from getting a doctorate in MFT. And it is highly unlikely to be a good investment if you start a doctorate and do not finish it. But depending on what you want to do with your career, completing a doctoral program could be the best investment you ever make. Here are three reasons why.

  • You can do more with a doctoral degree than a masters. With a doctorate, you may be more likely to secure a university teaching position, either full-time or as an adjunct faculty. In clinic settings, MFTs with doctoral degrees may be more likely to be elevated to supervisory or program-director roles. For tasks that an MFT can do only with additional training, such as psychological testing (laws differ on this from state to state), doctoral programs may provide that training. Finally, depending on the specifics of your state and the type of doctorate you pursue (i.e., Psychology with an emphasis in family therapy versus simply MFT), you may be able to license as a Psychologist, which can offer a broader scope of practice.
     
  • You are likely to make significantly more money with a doctorate than with a masters degree. The gap in MFT salaries between those with masters degrees and those with doctorates in the field is growing significantly, at least in California. I’ve referenced this previously, but it is worth repeating:

    The incomes of MFTs at the masters level have been effectively flat since 2002, rising only from $47,851 to $50,689. This increase is less than what would be expected from inflation alone. Doctoral-level MFTs, however, have seen their incomes grow significantly – including in the current economic downturn. I’ve turned CAMFT’s data since 2004 into a graphic to show the difference:

    Since 2004, while masters-level MFTs have seen little to no increase in income from the profession, those with doctoral degrees have seen their annual incomes rise by almost $10,000, from $62,885 in 2004 to $72,165 in 2010. [See my cautionary notes about this data here.]

    This may be because MFTs with doctorates are performing different tasks and roles, as noted above, or it may be that MFTs with doctoral degrees are getting paid more even when in the same roles as colleagues with masters degrees. Here are two reasons why the latter is at least a possibility: (1) If you license as a psychologist (see above), insurers may reimburse you at a higher rate; (2) In private practice settings, regardless of your licensure, private-pay clients may be willing to pay you more because they see “PhD” or “PsyD” or “DMFT” after your name.
     

  • Better clinical understanding. When I began my doctoral program, it was not to make more money or to work my way into a teaching position. It was because I wanted to be a better therapist. There is no doubt in my mind that my doctoral program helped me to do just that. My understanding of theory, and ability to effectively apply it in session, both improved by leaps and bounds. Even if I had sought out a career specifically in private practice, I would have served my clients far more effectively with my doctorate than I would have with a masters. And that would have been enough for me to call it a good investment.

    Since then, a number of professional doors have opened to me as a result of the doctorate that would not have otherwise, and I’m thrilled that things have turned out the way they have! But even if they had not, I still would have been wise to get my PsyD.

Of course, as I said above, a doctoral degree is not for everyone. If what you want to do with your career is get into the mental health workforce, get licensed as quickly as possible, and focus on delivering effective clinical services, the clinical-skill benefits of the doctorate may or may not ultimately be worth the investment. On the other hand, if you have any interest in teaching or doing research, a doctorate will help you significantly. And if you have any other motivations to seek (or avoid) the doctorate, take them honestly into consideration. Only you can decide what is the best path for you.

Reference:
Riemersma, M. (2010). The typical California MFT: 2010 CAMFT member practice and demographic survey. The Therapist, 22(4), 28-36.

Insights from 5 1/2 years of California MFT license exam data: Part I

California’s 80-ish degree-granting MFT programs are hard to compare. While there are minimum curriculum standards every program must meet, each has its own personality, its own goals, and its own structure. For prospective students, it can be difficult to figure out which programs offer them the best chances of success in the field. There’s really only one common yardstick that every student, from every program, ultimately gets measured on: Licensing exams.

California’s Board of Behavioral Sciences routinely publishes licensing exam success rates for each program in the state, in six-month increments. The most recent data can be viewed on their web site for the Standard Written Exam and the Written Clinical Vignette Exam. However, the small sample sizes that result from using six-month intervals make meaningful comparison difficult; smaller programs are particularly prone to large swings in their graduates’ exam pass rates from one six-month period to the next.

I gathered the BBS data going all the way back to 2004 to see whether bigger sample sizes might allow for some more solid conclusions — or at least better-informed guesses — about how MFT programs around the state compare to one another.

Before we dive in, some pretty major caveats need to be put forward. (1) My student assistants and I did the best we could to cross-check and validate the data, but we cannot guarantee that we did a perfect job. You are cordially invited to check our work (details at the end of this post). (2) Lots of factors influence the exam pass rates of a particular school’s graduates, separate from the quality of education. There are the program’s choices about whom to admit; graduates’ experiences in supervision; decisions by students about whether to pursue MFT licensure; and on and on. So if a program’s graduates performed especially well or poorly, that does not necessarily mean that the program itself performs that way. (3) To whatever degree exam passing-or-failing does reflect on a program itself, it reflects on that program’s performance several years prior to the exam. When you’re looking at data going back to 2004, as we are here, we’re considering the impact of an education received as far back as around 2000, possibly even earlier. Programs change. (4) If you’re a prospective MFT student, exam pass rates are certainly not the only things to consider when choosing an MFT program. They can be useful to include in your decision-making, but please do not let them be a powerful factor.

Got all that? Great! With those cautionary notes in mind, let’s dive in. We’ll focus here on the first licensing exam, the Standard Written Exam.

I’ve had student assistants input and cross-check the data, and we’ve done some analysis using Excel and SPSS (now PASW, for statistical-software purists) programs. The data shows some clear trends.

  • There are big differences between programs. Don’t let anyone tell you that graduate programs are basically interchangeable. They may all be subject to the same MFT curriculum requirements, but some appear to be far more effective than others in preparing their students for the licensing exams. (Education is not the only influence on exam preparedness, of course, but this data does suggest that it is a meaningful one.)

    Note: Try as I might, I could not get the tables to display well inline here. So they’ve been shifted over to the MFTEducation.com server, where they display properly. -bc

    Table 1: Best and worst performing programs*, California MFT Standard Written Exam, 1/1/2004-6/30/2009 (Minimum 50 first-time examinees)

  • Accreditation matters. Graduates of COAMFTE-accredited programs were more successful on licensing exams than graduates of non-COAMFTE programs. While my own program at Alliant International University did better than the state average, much of the COAMFTE benefit seems to come from the strength of the University of San Diego. (I have a more detailed exploration of the link between program accreditation and licensing exam success in press at the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy.)

    Table 2: COAMFTE-accredited programs*, California MFT Standard Written Exam, 1/1/2004-6/30/2009
    * – Accredited as of 1/1/2004.

  • Size doesn’t matter. Graduates of smaller programs did no better or worse overall than graduates of bigger programs. And the biggest programs were not necessarily the best. Far from it, in fact. Graduates of National University, the state’s largest MFT program by number of examinees, performed well below state averages on the Standard Written Exam:

    Table 3: Most first-time examinees, California MFT Standard Written Exam, 1/1/2004-6/30/2009

These are only the beginning, of course. There is a lot to be gleaned from the available data, for programs and prospective students alike. I’ll be doing some additional posts with more comparisons here in the coming weeks to illustrate some more of the interesting (I hope!) things we found.

One big plus about working with BBS data is that it’s all public information. So I feel an obligation to make sure others can review it, call out any errors you find, and do additional research with it as you see fit. All of the information on which these tables were based is available now at www.MFTeducation.com. There you will find the BBS source documents that we put together, as well as a searchable database so you can compare your program with others around the state. Your comments and suggestions are always welcome; I hope this is a useful resource!

Coming in Part II: Comparing for-profit programs with not-for-profit.

AAMFT, AFTA, CAMFT, IFTA, and more: A primer on MFT associations

There are at least six major professional associations that cater to marriage and family therapists. Each of the organizations has great value, and each focuses its energy a bit differently, so it is useful to know about them to determine where you want to make professional connections and what activities you want your member dues to support. Of course, for each organization, there is not room here to cover all of their member benefits; I would strongly suggest following the links to each organization’s web site to learn more about what they have to offer.

Note: The logos here are, of course, the trademarks of their respective owners. Like the rest of this post, they’re there to be informational, and to connect you to the organizations’ sites; they are not meant to indicate that the organization endorses this blog, or vice versa.

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy is the national professional association for MFTs. It has led the successful push to get MFT licensure in all 50 states, and now is working in support of legislation that would add MFTs to Medicare and improve employability in schools. Strengths: AAMFT is particularly known for its successes in advancing the field through research, education, and training. These efforts include publishing the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy; publishing Family Therapy Magazine, which focuses each issue on a particular clinical or advocacy topic; putting on a large annual conference; supporting the AAMFT Approved Supervisor designation and related training; and accrediting graduate programs in MFT through its accrediting arm, COAMFTE. AAMFT also has divisions dedicated to more localized efforts in US states and Canadian provinces. (Full disclosure: I’m on a consulting contract with AAMFT, focused on California educational and policy issues.)

The American Family Therapy Academy is a smaller, invitation-only organization dedicated to advancing systemic thinking and systemically-oriented services for families. AFTA produces an Annual Conference and publishes a special-topics journal, the AFTA Monograph Series. Strengths: The depth and quality of discourse within the organization is strengthened by the invitation-only membership model. The organization’s strong commitment to systemic work is evident.

The International Family Therapy Association is dedicated to supporting the work of MFTs overseas and training practitioners around the world to deliver culturally-appropriate family-based services. IFTA publishes the Journal of Family Psychotherapy and sponsors the World Family Therapy Congress, an international conference of family therapy researchers and practitioners. Strengths: The Congress is well-renowned for its ability to bring together international leaders in the field who otherwise may never make personal contact. The organization’s focus on culturally-appropriate care is also important when applying treatments to different populations than those for whom the treatment was initially developed.

The California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists is an independent organization (that is, separate from AAMFT and its California Division) dedicated to supporting MFTs in the state. That by itself makes the organization one that is important to the profession overall, since about half the MFTs in the country, by licensure, live in California. CAMFT produces its own magazine, The Therapist, which focuses largely on legislation, employment, and compliance issues. CAMFT also puts on an annual conference. Strengths: CAMFT has historically focused its energy effectively on state-level legislation and advocacy, and on local connections through its 29 local CAMFT chapters throughout the state.

The International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors is a division of the American Counseling Association. ACA considers marriage and family therapy to be simply one of many forms of counseling, and accredits MFT programs as specialty counseling programs. IAMFC publishes its own journal, which CAMFT has recently begun distributing to its members as the two organizations seek additional ways to collaborate. Strengths: IAMFC is seeking to grow in scope and influence through collaborative efforts, including its collaboration with CAMFT and with the National Credentialing Academy.

The National Council on Family Relations is an interdisciplinary organization focused on research and policy as they relate to family life. NCFR administers the Certified Family Life Educator credential, publishes a number of journals including family-studies leader Family Relations, and puts on its own annual conference. Strengths: The CFLE credential crosses state lines, and the organization’s focus on applied research and public policy have made it a go-to source for practitioners and policymakers alike.

Each of these organizations has a lot to offer. Students in particular can benefit from them, as they each have remarkably low membership costs for those currently in school. Professional associations advance the field on many levels, improving the quality of our training, the effectiveness of our clinical practices, the employability of MFTs, reimbursement practices, and public policy. I encourage you to find the ones that will be most valuable to you, join them, and then invest your time and energy in them. Being just a number in an organization is fine and has benefits; being an active voice and an advocate for your profession is even better.

Recapping the 2010 AAMFT Annual Conference

There was a lot to talk about at the just-concluded 2010 AAMFT Annual Conference in Atlanta, where more than 1,700 clinicians and researchers from around the country gathered to share the latest ideas in treatment. This year’s theme was “Marriage: Social and Relational Perspectives,” and this year’s jump in conference attendance was well-deserved. Hitting some of the high points:

* For my money, Stephanie Coontz should be a keynote speaker every year. Last year, she talked about time-use studies and the changing face of American families. This year she gave a lively summation of her great book, Marriage: A history, putting modern marriage into a larger context. Next year’s theme will be “The science of relationships,” and I hope there’s a way to bring her into that, too. The woman could make the history of the paper bag engaging.

* The last plenary speaker, John Witte Jr., was not quite as advertised, but started great dinner-table conversation. He had promised a speech on “Marriage, Religion, and the Law,” which could have been wonderful — a more conservative counterpoint to the arguments others made in favor of same-sex marriage. Ultimately, he barely mentioned religion at all. Which was too bad — as I’ve argued before, there is a reasonable debate to be had about the role of religion in marriage (and specifically whether religious therapists should refer out same-sex couples they do not feel they can work with supportively). I really, really wish someone could put together a respectful dialogue on the topic. But for what it turned out to be, Witte’s speech was valuable. His proposals for legal-system remedies to the changes in family formation and dissolution in the US were far-fetched, but started some great conversations. We all want parents to be responsible for their choices, but how do you have a legal system that best balances supporting families in need with punishing those who are irresponsible? I loved the variety of ideas about that just at my own dinner table; I’m sure similar discussions were happening at plenty of others.

* We’re making great strides in the effective treatment of military veterans and their families. MFTs are ideally trained to help keep military marriages and relationships strong (or to end them more peacefully when necessary), and there was a whole track at the conference dedicated to just this kind of work. The timing could not have been better: finally, after years of struggle with the implementation process, the Department of Veterans affairs has a job description specifically for marriage and family therapists.

It’s always refreshing to renew old connections and make new ones at the conference, and I especially enjoyed the opportunity to present with some of my faculty colleagues from the Alliant MFT program. My heartfelt thanks to everyone who made the conference such a success. I can’t wait for next year!

VA posts MFT job description

Images from the first Gulf War. Visit www.va.gov for complete information.Images from the first Gulf War. www.va.gov

It’s been a long time coming, but the Department of Veterans Affairs has posted its job description for marriage and family therapists. According to that document, the category applies to “VA Medical Centers, Community-Based Outpatient Clinics (CBOCs), Vet Centers, Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN) offices, and [the] VHA Central Office.” The educational requirements demand that one graduated from a COAMFTE-accredited program; just one more reason accreditation matters. (If you’re wondering, the VA’s Professional Mental Health Counselor category requires a CACREP-accredited degree.)

For those of you familiar with VA hiring practices, MFTs now become part of the Title 38 Hybrid category, and entry-level MFTs will be brought in at salary grade GS-9. (While salaries vary by specific location, in California this is likely to mean starting salaries in the $50s/yr, judging by social worker positions at the same salary grade.) More experienced MFTs will be at GS-11 (mid- to upper-$60s and up), and supervisors at GS-12.

Keep an eye on www.aamft.org for additional information, and the VA’s job search site for new openings as they arise.

Great new books on modern marriage and divorce

Quick, true or false: Half or more of the couples getting married this year will eventually divorce. We hear that statistic over and over and over again. It’s wrong. The divorce rate has been in significant decline since the 1970s. By the tenth year of marriage, by which time we know that more than half of those who will ever divorce have already done so, only 16% of college-educated women who married in the 1990s had divorced. That represents a drop of almost a third since the 1970s; 23% of college-educated women married in that decade had divorced by the tenth year of marriage. (The trend runs parallel for those without a college education, whose divorce rates are consistently just a few points higher.)

Marriage is changing in the US — and in many ways for the better. The divorce rate is definitely declining. Young people are putting off marriage, for a variety of reasons (some of which are likely economic). And therapists’ knowledge of how to strengthen weak marriages grows stronger by the day. This research, on marriage itself as well as how to improve it, is the focus of Tara Parker-Pope’s excellent For Better. Parker-Pope, who writes the Well blog for the New York Times, condenses current family-studies and family-therapy data into a well-paced, eminently readable and optimistic portrait of modern American marriage. Simply put, the book is fascinating. Parker-Pope is certainly a gifted writer; she is able to accurately communicate the finer points of research with a light touch, never coming across as wonky or technical. She also includes a number of self-tests researchers have designed to assess marriages, which makes the book even more valuable on a therapist’s shelf.

For those couples who do divorce, they should know that modern divorce is changing, too. When Americans divorce, they are more likely than people anywhere else to remarry, and they tend to do so more quickly. Even those who do not marry are more likely to bounce from one relationship to another in the US, forming the framework for Andrew Cherlin’s book, The Marriage-Go-Round. Cherlin makes a compelling case that the US is different from the rest of the world in how we think about marriage and divorce. Even better, he offers a compelling explanation, rooted in our nation’s social and religious history. It too is a great read. (It also can be occasionally frustrating; Cherlin briefly dissects the half-of-all-marriages-end-in-divorce myth early in the book, only to repeatedly reinforce it later. Parker-Pope does a much more detailed job of demolishing that myth.)

Ultimately the two books are both worthwhile on their own, but they are even better in combination. For therapists wanting a comprehensive and digestible understanding of the choices Americans make in marriage, divorce and the spaces in between — and how we can improve those choices — read them both.

That infidelity-and-income study? Don’t believe it.

A recent study, presented at an American Sociological Association conference to a fawning media reception (NPR / Salon), tells us that men who make less than their wives or live-in girlfriends are five times more likely to cheat. It’s bogus. Here’s why.

While commentators have been stumbling over themselves to determine what the study’s findings mean about gender, marriage, and society, no one seems to be bothering to notice that the study itself appears pretty useless. The major conclusion, linking income and infidelity, has a number of problems, not the least of which is that everyone — myself included — who wasn’t at the conference is relying on a press release and subsequent media reports about it. Such reports are notoriously unreliable, often drawing ideas from generous and/or speculative interpretations of the results rather than the study itself. That said, here are three of the reasons I’m particularly skeptical:

  1. Do the math. The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, upon which the study is based, followed about 9,000 individuals — surely a healthy sample size. But the infidelity study examined only those who were married or with a live-in partner for more than a year, which is a much smaller subset. And of those, only seven percent of men and three percent of women actually fessed up to cheating during the study’s six-year period. So, let’s be generous and say that two-thirds of the NLSY group met the relationship-status criteria (n=6,000). And we’ll presume that roughly half are of each gender (3,000 men and 3,000 women). That leaves us with about 210 men who have fessed up to infidelity in this survey. Of those, it is not clear from the media reports how many were in situations where the male earned less than his partner; other recent research suggests about a third, or fewer than 80 of those reporting infidelity, were in such a relationship. And remember, we’re being generous because we do not have the actual numbers. To be sure, 210 male cheaters is still a decent sample, and it could be enough to draw meaningful conclusions about links between infidelity and income (among other factors). But it still is not a lot. In fact, it probably is a lot less than the number of participants in the survey who actually cheated. Remember…
     
    Updated 2010-08-20: LiveScience.com (which has more details on the methodology, and as an added bonus, commentary from Stephanie Coontz) is reporting that only 3.8 percent of men, and 1.4 percent of women, admitted to cheating in the study. That’s not exactly true; on average, 3.8 percent of men and 1.4 percent of women admitted to cheating in any given year of the six-year study, at least according to the press release.

  2. …People lie. A major income discrepancy in the relationship may be a good reason for men to simply be more honest about their cheating. Sure, you could argue, if the wife/girlfriend finds out then the gravy train ends. But if the man is in a relationship for the money, and not emotionally committed, why on earth would he lie to an anonymous survey about his cheating? There is little incentive to, and there is no cognitive dissonance to resolve over telling the truth. On the other hand, if he is emotionally engaged, and is in the relationship for reasons other than money, he may find it safer (and more palatable) to hide any previous infidelity. If all that sounds awfully speculative, well, that’s the point. People lie on studies like this, and we do not always know who will be most likely to lie or why. Yet commenters (and, too often, the researchers themselves, as seems to be the case here) treat the findings as truth in spite of their huge flaws, and then seek to divine an explanation.

  3. Account for other factors, like age, education, and religion, and the income-infidelity link vanishes. That inconvenient fact is actually in the press release, but of course, no one is paying attention to it. Does earning more than your man make him more likely to cheat? the chatterers are asking. In a word, no — the income issue appears to (at best, and even this has big holes) correlate with, but not be a cause for, cheating.

The trouble with any study of undesirable behavior that relies on self-reports is that it is impossible to know what we’re really studying — the behavior itself, or the act of reporting it. Only a more carefully (and expensively) constructed study could parse that out. In the meantime, move on. Nothing new to see here.