Becoming a Couples Counselor in Midlife: Liz’s Story
With her kids leaving the nest, Liz realized she’d need something new to fuel her, staving off potential boredom and creating a new professional identity in the process. She’s done just that in her new profession, where she enjoys collaborating with couples to help make their relationships as strong as they can be.
Tell us a little about your background…
I was raised in the south suburbs of Chicago (Country Club Hills and Frankfort), the second of five kids. My father was an electrician and my mother was a 3rd-grade teacher. In her own second act, my mom got her master’s degree and became a principal and assistant superintendent. Interestingly, my mom and I went back for our higher degrees about the same time in our lives and I now drive a car the same color my mom drove at the time. I totaled that car of my mom’s, so I’m hoping that’s where the comparison ends!
My parents weren’t a good match; they divorced when I was 18. It’s very openly acknowledged in the counseling community that most people enter the psychotherapy field because they (at least subconsciously) are seeking healing or knowledge about human relationships. Maybe it’s no surprise that I’m working as a couples counselor right now; I’m learning a lot that I wasn’t able to learn from my parents!
I attended DePaul University to study classical voice performance and after graduation, I made some money in the music world: singer/dancer on the Great America main stage, summer stock theater, and productions with Light Opera Works. I also delivered singing telegrams for two companies; that was a trip, driving from town to town before the GPS came along (sometimes for miles in the snow!). Music jobs didn’t pay enough to cover my bills, so I worked secretarial jobs during the day and rehearsed/performed at night.
One of my secretarial jobs was in an all-women real estate office in Old Town (Beliard, Gordon). It was very empowering to see all those independent, cultured women making good money – and they made their own schedules, which was very appealing to me. I was tired of working day and night, and I didn’t really have the passion (or talent, probably) to make music my life. At age 25 I got my license and began selling real estate for Beliard, Gordon. It was hard to change roles in the same office and the licensing process really didn’t teach me how to do the job; I was nervous—my eye twitched for the first couple of months! My favorite part of being a realtor was hearing my clients’ life stories as I drove them around. I also got to look in everyone’s closets. In those ways, it was a natural precursor to my current job.
I sold real estate for a few years until I got married, after which I quit my job to gut our house and raise our family; I had always wished my mom was more available to me, and I wanted to be available for our kids. I’m glad I made that decision and I loved the independence being a housewife afforded, but staying home was dull for me: I always had some little project going on the side like selling Pampered Chef, singing weddings, serving on PTO or church committees (where I actually learned quite a bit about business).
When did you start to think about making a change?
I was about 47 when I seriously started thinking about my second act. We have three kids who are now 27 (Jackson), 25 (Casey), and 20 (JoJo). They’re really good people and I’m so proud of them! As they left for college and needed me less, I started thinking about my next act. The void that I knew was coming made me uncomfortable: I feared boredom (I knew that housekeeping and socializing alone wouldn’t make me happy, and I was tired of volunteering). I also felt an urge to have a professional identity and hated the idea that I couldn’t support myself well if I ever needed to (that didn’t fit my self-image).
I wanted a career that had a lot of meaning, afforded me independence, was conducive to part-time work, and would welcome someone my age. This list makes me sound very rational, but my final decision was emotional too (I’ve learned since that we actually can’t make good decisions without the use of our emotions).
I decided to do some career exploration by taking classes at Oakton Community College. My plan was to take starter classes in several fields to see what I liked and broaden my education. I started with macroeconomics for two reasons: 1) I was tired of being economically illiterate and felt it was somewhat of a civic responsibility as a voting citizen to understand economics; and 2) my son was taking it and I thought it would be fun. It wasn’t. Of course, it was fun being a student with Jackson, but economics was a language I had to work very hard to learn (we both got A’s—the same exact score in fact—but I had to study so much harder than he did!).
One day when driving home from class, I expressed the opinion that everyone must like psychology classes better than macro, and Jackson, who was double-majoring in economics and psychology, said, “No, Mom. They don’t”. It’s embarrassing now to think that I actually believed everyone else would have an affinity for the same subjects that I did, but it was a pivotal moment for me: I realized that my struggle with econ was information that I should use to guide my career exploration. I signed up for Psych 101 the next semester and felt very at home and engaged. After taking Abnormal Psychology the next semester, I felt even more confident that I was in the right “career zip code” for me.
Another pivotal moment came when Dr. Sara Schwarzbaum, who was running the Northeastern Illinois University informational meeting for prospective grad students, told us that many people get counseling degrees for personal growth reasons, never intending to practice; this was a huge relief to me because I was worried about taking a spot in the program and deciding later that I didn’t really want to work after all (it had been 20 years since I had worked and I wasn’t sure I would like it!). Having my ambivalence accepted freed me to proceed.
Several other people provided encouragement at pivotal moments—this encouragement always helped me to take the next step. Lail Herman, an older friend at church who became a psychotherapist for her own second act, encouraged me and served as a role model when I was considering grad school. A couple of professors also broadened my thinking, dismissing my concerns about being too old. “Why not?” was the message they gave me, and it meant a lot. I learned from these mentors that I didn’t have to be sure of the outcome… I just needed to start on the journey and stop throwing roadblocks in my own path!
I went to Northeastern Illinois University (and only applied there) for a few reasons: 1) they offered a marriage and family concentration; 2) they were CACREP accredited; 3) they were inexpensive; and 4) they were reasonably close. Northwestern University is also close and has a family program but their program is full-time, which would have been too intense for me while raising a family. They are also quite expensive and investing that much money at my age didn’t seem prudent. Other options I looked into were: Adler University and Chicago School of Professional Psychology.
What is your next act?
I am a marriage and family therapist working at Couples Counseling Associates on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. The practice is owned by Dr. Schwarzbaum (mentioned above; the head of the marriage and family counseling program I was in), who offered me an internship, and then a position. Most of my clients are couples, but I also see people individually. Couples come in for many different reasons: premarital counseling, to better their distressed relationship, to prepare for the changes a baby will bring, or for help in learning to co-parent even though they are not together anymore.
I really love couples counseling! I have been leading small groups since childhood—I produced and directed a musical version of Hansel & Gretel when I was in junior high; we performed it for the community, complete with painted sets—so working with couples is a similar dynamic. It’s very independent work, which also suits me, but it isn’t lonely. There’s a connection that happens between me and the clients, and between the couples themselves, that feels very spiritual. There is a lot of teaching involved in this job, and I do have teaching in my blood! I enjoy the teaching component and the fact that I can be as creative as I want in conveying the information. Working to guide people in learning how to best love each other is very rewarding. Even if couples decide to split, I feel I have done them a service by creating the space in which they can safely have difficult discussions.
Another thing I like about the job is the growth component. I am constantly being challenged to grow as a professional and a person. The nature of the job demands this, and the state also mandates continuing education to maintain a counseling license. I do a lot of extra, non-mandated professional education though, because learning and being good at my job is very important to me.
Why did you choose this next act?
As part of my master’s, I took a career counseling class, which required me to do many tests/exercises that are used with clients who have career concerns. One of the exercises was to research other careers we might be interested in. I researched several careers that were highlighted as a result of the tests: sign language interpreter, adult literacy teacher, and divorce mediator—as well as couples counselor. I did this with an open mind, and it ended up affirming my decision to be a counselor.
I considered being a career counselor since I ran a couple of career counseling groups and loved doing it, but my current opportunity presented itself, and it’s a good fit for me.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
I don’t think I actually took the plunge: my process was more like entering a lake from the shore than diving into a pool, and I had my toe in the water testing the temperature for a couple of years. I kept managing the expectations of myself, my family and friends, warning them that I might not want to work after all—but that the investment would be worth it even if I didn’t work because I would be a better person and family member (which is true).
By way of preparation, I reduced my volunteer commitments and created an academic schedule designed to minimize stress: I didn’t want my studies to interfere with my physical or emotional availability as a parent/spouse. I asked people about the stressors involved in my grad school program and mapped out a path in which I took 1-2 classes at a time with summers off when possible. This meant that it would take me 5 years to get my masters. I timed it so that my year-long internship would happen when our youngest child was a freshman in college; I’m so glad I did that because the internship year was very emotionally difficult and I would not have had much energy for my kids had they been home. A bonus was that our newly-quiet house didn’t make me sad because I was drained when I got home.
I knew people in my program who had full-time jobs and young kids at home—they did the program in three years. They coped by prioritizing their non-school commitments and lowering their academic standards. I respect that choice, but it wouldn’t have worked well for me; it would have been more stressful for me not to be able to give my studies my all (and I wasn’t in a rush), so I created a plan that reflected my particular needs.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My immediate family was incredible—especially my husband, who was very excited for me and said that I was a much more interesting person as a result of my journey. I was in college and job-hunting at the same time as my oldest son, and the parallels in our lives gave us a wonderful point of connection. I studied with my younger kids sometimes, and one of them later used my old note cards for Psych 101. They all told me they were proud of me. I did have to let them know how important the graduation ceremony was to me and insist they come; they didn’t place much importance on their own graduation ceremonies and wouldn’t have known that I needed them there if I hadn’t told them.
My extended family and friends were mostly very supportive, but there were times I felt judged and misunderstood. Some didn’t understand why I would want to have a second act since it added chaos to my life and I didn’t need to go back to work for financial reasons. My mom was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer when I was taking a class at Oakton and some didn’t understand why I didn’t drop the class: they didn’t understand the therapeutic value it held for me.
What challenges did you encounter?
I had to take the GRE as part of my application for grad school, and I hadn’t had any math for about 30 years! I bought a GRE prep book and re-taught myself math concepts (I found out after the fact that for my program very basic competence was good enough).
I still knew how to study well, but the incorporation of technology into education was really new to me: I didn’t know how to research online or use online tools to communicate with fellow students and teachers. The first time I had a timed online final, I forgot to note my start time and I was wigging out; I was afraid I wouldn’t submit my answers in time and get a zero!
Internship year was rough! I didn’t get chosen for the first two that I interviewed for and that was an ego blow (but I did learn from what I did wrong). I ended up with two internships, which meant learning two systems—and the personalities and technologies that went with them. In addition, there wasn’t anyone designated to answer my questions. This ended up being much more challenging than the actual counseling work. It was also a rough year because I don’t like feeling less than competent—and of course, that’s how you feel when you start something new.
Although my husband never complained, it stressed me out not to be able to keep up with my domestic commitments: My house was dirty and I wasn’t cooking much. We ended up hiring someone to clean (a surprising solution arrived at as a result of a career counseling exercise!) but we are still struggling to figure out how to best deal with feeding ourselves.
Another hard thing was that I was too busy to maintain my friendships well while I was in school.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
Yes, and it surprised me! I never thought of myself as someone who would consider giving up, but it happened, and it gave me much more compassion for others who consider quitting things. It happened late in my master’s program while taking a research class. It was a notoriously difficult class, and I was struggling with it. I was also struggling with life balance, and generally tired of schoolwork always hanging over my head. My husband really encouraged me to not quit; he said I’d be disappointed in myself (which was true). I suspected he would have been disappointed in me too, which also motivated me to push through my discomfort.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
One of the goals of counselor training is to understand yourself. In order to help others, you need to be aware of your own values, biases, and triggers (the awareness helps keep you from projecting them onto your clients). I was asked to write about my genealogy, life journey, relationships, and struggles—and to connect them all to material presented in classes. I understand myself much better now, and that understanding has also led to more self-acceptance.
I learned that I’ve had a relatively easy life with little intercultural interaction (that has changed). I learned that I’m more impulsive than I used to think I was, and that I need to consider others’ points of view more. I learned that I often take on too much responsibility for outcomes. I think I am a little humbler because some parts of the process were—and continue to be—humbling.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I am happy with my path; my “mistakes” were minimal and I needed them to learn. Part of me does wish that I began my second act sooner. What I learned would have really helped me with raising kids and made me a better partner to my husband. I would also be further along in my career, with time to really become a master before I retire. On the other hand, it’s hard to have regrets since things are turning out well so far.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Get some career counseling, especially if you aren’t sure what you want to do! I was really surprised at how much the career counseling class I took helped clarify my goals. You can usually access free/reduced individual career counseling at your college alma mater or at the community college your taxes go to. Colleges often have classes you can take that serve the same purpose. Sometimes good libraries have career centers that can be helpful. Or find an individual counselor who enjoys doing career counseling.
If you have been a homemaker, I would recommend recruiting help with your domestic duties—whether it’s your family or outside help.
What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing a counseling degree?
Before I went back to school, someone advised me to get a social work degree instead of a counseling degree. I ignored this advice and luckily things turned out well for me. I would consider a social work degree if I was doing things over: counselors and social workers have similar training, but social workers—and their lobbyists—have been around longer. This means that they are more recognized by governmental bodies and it’s easier to get a job as a social worker. The VA is now technically hiring counselors, but change happens slowly in government, so counselors are not well represented in the VA in spite of excellent qualifications.
If you definitely need a job, consider growing fields: alcohol and drug counselors and rehab counselors (helping those with disabilities) are in higher demand than those with general mental health degrees.
What is the difference in training and outcome for an MSW for Counseling degree vs. PsyD vs. Ph.D. in psychology vs. masters in psychology?
This is an excellent question, and you could write a whole blog just on this subject. I’m afraid to say too much about this since I haven’t thoroughly investigated the paths of the other degrees, but here’s what I believe to be true:
There is a difference between a counselor and a Licensed Professional Counselor. I’m a Licensed Professional Counselor, which means that I have graduated from a master’s program, and met state requirements to be licensed in Illinois (often a national exam, among other things). I think (though I’m not sure) that anyone can call themselves a “counselor” without meeting standards.
A social worker (MSW), Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC or LCPC), psychologist, PsyD, Marriage and Family Therapist (AMFT or LMFT) and psychiatrist overlap in that they are all trained to do psychotherapy (talk therapy). Although what they do seems to be merging, they come from different traditions, so the training may have different emphases, i.e. psychologists have more emphasis on research and psychological testing than counselors.
There are slight variations in what each profession is legally allowed to do. Psychologists can do a few types of testing that counselors aren’t allowed to do. When organizations look for administrative jobs, I notice they are looking for social workers; I’m not sure if this is because of tradition, or if social workers have training in doing administrative work.
I believe you need a doctorate to teach at the college level; I’m not sure if you need one to teach at a community college.
What resources do you recommend for those interested in a counseling career?
Community college courses can help you discern if you like the counseling subject matter. I’d recommend Psych 101 and Abnormal Psych.
Oakton Community College in Skokie, IL offers a CADC program, which trains drug and alcohol counselors. As of now, you only need an associate’s degree to do this work, but I’ve heard that they may soon require a bachelor’s degree. Taking a couple of those classes might be helpful for career exploration.
Northeastern Illinois University allows people to take the first class in the counseling master’s program without being admitted to the program. It’s a very general class, and it would give anyone considering entering the profession a good feel for it. You would be paying for a college course, but NEIU is relatively inexpensive as colleges go. Learn more here.
Volunteering is a great career exploration tool, but because of confidentiality issues and the need for training, there are few substantive volunteer positions available in the counseling field. Here are a few that could help you a) figure out if you are able to be with people in crisis; b) narrow which area of mental health you think is a good fit; and c) build your resume, should you decide to get into the mental health care field. These opportunities deal with very heavy issues; if they don’t end up being your thing, remember that there are less intense areas of counseling you could enter!
Midwest Palliative and Hospice Care Centers provide free 2-day volunteer training, with no obligation to become a volunteer. If you decide to volunteer, being a Care Companion & Vigil Volunteer allows you invaluable experience with death, grief, and chronic health issues.
Lake County Crisis Center has a 40-hour self-paced online training for those interested in becoming advocates for victims of physical or sexual abuse. There’s no obligation to volunteer after the training, but if you’d like to volunteer you would be qualified to take crisis calls or accompany victims to the emergency room. I believe organizations like this exist in every county.
Suicide hotlines also train non-degreed people to man hotlines, etc.
Youth Service of Glenview/Northbrook has volunteer opportunities that allow some client contact.
To learn about careers in psychology and counseling:
The American Counseling Association has information about counseling careers that might be helpful.
The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy website will help couples find a therapist, as well as guide therapists/aspiring therapists in choosing a master’s program and/or furthering their career.
On Being a Therapist by Jeffery Kotler.
What are your favorite resources for couples?
The Gottman Institute has a wealth of information including lists of therapists trained in Gottman method as well as information and resources for couples.
- How to Make Relationships Work: an entertaining video featuring John Gottman, who explains what he learned from studying couples for 30 years. You learn what separates the “masters” from the “disasters” in couple relationships. You can buy or stream it.
- The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert Similar content to the video (above), but in book form. The nice thing about buying the book vs. a video is that there are quizzes you can take to assess how your relationship is doing.
- The Marriage Minute. Sign up to receive FREE emails twice a week with advice about creating and maintaining a successful relationship. The email takes less than a minute to read and consists of content from their research on couples.
- And Baby Makes Three: The Six-Step Plan for Preserving Marital Intimacy and Rekindling Romance After Baby Arrives by John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman is designed to help couples mitigate the negative effects a child usually has on a couple relationship. It has very concrete communication exercises in it too.
Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Lifeby Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. An easy-to-read book about female sexuality, and how to deal with sexual desire discrepancy in couples. Everyone should read this, both men and women, since it dispels a lot of myths. I learned a lot!
Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Changeby Foote, Wilkins, Kosanke & Higgs. Written for people who love someone with an addiction issue, it advocates for an approach that is different from the “tough love” approach many have been taught.
After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful, 2nd Editionby Janis Abrams Spring is a good book for couples dealing with the aftermath of an affair. Not Just Friends by Shirley Glass, Ph.D. is another good book on this subject.
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
I’m open to it, but I doubt I’ll have a next act (other than grandma/world traveler!), but I’m open to it.
I am continuing to rewrite my current act. This year, I completed Level 3 Practicum Training in Gottman Method Couples Therapy. John and Julie Gottman are premiere couple researchers/therapists and have developed a couples counseling method based on their research findings and clinical work (they studied what happy couples do that unhappy couples don’t do). I’ve found their training extremely useful. I may continue with their training and become a Certified Gottman Therapist. There’s another training method I am considering as well. It’s very important to me to work towards mastering my craft.
Another thing I’ve considered is leading workshops on certain subjects. I believe there’s a need for preventive care at transitional points in couples’ lives, particularly when they get engaged or are starting a family. Couple satisfaction drops dramatically when a baby arrives, and wedding planning often leads to conflict in families. Societal roles are changing, and there are no longer hard rules about who does what when planning a wedding or caring for kids; this means that much more communication of expectations/needs/dreams is necessary to avoid conflict. My script re-write may include running groups in which I raise awareness of common pitfalls during these transitional times and facilitate communication about them.
I’m a little worried that my husband’s retirement plans will clash with my second act: he dreams of golfing year-round when he retires, which isn’t possible in Chicago. What if he wants to move or become a snowbird, but I’m still loving my work here? I’ve decided to cross that bridge if we come to it.
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