Thomas trains future generations of couple, family therapists

Thomas trains future generations of couple, family therapists

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UI doctoral program only one in Iowa

Volker Thomas does more than dispense advice for couples and families to ease stress during the holidays. As an associate professor and director of the Couple and Family Therapy Program in the University of Iowa College of Education, he advises doctoral students and helps develop community partnerships as director of the Couple and Family Therapy Program.

Volker Thomas
Volker Thomas

In this story, Thomas shares how he first became interested in the field and what drew him to the United States from his native Germany to eventually help lead the program, currently the only one of its kind in the state of Iowa.

[Related: Surviving the holidays: Professor shares advice for couples, families to ease tensions]

Tell me a little bit about the Couple and Family Therapy Program.

The program is in its third year. I was originally here at UI 20 years ago, from 1990 to 1993, hired to start this program then but it didn't work out at that time. I went to Purdue in 1993, which had the No. 1 program in the country and so I was there for 18 years until they closed their program.

There were still two faculty in the department at Iowa from when I was originally here, Dennis Maki and Vilia Tarvydas. Vilia called me up and asked if we had any former students, mid-career persons willing to come to Iowa and start the program. My wife was in transition professionally as well and so we decided to come back to Iowa City. The plan was to have the program fully established within five years with three tenure track faculty positions and four doctoral students per year. And the way it's working out now, after three years, we're going to be fully staffed, and then we can go up for accreditations. The goal is to make it one of the top programs in the country.

There are currently eight students in the doctoral program, with the goal of admitting four new students each year for an average of 20 to 25 students in the program at any given point in time.We admit only students who have a master's degree from an accredited program so that we don't have to provide the basic clinical training. They come here as well-trained clinicians, and our focus is on research training for four years.

Can you tell me a little bit more about the program, and why is there a need?

The profession is called Marriage and Family Therapy, and the main professional organization is the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. But more and more programs have come to the conclusion that there is more to couple relationships than marriage. There are lots of couples who are not able to, not allowed to, or not willing to marry, but they're around and they also seek our services. So to be more inclusive, many programs now in our field have changed their names to Couple and Family Therapy to indicate its inclusivity of the wide range and diversity of relationships.

"It’s important for people to realize that there is tension in all families, even the healthiest and happiest of families, and that’s normal. It’s how people deal with those tensions that can make a difference."
—Volker Thomas

There is a need because families have become a big issue politically—especially saving marriage since there was a perception that marriage as an institution was not only declining but falling apart, which isn't accurate at all, because there is pretty good research indicating otherwise. For a while, the divorce rates were quite high. However, they have declined quite a bit since peaking in the 1990s.

What is your vision for the program and why is it important to have such a program?

My vision is to develop a program that is mainly focused on social justice issues so inclusion is a big thing. We need a program that trains the future of our family therapists in the state, and if you don't have any accredited programs, then there's nobody moving up into filling these important positions. Members of the association are getting older and will be retiring and we need to keep the pipeline flowing so we don't experience a shortage.

How are students in the program making a difference?

They are already trained clinicians, and the way the program is designed is that all of our research is done in intervention projects, which means they have a component where we provide a service to clients, to couples and families, through specialty clinics, and then we research the effectiveness of the services.

If we can provide evidence that the intervention works well, then it can be expanded to other couples and families in other clinics and agencies and that will make a difference to Iowans. We prefer to do our research in actual clinics and agencies rather than doing it in a lab at the university. This spring well be starting a multi-family group intervention in the Iowa City Community School District called FAST, or Families and Schools Together, with kids who are identified as being at risk in terms of their achievement, behavior, and emotional state. We'll do this project in collaboration with the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County.

We have an LGBTQ Clinic in collaboration with UI Hospital and Clinics, where they provide the basic medical services for this community, and we particularly work with the trans clients. We also collaborate with Tanager Place in Cedar Rapids, where we train play therapists to coach parents of at-risk children in a special play intervention. Furthermore, we have a family therapy component at the UI’s Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, where we work with families who have a child that is twice-exceptional, both gifted and talented and with a learning or cognitive disability. We also collaborate with the Iowa City VA Medical Center, working with individuals and couples who are veterans.

How are families changing and what changes have you seen in your field over the years?

When family therapy developed as a field in the 1940s and 50s, the vast majority of families were moms and dads married for the first time with 2.2 kids. Dad would be the sole breadwinner, and mom would be at home raising the kids. That was the predominant form of family.

These days, that family form is about 16 percent of all families from almost 80 percent in the1950s. The majority of families are now couples who are remarried and then there are up to three categories of children—my children, your children, our children with all variations. It's a quite complex arrangement of families these days. Almost 60 percent of all families are this type. There are also more LGBT-headed families, most of whom were very quiet about their existence and in the closet until about 10 to 15 years ago, but now that marriage rights have become such a big issue, many people have discovered there are a lot of same-sex families around. It's become much more open, and we now know that same-sex families have the same level of functioning and problems as heterosexual families. They are not any different.

How did you first get interested in the field of family and couple therapy?

I was first trained as a clinical social worker in psychoanalytically oriented individual psychotherapy in Germany. As my career progressed I realized that the family context of clients was crucial and needed to be directly addressed. Because the United States was much further advanced in the practice of family therapy I came to the University of Minnesota on a 12-month Fulbright grant to get trained in family therapy. That was in 1982 and the rest is history.

Do families and couples have more stress now than in the past or how is that changing?

Stressors have been around at any time. There are developmental stressors—the stressors that every family goes through, when couples have kids, and dealing with adolescence, the empty nest syndrome, anything that is expected as a normal part of life—and then there are situational stressors and those have changed. In the last 30 years, with the way the economy developed, it forced a lot of women to go into the workforce to keep their family's standard of living. Many of these dual earner families have experienced increased stress. Situational stressors are also things like losing a job, the premature death of a child, or being diagnosed with cancer or another severe illness

The other aspect, which is also part economic pressure, is there are more single-parent families, 90 percent of these single parents are females who don't make enough money to raise their families. Those are situational stressors that have changed quite a bit. And the divide between rich and poor has gotten much, much wider in the last 30 years.

There's this buzzword of multi-tasking because there's so much stimulation that we get and so much information that can be processed due to technology, that I think our brains can't keep up with it, and that leads to stress and for a lot of people feeling overwhelmed. It also leads to social isolation for some, though for others it leads to social opportunities.


Volker Thomas, College of Education Couple and Family Therapy Program, 319-335-5288
Lois J. Gray, University Communication and Marketing, 319-384-0077


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