Updated: May 22
When you are looking for a marriage counselor, it can feel like sifting through many similar but ever so slightly different blurbs. How do you know who is right for you? To help you in your search for the right couples therapist, here are four questions you can ask as you navigate websites and consultation calls.
1. Is the therapist a good fit for me and my partner?
No matter what kind of therapist you see, you won’t be comfortable unless they feel like a match. Some clients prefer a therapist with a calm, soothing presence, while others feel more comfortable with someone who has a relaxed, informal style. In the psychology world, the connection you feel with your therapist is called the therapeutic alliance. The alliance between therapist and a couple doesn’t just help you feel comfortable - it actually helps you make progress in therapy. So finding the right match as a couple really matters, and can be tricky since you and your partner may have different preferences and personalities.
2. Does the therapist practice a type of marriage counseling that works for couples like us?
Different therapies exist to help couples in different contexts and with different problems. It’s important to find the right therapy that’s shown to work well with your kind of relationship. I work primarily with very unhappy couples who have a lot of intense conflict. Therapies that work well for couples who are in a more stable place do not always help couples who are really really struggling. Because messy marriages are my specialty, I use Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy (IBCT), which has been shown to help couples exactly like my clients, those who are hurting badly, feel very ambivalent about the relationship, and wonder whether there is a path forward for them.
3. Is the therapist thoroughly trained in the type of therapy they are offering?
I suggest asking how a therapist learned the type of therapy they provide. Although reading books and attending workshops are common sources of knowledge for therapists, the gold-standard type of training involves being observed, either live or via video or audio tape while doing a specific type of therapy (like marriage counseling) and receiving constructive feedback via supervision or consultation specific to that therapy for several months or more. It is always okay to ask a potential therapist about their qualifications and to follow up if their answers are vague. Also, look for therapists who are fully licensed in their field (i.e., licensed psychologist, licensed marriage and family therapist, licensed professional clinical counselor).
4. Does the therapist actually practice the therapy they were trained in?
In the therapy research world, fidelity means the extent to which a therapist is actually doing a given treatment versus winging it, going by intuition, or making things up as they go. As a therapist, instinct matters - mine has often told me when to pause, when to dig deeper, and when something might be going on below the surface. But beyond instinct, therapists should be operating from a clear conceptual framework, doing a specific therapy with purpose. A therapist might be trained in a therapy, but that doesn’t necessarily help you much if they aren’t actually using that therapy in session with you.
Couples come to therapy because even if things are bad, they hold some hope that their relationship problems can improve. Although the process can be daunting, picking a therapist doesn’t have to be a leap of faith. I hope these tips empower you to ask more specific questions of your prospective therapist to ensure they are qualified and the right fit for you.