Practically every week, I receive emails from couples who have spent 16+ months in therapy. So I ask…
- How has your relationship improved?
- What skills did you learn to build a stronger friendship or manage conflict in healthy ways?
- Do you feel you address the core issues that create disconnection?
The response: “Well… it was a lot of venting…and things haven’t changed.”
Even worse, therapists who do not have professional couples therapy training often open their doors to couples.1
“Therapists who advertise as couple therapists may only be trained in individual therapy, which differs dramatically from couple therapy.”
– Hawkins, Fackrell, & Harris, Should I Try to Work it Out?
Sometimes this is why I hear from couples who have seen 4-5 therapists with little to no changes, or no clarity on why they have stayed stuck such as lack of commitment, unwilling to take ownership of problematic behavior, among other things.
For this reason, I want to offer you a few quick tips to help you find a competent and effective couples therapist who can support you in transforming your relationship challenges into material to build a stronger and more meaningful bond.
4 Tips to Find a Competent Couples Therapist
Below are tips on finding and choosing a counselor or therapist who can support you and your partner.
Step 1: Search for Therapists with Specialized Training in Couples Therapy
Make sure the type of therapist you see (psychologist, marriage and family therapists, professional counselor, social worker, or pastoral counselor) is licensed in your state and has specific training and supervision in couples therapy approaches. Not all therapists have this training. Furthermore, not all therapists who do get the couples therapy training receive supervision from certified therapists of that method to ensure they are applying the techniques and interventions in ways that can lead to changes for the client’s relationship.
Some of the more popular approaches with professional training and supervision that I know include:*
*Note, to find a therapist with this approach, click the link on that approach above
Additional places to search for couples therapists include: American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, Psychology Today, and Marriage Friendly Therapists.
It’s also important to seek out therapists who align with the way relationships work for you without you having to teach your therapist terminology. For inclusive therapists in the United States who have specific training on sexuality, nonmonogamy, and kink/BDSM, as well as gender identity/expression, look for therapists who are also certified sex therapists of the American Association of Sexuality, Educators, Counselors, and Therapists as those therapists undergo specialized training for working with erotically marginalized clients.
If you’re comfortable with it, another way to find a good therapist is to ask friends or co-workers who have had a good couples therapists if they could make a recommendation.
During this step, you may also want to explore how to pay for therapy. It’s worth noting that a more expensive therapist does not always mean you will receive better therapy or faster improvements.2 While therapy is expensive, if it helps save and repair your marriage, it will be less expensive than a divorce in the long-run.
For additional cost-saving ideas, check your insurance or with your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Additionally, some therapists have sliding fees for lower income couples, and universities have couples therapy training programs that offer therapists-in-training with quality supervision at affordable rates. For a list of accredited universities to reach out to, go here.
Step 2: Interview Potential Therapists During the First Session or On The Phone
Now that you’ve found some possible therapists to work with, I would recommend getting to know them to make sure they are a good fit for you and you are a good fit for them. Here are some questions you can ask:
- Did you receive formal education and supervised training in couples therapy?
- What percentage of your work is with couples? Note: Those who specialize in couples therapy may have greater experience working with couples.
- What is your opinion about divorce? Do you ever recommend divorce? What occurred with past clients that lead you to come to that recommendation? In the absence of abuse or danger, will you support the possibility that we can salvage our marriage/relationship? Note: You want a therapist who is going to align with what you want as a client for your relationship with the exception of a partner who is unwilling to be remorseful and change when it comes to affairs, addictions, and abuse.
- What percentage of couples you’ve worked with have seen improvement as a result of therapy with you?
- What do you believe makes a relationship successful? How do you know change has occurred for a relationship that was not doing so well before therapy? Note: Your therapist’s belief systems will influence therapy. Effective couples therapy helps both partners truly understand one another and offers a plan, as well as tools, the couple can use for fostering a stable connection between partners. If the therapist only focuses on changing what you should do such as date night, without also exploring what has got in the way from this occurring prior to therapy, the positive changes may not last.
- If you are seeking help with nonmonogamy, diverse expressions of sexuality, BDSM, and/or gender identity, it would be helpful to check your therapist’s viewpoints on this topic as well as their level of experience. What are your views on [insert what applies to you]?
- What does working with you look like? Note: Ask about the structure of sessions, the length of sessions, how long the assessment process is, how the end of treatment is decided, and if there is follow-up. You want a therapist who has a clear plan of action and follows through on that plan. For example, Gottman trained therapists tend to structure sessions around specific levels of the Sound Relationship House with the aim of improving the strength and stability of the house as a whole. Sessions are typically 90-minutes and some therapists do marathon sessions that are six plus hours a day as offered in the Love Lab. At the end of treatment, the therapist checks-in for up to two years to ensure the changes made during treatment are lasting and if there are any tiny tweaks needed to ensure things stay in a stable place.
Step 3: Couples who Stick with Therapy, Improve
If the above steps are met with your therapist, I would encourage you to avoid dropping out early. Research shows that couples who stick with therapy show the most improvements long-term.3
Experienced and effective couples therapists know that there is a difference between improvements from addressing surface issues and the lasting improvements that come from addressing the root problems. It’s possible that within the first handful of sessions, you may see significant improvements. With this in mind, consider committing to eight to ten sessions before evaluating whether therapy is working. This way you are ensuring both the surface issues and the deeper issues are being touched on.
Step 4: Remember, This is Your Therapy and Your Relationship
One of the hardest things for me as a client in therapy was to be honest with my therapist about what I found helpful and what I did not. Or expressing that my therapist completely misunderstood me. In those moments, a part of me really wanted to shut down and then terminate therapy before the next session.
Instead, I tolerated my anxiety and discomfort and shared that I felt misunderstood. And I opened up about what I didn’t like.
Good therapists understand that what works for one couple may not work for another and if you share with them what works vs. doesn’t work for you, they can then adjust how they work with you and your relationship.
If you feel misunderstood, I would encourage you to share that as that will help your therapists understand you better.
Maybe that is part of your work in therapy, to be more assertive about what you need, rather than quietly hold it in. Which ultimately will translate to your romantic relationship. And if this is still a struggle for you, don’t be afraid to send your therapist an email sharing what you’re having a tough time with. Your couples therapist is there to help you and they need your input to make therapy effective for you.
At times therapy will feel difficult. It may feel like you are facing a lot of resistance and keep getting stuck in the same spot.
This can be an indicator that you’re also on the edge of a breakthrough because you are getting caught in the emotional dance that creates a felt sense of disconnection and alienation, or results in escalating conflicts between the two of you.
A quality therapist will help you recognize the dance you co-create as well as help shift how you communicate and emotionally connect with each other so you can begin to change your patterns.
Couples therapy can be effective with a qualified and well-trained professional.
Often, it will challenge you and your partner to break the rules you’ve created that get you stuck in the first place. But during the process, a therapist can help you build new bridges of connection that can create feelings of intimacy, being seen, and feeling cared for.
Want to find a Gottman-trained therapist in your area? Search the Gottman Referral Network and find a therapist you can trust.
1 Doherty, W. J. (2002). How therapist harm marriages and what we can do about it. Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, 1, 1-17.
2 Ward, D., & McCollum, E. (2005). Treatment effectiveness and its correlates in a marriage and family therapy training clinic.
How to Find a Couples Therapist Who Can Actually Help You