4 Questions Couples Should Ask When Choosing a Therapist
Picking a couple’s therapist is more risky than finding an individual therapist.
Posted July 4, 2021 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Every couple's therapist should have significant training specific to couple's work.
- It is important to find out a couple's therapist's position on marriage and divorce to determine if it is the right fit.
- Don't decide to do long-term work with a couple's therapist based on one phone call or one session. Often, four sessions is an adequate start.
I’m thinking right now about a couple I see, two beautiful, dynamic, intelligent people with great depth. They have years of built-up relational stagnation to disentangle from, but they’re doing it. It’s a pleasure to watch, just as they’re a pleasure to work with.
Their last couple’s therapist told them they should get divorced. Fortunately, they were smart enough to leave this person. I think of what an incredible waste of potential and the vast amount of unnecessary damage that would have been caused had they listened to this advice.
It’s much harder to find a good couple’s therapist than a good individual therapist, and in many ways, the stakes are higher. Nearly all personal therapists will support you as an individual, so even if they’re not a perfect match, they’re less likely to do lasting damage. It will be more a case of you not going as far or as fast as you might have with someone else.
However, as a couple, you are the foundational pillar of your family, especially if you have children. And it doesn’t matter what age your kids are, or to some extent, even if you have kids. There is archetypal power in being a couple, where the whole is always more significant than the sum of the two parts. A couple splitting up is devastating to the two individuals, to those who love them and especially to their children. There are very few exceptions to this truth.
I work with both individuals and couples, and I can tell you that working with teams is more challenging on almost any metric. You have to know what you’re doing, you have to have a conceptual framework to guide you theoretically, and you have to have a set of relational tools to work with. You cannot just make it up as you go along. So here’s what I recommend you ask people you’re considering for the tremendous responsibility of being your couple’s therapist:
1. What professional couple's training do you have?
There are far too many clinicians practicing couple’s therapy with insufficient training, and I say that because I see it regularly and because I was once one of those people. Too many therapists think they know about relationships because they’ve been in them. While personal experience is essential, it’s not enough to guide a therapist when things get volatile with a couple.
A couple's therapist needs a solid grounding in some relationship theory and a set of tools to help couples untie their relationship knots. There will still be lots of hairy moments along the way, but you as a couple will feel more securely held when your therapist has this grounding.
Some specific types of couple's therapy go by names, such as Imago (my orientation), Emotional Focused Therapy (also called EFT), the Gottman Method, and PACT (A Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy).
2. What is the couple’s therapist's position on marriage?
It would be best to find someone whose position on marriage mirrors your values, and you have a right to know what is up front. If you were to ask me, I would say the following: "I am not marriage neutral. I am a passionate advocate of marriage, and I believe in it deeply, as the best vehicle I know of to hold a couple and a family. I think of it as both a legal and a spiritual entity necessary for a couple and a family to make it through the inevitable ups and downs of life. Further, I trust that you are actually with the person who is best able to help you grow, and my job is to show you how that is true. This does not mean that a divorce is never an option, but it does mean that it’s the last option, not the first, second, third, or 15th. My position may not be right for you as a couple, and you should know that before you start with me."
3. How many years have you been doing couple’s work?
A person with 30 years of experience may not be better for you than a person with five because so much is finding the right fit. But it is a factor to take into account.
4. Are you open to a trial number of sessions?
It isn’t easy to decide on a therapist based on a phone call or one session. You need at least four sessions to determine whether the therapist and their methods are right for you. However, it is pretty easy to have an excellent first session. But after four, you’ll have a better idea if you're with someone who is the right fit for you.
These four questions are no guarantee of finding the perfect couple’s therapist, but they are a good starting point, and every person you interview should be willing to answer these questions. If they aren’t, that’s important information for you, too. It tells you it’s time for you to move on to the next person on your list.
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.