There are many qualities that make a marriage counselor or couples counselor effective, but the following are 8 things I believe are especially important to look for:
1. The Right Counselor Makes Your Safety Their First Priority:
It's important for both you and a potential couples counselor to know when marriage counseling or couples therapy is NOT recommended. If you have been subjected to any type of direct physical harm or threats of physical harm in your current relationship, then relationship counseling together with this partner is NOT recommended as a starting point. It is usually recommended that you start on your own with individual therapy, preferably with a therapist who has experience with clients who have been physically abused in a relationship. And make sure that any potential therapist is aware of this history or potential threat so they can counsel you properly. For suggestions on additional resources should this be your situation, check out the mental health links page of this site.
2. An Effective Counselor/Therapist is Empathetic:
Once all safety issues are addressed and couples counseling is deemed as appropriate, an effective marriage counselor/couples counselor needs to be understanding and compassionate to both partners in a troubled relationship. Ask any potential therapists how they go about understanding how each partner experiences their relationship from their own individual standpoint. If you've begun couples therapy already, make sure you both feel a sense of empathy from your therapist.
3. Accepting and Non-Judgmental:
In order to work well with you as an individual or both of you as a couple, it's critical for a therapist to accept who you are - where you are - as you are - right now (strengths, flaws and all). This doesn't mean that a good therapist should avoid bringing up issues that hold you back from being happier and healthier, but they do it in a way that doesn't make you feel fundamentally flawed or deficient as a person. This is a quality that is often difficult to get a sense of in advance, but usually becomes apparent in the first few sessions.
4. Provides you With Relevant and Helpful Tasks and Advice
An effective therapist will provide you with relevant advice and tasks that you can test for yourself in your relationship and see whether it works for you. Some of these tasks should be asked of you while you are together in a counseling session and should provide you some significant new insights on how and why your partner thinks and feels the way they do and why you think and feel they way you do. Both thoughts and behavior matters in relationships - there are ways of thinking and behaving that can help heal, strengthen and rekindle the love you once had in your relationship and others that can significantly harm your relationship. Ask any potential therapists how they approach this.
5. Uses Effective, Well-Researched Therapy Approaches:
Because some of the most effective approaches to marriage and couples therapy have been developed in the past 20 years, many therapists don't use them yet or have not yet had thorough training in them.
Ask any potential couples therapist what therapy approaches they use with couples and the extent of their training and experience with them. The most effective approach that I am aware of is Emotionally Focused Therapy which is sometimes also referred to as Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. They may also mention the name of Dr. Sue Johnson, the co-creator of this type of therapy. Another method that is a complimentary therapy to this (but does NOT replace Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, in my opinion) is the work of Dr. John Gottman. This is sometimes referred to as Gottman Couples Therapy.
6. Is Encouraging and Supportive:
When you have to face tough situations and tough issues in your life and marriage/relationship, it helps to have someone on your side to face those issues and situations with you. Growth in a relationship can change marriages from hurtful to joyful, and make our lives better than we ever imagined. Like most of the most valuable things in life, it isn't fast or easy, but it's very doable. When interviewing a potential therapist, note those that give you a sense of hope, encouragement and support.
7. Solicits Ongoing Feedback and Is Responsive:
There is a challenging balancing act going on during couples therapy with the therapist working to make sure each individual feels accurately understood, respected and included in the overall process, even though some sessions will necessarily focus a bit more on one or the other partner's perspective.
One sign of an effective therapist is that they will periodically ask you for feedback to ensure that they have understood you correctly and to check that each partner feels they are being treated fairly in the counseling process. Having said that, we therapists are human and we sometimes make mistakes or don't ask for feedback as often as we should, so always feel free to voice any concerns you have in a clear and respectful way. And if after several attempts on your part the therapist is not being responsive to your concerns and not clearly explaining reasonable reasons for this, then they may not be the right fit for you.
Effective relationship therapists usually have a strong combination of academic training, work experience and life experience that help them be effective in working with couples. You should feel free to ask a potential therapist about these areas of their background prior to beginning therapy with them.
It's my experience that most effective marriage therapists have training that includes a Master's degree or above in psychology, social work or other closely related area. In terms of work experience, ideally you want to work with someone with at least 3 years of experience in marriage counseling. Normally, I would suggest more years of experience, but since many of the most effective therapies are newer, there is actually an advantage today working with a therapist who has been trained more recently in these newer methods.
Finally, I think life experience is helpful in being an effective marriage/couples therapist and would feel more comfortable being in therapy with someone who is currently married than someone who is not, all other things being equal.
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You're also welcome to call me at 313-675-9886 so I can answer any remaining questions you have about individual therapy or marriage counseling/couples therapy.