Life & Culture

How to pick the perfect couples therapist

The wrong person can make matters worse


Young married couple having a marriage counseling session to fix the problems in their relationship.

A few weeks ago I was chatting to a couple in their 30s. They opened up about the struggles they had been through since their children were born. Their relationship had changed completely, they said. They had gone from being romantic partners to seeing each other as little more than joint carers for their children. They started constantly keeping tabs on each other’s parenting contributions, feeling resentful if the other one didn’t pull their weight or took a break. They bickered constantly and felt that their spark, which burned so brightly just a few years ago, was slowly fading away.

Their story became sadder still when they told me that they had tried to go for therapy, but it hadn’t helped. They found that the sessions had merely been another opportunity to argue, score points and get the therapist on their side.

It is a huge step for a couple to reach out for support. It is not uncommon for a couple to struggle for years, continuously repeating destructive cycles, until a crisis occurs that makes them realise that they cannot continue. I repeatedly hear stories like the one above, telling me that couples therapists do little more than encourage the couple to replay their arguments in the session.

The truth is that all therapists do need to get a sense of the issues that clients are struggling with, which may involve some re-enacting conflict. But a good therapist will offer interventions, alternative ways of thinking and strategies to manage each other’s disagreements rather than solely provide a space to repeat them. A primary role of a couples therapist is to support the couple to move beyond their usual arguments into more meaningful communication and to provide the tools to do so.

When choosing a couples therapist, in many ways, the same criteria applies as choosing any mental health professional. It’s important to make sure that the therapist you choose is accredited with a registering body, which means that they have requisite qualifications, receive continual training, have regular supervision and you have a point of reference to contact if you need to make a complaint. You need to make sure that they uphold basic professional standards such as maintaining confidentiality and prioritising your safety and you should feel comfortable enough to ask them questions about the way they work and their experience.

After a few sessions, an experienced therapist should be able to tell you their sense of the trajectory of your treatment and a general idea of the work needed for change to take place. But supporting couples is also a specialist area that requires a different skill-set in addition to counselling expertise. When searching for support it’s best to look for someone with specialist couples counselling or therapy training as well as generic or individual training.

There are all sorts of different couples therapists, each using slightly different approaches. However, one key predictor of positive change is the strength of the relationship between the client and the therapist. The challenge is that when one therapist works with two people who are often acutely competitive it is not unusual for one partner to feel that the therapist is taking sides with the other one. This is bound to happen to some extent, as the therapist is going to have more similarities with one spouse than the other for example their gender, class or level of education.

A good couples therapist finds ways to redress the balance and treat both partners in an even-handed way, so that neither feels consistently and strongly contradicted or dismissed. This balance may take some time to achieve, but if, after a few sessions, you still feel that the therapist is being one-sided it will be difficult for you to achieve any meaningful change.

If you haven’t tried couples therapy before it can be nerve-wracking and can feel risky. Couples sometimes have some unrealistic expectations about the change that a therapist can achieve. Many couples attend therapy with one partner hoping or expecting that the therapist will make the other partner change. But unfortunately, us therapists do not have magic wands. The couples who do best in therapy are the ones in which each partner is motivated to make their own changes and think about their personal contribution to the relationship dynamics with which they are struggling. Having practised couples’ therapy for some time now, I am optimistic that, given time, effort and perseverance, good couples therapy can be life-changing and can help people develop more hopeful, rewarding relationships.

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