Note: It has been nearly 5 years since I first wrote this piece.
Since then, I have literally looked at thousands of resumes from people applying for the jobs I offer to practice couples therapy. I continue to be amazed at how rare it is to find someone with even minimal qualifications and training to practice in this highly specialized field.
In 2020, it’s getting better because of expanded training offered by The Gottman Institute & International Centre for Emotionally Focused Couples Center, but it’s still very slow going. This post is as current as it was when it was first written in June of 2015.
Hi, I’m Dr. Kathy McMahon and I’ve trained marriage counselors for the past 30 years. Marriage counselor qualities are the most concrete issues to look for before picking your professional.
Don’t take anything for granted. These qualities are hard to find.
Here are the 5 qualities that, in my opinion, are the most important in finding the right marriage counselor. That’s the reason so many marriages seeking help fail:
People pick an “All-Purpose Therapist”!
1. Well Trained in Marriage Counseling
2. Conducting 1 hour 20 minute Sessions
3. Works for You, not your Insurance Company
4. Seeing Mostly Couples
5. A “Take Charge Personality.”
Pretty obvious, right? Don’t most counselors have the training to see couples?
Absolutely not. In fact, one well-respected thought leader lamented the pitiful inadequacy of what passes for couples therapy and urged state boards to license couples therapists as an area of specific expertise.
Ask: “Do you have specialized training in marriage counseling? How did you get that? Reading? Coursework? Supervision? What levels of Certification have you achieved?”
It may surprise you that most graduate programs in counseling offer students no specific courses in marriage counseling.
Even programs specifically devoted to marriage and family therapy may offer as little as a single course in how to be a marriage counselor. And none in sex therapy.
Want to know what to look for in a marriage counselor? Look for a specialist.
Don’t look for a generalist who does “a little bit of everything.” When it comes to keeping your family together, ask about their experience and training.
Couples therapy and marriage counseling is a specialized profession, just like dentists and brain surgeons…both work on your head, but they’re hardly interchangeable.
Ask: “How long each session will be?”
The evidence is in: Research tells us that effective couples sessions are at least an hour and 20-minutes in length. And we always conduct an extensive assessment of the couple before therapy begins. Skilled Marriage Counselors don’t hold 50-minute sessions, unless they’ve worked with a couple for some time, and have a specific reason to make a solid clinical judgment to hold a shorter session, such as coaching.
The reason is simple:
Marriage Counseling requires a completely different set of skills than Individual Psychotherapy.
Practice Makes Perfect.
Ask directly: “How many couples do you see every week? What percentage of your practice is working with couples?
The answer should exceed 50%.
That’s a simple fact. It’s a different skill set requiring different tools. Passivity isn’t one of them.
You can sit and emphasize with an individual for an entire session. Not great therapy, but you can do it.
Try doing that with a couple, and you’re not only going to be totally ineffective, but you’ll also be seen as insincere to boot: Therapist: “I can see how you’d feel that way, Jane.”
If you needed surgery would you ask: “How many of these operations have you performed in the last year?” Wouldn’t you choose the MD who performed hundreds of them vs one or two?”
John: “Wait a minute, Doc. A minute ago, you told me I had a point. Now you say you agree with Jane. Which is it?”
I can’t tell you the number of couples we see who say: “Our last marriage counselor just sat there, and let us fight.”
I tell them: “That was no marriage counselor…”
This is a hard one for most people to hear, but it’s the truth: Your health insurance isn’t going to pay for it.
The code numbers for Relationship Problems (Marriage Counseling) keep changing but the facts don’t:
Have a Mental Illness? You’re covered.
Have a Terminal Marriage? It’s on your dime.
And if you make a call, and some “All-Purpose Therapist” tells you that they’ll take your insurance, ask them directly:
“How can you tell which of us has a mental disorder?”… How do you know, from just talking to me over the telephone?
They’ll say: “Everyone has something!” and they’ll write fabricated notes describing you or your partner’s mental illness, and how they are treating it.
And it becomes part of your permanent medical record. But is what they’ll write be the truth? Or something they made up to collect your insurance money?
And because insurance will only reimburse for a 50-minute session, instead of the evidence-based 1-hour 20-minute session, well…you can see the problem.
We end up with a lot of people feeling they got couples therapy and blaming their marriage when it fails. You didn’t fail. Your therapist failed.
Here’s what to look for in a Marriage Counselor; look for a Leader. A Strong Personality. Not hesitant or squishy. A Specialist… A “take charge” personality. A leader. No B.S. Not a timid “All-Purpose Therapist.”
Look, marriage is tough in the best of circumstances. A real marriage counselor has their hands full doing the work that they do.
And they are in very high demand…because there are so few of them!
You want someone who has the ability to tell you the truth, to tell you what is going to be required of you to change things around.
Heres what to look for in a marriage counselor…someone who is going to tell you just how they see things.
Not someone who is going to tell you what you want to hear.
Ask yourself: “If they’d mess with the truth with my health insurance company, what are they willing to do with my marriage?”
We’re changing the face of couples therapy, and demanding excellence in this unique sub-specialty of counseling. Evidence-based treatment is demanded of each and every clinician.
We only see couples… using “evidence-based” treatment… and we don’t lie to you or… for you.
Some of our team members actually train other professionals on how to conduct Gottman Method Couples Therapy.
If I had to sum up what to look for in a marriage counselor, I’d say training, expertise, passion, and specialization.
We’re PROUD of our team who have grown from 6 when this piece was first written to nearly 30 today. And now you can get our services online!
Dr. K is the President and CEO of Couples Therapy Inc. She maintains her Intensive Couples Therapy practice over the winter in Miami, Fl and the rest of the year in Boston and on the edge of the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts. She is a Gottman Certified Couples Therapist, has advanced training in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, and has been a AASECT board-certified sex therapist from 1982-2017. She continues her work in sex therapy.
We schedule three double sessions with you in total. You complete an extensive online relationship questionnaire. In that final meeting, we spend almost two hours with you explaining, from a science perspective what's working in your relationship, what's not, and how to fix it.
It's all done online, either week-by-week or over a weekend.