Note: It has been 4.5 years since I first wrote this piece, and 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 basic qualifications and training to practice in this specialized field. It's getting better with the training offered by The Gottman Institute & International Centre for Emotionally Focused Couples Center, but still very slowly. This post is as current as it was 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 concrete issues to look for before picking your professional. Don't take anything for granted.
Here are the Five qualities that, in my opinion, that are the most important in finding the right marriage counselor.
That’s the reason so many marriage seeking help fail:
People pick an “All Purpose” Therapist!
These qualities are hard to find.
1. Well Trained in Marriage Counseling
2. Conducting 1 hour 20 minute Sessions
4. Works for You, not your Insurance Company
3. Seeing Mostly Couples
5. A “Take Charge Personality.”
Pretty obvious, right? Don't most counselors have training to see couples?
Absolutely not. In fact, one well-respected couples therapist suggested that states license couples therapists to improve the quality of services you'll receive.
Ask: “Do you have specialized training in marriage counseling? How did you get that? Reading? Coursework? Supervision?”
It comes as a surprise that many graduate programs in counseling offer the student 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.
Don’t look for a generalist when it comes to keeping your family together. Look for a specialist.
Couples therapy and marriage counseling is a specialized profession, just like dentists and brain surgeons. Both work on heads, but are hardly interchangeable.
Ask: “How long each session will be?”
The evidence is in: Research tells us that effective couples sessions are at least one hour 20 minutes in length. 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 judgement to hold a shorter session.
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, you'll 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?
I’ll tell you how: 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.
It becomes part of your permanent medical record. But will what they write be real, 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.
A “take charge” personality. A leader. No B.S.
Someone who is going to tell you just how they see things.
Look, marriage is tough in the best of circumstances. A real live marriage counselor has their hands full doing the work that they do.
And they are in high demand.
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. 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?”
At Couples Therapy Inc. we hire nothing but the most talented Marriage Counselors on the Planet. 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. Some actually train professionals on how to conduct Gottman Method Couples Therapy.
We’re PROUD of our team who have grown from 6 when this piece was first written to over 30 today.
We only see couples, in 1 hour 20 minute “evidence-based” treatment, and we don’t lie to you or for you.
Call us for more information at 844-926-8753 to reach Cindy at extension 2. Or
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.