This is not the same as finding a “good” couples therapist. I used to believe in the myth that therapists are either good or bad; now I think that there are some good therapists who are just a mismatch for certain clients.
So how to find the right one?
1) Start with a phone date.
You wouldn’t go into a relationship sight unseen, would you? But that’s how many people start therapy. They call around, find someone who has an opening, and then voila, that’s their guy.
Instead, call around and ask if a number of therapists would talk with your briefly on the phone before making the appointment. If they won’t, then they’re already the wrong one for you.
If they say yes, I’d recommend the following questions: Is couples therapy a specialty of yours? Do you have training in a particular method or theory? Then describe your relationship issues and ask what their initial approach would be.
The reason I’d recommend this is because your relationship is too important to trust just anyone with it. A couple often doesn’t realize they’re even with a mismatched therapist; they might just think that they’re failing to improve, or that their relationship can’t improve. They don’t blame the therapist, they blame themselves, and each other.
Don’t let that happen to you. Go on a phone date, and see what your gut feeling is about that therapist.
2) Once you start therapy, keep paying attention to your gut feelings when you start to meet with the therapist. Do you feel safe? Do you feel comfortable? When you feel uncomfortable, does the therapist seem to recognize that?
Sometimes growth is uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s painful. And your couples therapist might need to give you a nudge into unfamiliar territory. But he or she should be cushioning the way, and supporting you. That’s what I mean by creating a sense of safety.
3) If you don’t feel supported, tell the therapist. See what he or she does.
It’s a therapist’s job to adapt to the needs of their clients. If he or she is unable to do so, then you know it’s the wrong therapist for you.
4) Do you and your partner both feel understood the majority of the time?
It’s normal to feel, on occasion, that the therapist is siding with one person more than the other. But the therapist needs to maintain an alliance with both partners most of the time. Attending to that alliance is one of the most important tasks of the couples therapist.
If you routinely feel that your therapist is more aligned with one of you than the other, that’s a mismatch.
5) Are you improving?
Don’t assume that you can’t, just because you haven’t yet. The way one couples therapist practices can be entirely different from the way another one does it.
If you feel discouraged, talk to your therapist about it. See if he or she feels like this is the expected course (sometimes things do get worse before they get better and there might be progress that you can’t yet feel.) Or if the therapist agrees that you’re stalled, see if he/she can try other techniques or if it’s time to try a new therapist.
Don’t worry about hurting your therapist’s feelings. A good therapist can engage in that sort of conversation and should be most concerned with your relationship and its progress, not with his or her own caseload. And if all they care about is their need to keep you as a client, whether for the money or the ego, then you’re better off getting out of there ASAP.
Sometimes the break-up that needs to happen is between you and your therapist.
Couple in therapy image available from Shutterstock.