The research is clear, if you like your therapist, therapy has a good chance of working. So, don’t rule out your gut. In your first session with the therapist, ask about the therapist’s approach while also making note of how you feel in the therapist’s presence. Does it feel good? If so, then check out my next several tips. If not, then I recommend a couple things. 1. Therapy often doesn’t feel very good. Emotions can run high and sometimes it’s hard to think clearly. It’s possible you will need a session or two to figure out whether you fit with the therapist. 2. Sometimes your gut instinct is right on…especially if the therapist doesn’t fit the next five points.
Relationships are a two way street. Laying blame at the feet of one partner by focusing too much on their internal mental health or moral character is a clue that your therapist isn’t trained to view your marriage as a system of interaction. (This is not to say you don’t have legitimate grievances. The art is figuring out how we might be inadvertently influencing our partner to be their worst self.) Trouble with blame is, when we think of marriage in terms of victims and perpetrators it often means the only hope for the marriage is if the perpetrator changes. What therefore is the victim supposed to do except wait around helplessly? Thankfully, even in situations where one partner has committed a huge mistake, the way forward (besides necessary restitution and unlimited patience for the offended partner’s grief process) is almost always about some sort of cooperation and mutual responsibility taking. My advice: find a therapist who will invite you to work just as hard as your partner. Good couples therapists are allies of the marriage — not cheerleaders for one partner.
You can feel the engaged presence of a competent couples counselor. You will feel listened to…and challenged…both. Of course, even competent therapists fail to be perfect listeners and make mistakes from time to time gauging the right time to intervene, but in general you will be able to tell if a therapist listens, has empathy and knows how to nudge you all at the same time. There is no sense pouring your heart out for an hour without moving toward your goals just as there is no point being pushed around by a therapist who doesn’t seem to get you.
Couples Therapists ought to be comfortable with conflict. Some therapists fail to appreciate that conflict is a normal part of any relationship. The key to good couples counseling is to remove Contempt, Criticism, Abusiveness, and Avoidance and move toward healthy conflict characterized by empathy, listening, and understanding. Disagreement and competing needs are not the enemy of relationships. It’s heartlessness and avoidance that kills couples.
Like many of us, most therapists are only really good at a few things. In mental health agencies and large practices, therapists are often tasked with treating everything from eating disorders and complex trauma to childhood developmental disorders and family issues. I recommend finding a therapist who is focused on couples and families if your primary concern is relational. We just get really good at what we practice day after day. And if money and time are tight, it’s not fun to find you are wasting your time.
If you are struggling to maintain hopefulness, the last thing you need is for your therapist to lose heart in your relationship too. There’s enough going against a couple in our trying times, so having a therapist who maintains hope in your relationship’s strengths and your individual capacity to grow and change is something to look for in a therapist. So, if you are committed to your relationship, make sure your therapist shares your commitment.