Couples Therapists--One size does not fit all

It's not uncommon for someone seeking marital counseling to call me with questions related to concerns they have due to a prior experience with the wrong counselor. They want to know if I play favorites, if I am married and/or have been divorced, if I am active or passive in my style of working with people, and/or if I believe that fidelity is possible and that the goal of having a long-term, happy marriage is even realistic. I address each of their questions directly and candidly, and in the process they get some sense of who I am and how I interact; which is a great first step to finding a counselor who is a good fit for them.

People bring their individual differences to their relationships in the form of their personalities, backgrounds, lifestyle wants and needs, values, and beliefs. These differences make every individual and couple unique--and a therapist who has been able to help one couple may not be effective with another. The following are specifics on what to make note of, beginning with that first phone call to those first few sessions you spend together. If you are a good match in these areas, it's likely you have found the best person to help you address your particular challenges and make the right decisions for your relationship/marriage.

The counselor is easy to talk to

This might not seem that important at first glance, but it is often cited by people as an issue with a past therapist. The counselor's style of interacting, their tone of voice, body language, and how formal or informal they are can help you feel accepted, at ease, heard, and understood or not. It is very important to feel comfortable and safe enough to open up and candidly share your feelings, concerns, fears, wants and/or needs. Without this, you will be wasting your time, energy, and money and letting more precious time elapse that your relationship may not be able to afford.

They ask you your goals upfront and support them

Too often couples complain that their therapist did not seem to have a plan, did not track what they discussed from week to week, and allowed them to just vent and go around and around in their dysfunctional dance. The right therapist will address your goals for counseling in the first session. He or she will ask you what you are looking for and expecting, and give you time to ask all the questions you need to. The right therapist will also guide the sessions, step in when necessary, redirect, and/or help you to bridge your communication blocks by teaching you new skills and giving you the right tools to employ them with.

Your beliefs about relationships/marriage appear to be compatible

Yes, this can be a problem. Some therapists are very pro-marriage and see separation and divorce as a last and undesirable step, regardless of the particular issues in the relationship. Other therapists might see divorce as a good option and believe that if it hasn't been working, it might well be because you did not choose well in the first place. Many other differences could exist as well, and though some are insignificant, others might not be. If you find that your views of marriage are very dissimilar, you should address this, and if you continue to feel uncomfortable you may need to consider finding someone else.

You both feel listened to and respected

It is not uncommon for one spouse to feel as though the counselor is taking sides with their partner. Marital counseling requires the therapist to remain aligned with the RELATIONSHIP and the couple's shared goals, not to any one individual, which is how individual counseling works. The therapist has to step carefully and find ways to support both spouses, yet when confrontation is needed, to do it in such a way that the person does not feel blamed or as though they are the sole problem in the relationship. This requires complete respect towards both people and what they have to share, while acknowledging any upset feelings they may have towards the therapist when they feel he or she is being unfair. In other words the counselor will listen to any feedback you offer and take the time to address your feelings and offer support and encouragement as needed.

You feel empowered to make the decisions that are right for you

No one else can or should tell you what is right and best for you. You and your partner are the only people who should be making decisions about the direction you want to go with your relationship. Your goals should be the focus, supported by the counselor. Your therapist may deem it necessary at times to redirect, confront, and/or point out dynamics that are unhealthy and not serving your mutual needs and goals. This is not the same thing as telling you what you should do, rather he or she is making sure that everything important is being brought to the surface and addressed. If you feel as though the therapist is overstepping in this area and you say so, the right counselor will acknowledge what is going on and take a step back, but not away, in order to let you take the lead.

Once you make the difficult decision to seek counseling together, finding the right therapist will be essential to getting the best possible outcome. If you end up rushing the process or going with someone who just happens to be available or convenient, you could actually make things worse. A bad experience with counseling can reinforce negative beliefs about your partner and/or relationship, waste precious time, contribute to your stress and unhappiness, and lead you to believe that you have done everything you could and it didn't work, so divorce is the only solution left to you.

Want to read other articles on this subject?

"What to consider before heading to splitsville"
List of more "Help with Conflict" articles

This is the last "Help with Conflict" article.


Toni Coleman, LCSW
Phone: 703-847-1768


Copyright 2008 Antoinette Coleman. All rights reserved.

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