Updated 10/4/2020

Note: It has been 5 years since I first wrote this piece, and I have 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 Therapy, but still very slowly. This post is as current as it was in June of 2015.

One of about three hundred Gottman Certified Therapists worldwide, Dr. McMahon has advanced training in three other models.

Choosing the Right Marriage Counselor is Vital for Getting the Most out of Couples Therapy.

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.

Five Qualities to look for in a Marriage Counselor:

  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.”


Marriage Counselor Qualities #1: Training in Marriage Counseling.

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. 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 heads but are hardly interchangeable.

Quality #2: The Marriage Counselor Practices Evidence-based Longer-Treatment Sessions.

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.

Quality #3: Look for a Marriage Counselor who Sees Marriages!

The reason is simple:

Marriage Counseling requires a completely distinct 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…“

Quality #4: A Marriage Counselor with Integrity Who Works for You, Not Your Insurance Company.

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.

Quality #5: Look for Leadership.

A “take charge” personality. A leader. No B.S. 

A leader. A strong personality. A specialist, not an “All Purpose Therapist."

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?”

What’s your marriage worth to you?

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 24 today.

We only see couples, in 1 hour 20 minute “evidence-based” treatment, and we don’t lie to you or for you.

Want to Learn more about Effective Couples Therapy?  Contact us!



Dr. K


Dr. K is the President and CEO of Couples Therapy Inc. She maintains her online couples therapy and sex therapy practice for couples in Massachusetts, Florida, Arizona and California. She is a Gottman Certified Couples Therapist, has advanced training in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy and sex therapist. She conducts in-person and online couples therapy intensives.

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  1. I would really like a marriage counselor who is a leader like you mentioned. Couples beat around the bush anyway talking about things that aren’t even the problem. We just need to get to the nitty-gritty sometimes. How can you know if your future marriage counseling will be with someone who is a leader and takes charge?

  2. I am in a severe unhappy Marriage and am reluctant to get a divorce but my husband is far removed, distant, disconnected. we have absolutely no sex life and we are disconnected. I am miserable and contemplating a divorce and he is happy by seeking happiness elswere while still married tome. He gets fulfillment from his job cco-workers and is very flirtatious. He has a overtly wondering eyes in and around me with no regards for my presence. I find this disrespectful. He discount my concerns althe time and thinks they have no merit because he come home daily. However he does not come home to me. He comes to his music. He also sings karakoi and his passion is singing. I am soooooo unhappy. Help!

    1. You are talking about what Dr. Gottman calls “turning toward.” Your husband doesn’t connect with you. He doesn’t make you feel “special.” He finds pleasure in other places. Usually this means that the couple has to come to understand how essential “bids for attention” really are, and when they are missing, a person feels lonely. Unloved. Sometimes what’s required are small changes: One person has to learn to ask for things directly such as: “Dear, I get lonely sitting here at dinner when you are on your cellphone. Could you put it away and let’s talk about something…” The other has to see this as an invitation to connect, not an effort to control.
      If your husband loves singing, is there a way you can join him in this passion? While couples don’t HAVE to share every interest, a disconnected marriage needs to start somewhere.

      Very often a husband doesn’t understand the extent of his wife’s unhappiness, and is shocked to learn that she wants to divorce. She’s shocked that he’s shocked!!!

      We help couples begin a serious conversation about their marital unhappiness, and after an extensive assessment, we know exactly the types of things you’ll need to reconnect again, learn to make meaningful bids for each other’s attention, and act more respectfully.

      Drop us a line or give us a call to set up your assessment.

      Dr. K

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