How to Choose a Couples Therapist

Great directories are important (and I've included several here...). But before you enter "couples therapy near me" into a Google search, and start printing off names, and making phone calls, slow down and know what to ask.

There may be an overwhelming number of marriage counselors in your area listed, or there may be very few, but all may have different titles, describe different approaches, or have different training. While it is tempting to schedule a session with the couples therapist near you, reconsider. It may be worth traveling for longer sessions less often or even working online if you know what to look for and find someone highly skilled. Finding the best marriage counselor for your needs, is preferable to finding the closest one, so consider thinking more broadly. Some of the best help is offered "intensively" over a weekend or in longer blocks of time, allowing you more choice and enabling you to demand more expertise.

Find out:

  • Are these marriage counselors devoted to the couples therapy? (instead of a "me too" add on...) 
  • Which specific methods do they use? (Hint:  We'll tell you which are proven effective.)
  • What level of training as couples therapists do these professionals have in each of these specific methods?
  • How long are their conjoint sessions? Know what's too short (even if it fits the schedule of most therapists...)

Listen to this 2.5-minute video of Marriage & Family Therapist Daniel Dashnaw summarizing 4 essential questions to ask before choosing the right couples therapist for your family and your relationship. 

Search Well-Respected Directories

But wait!  Before you search these websites keep reading to know additional facts to ask before searching for a couples therapist close by. Return here when you've finished the entire article.

Couples therapy is distinctly different from working with individuals. And it should be a good fit for the types of problems you're facing. Learn what good couples therapy looks like and what makes a good couples therapist, great.

Do you know how to pick?

1. Is there a difference between couples therapy vs marriage counseling?

This is a basic question to clarify before looking for a counselor near you. The differences are actually based more upon the region of the country where you currently live, than actual professional differences. For example, if you live in Texas cities you'll find more counselors using the term "marriage counseling" while those residing in New York or California prefer to refer to themselves as a "couples therapist."

The terms marriage counseling, relationship counseling and couples therapy are interchangeable. All require training beyond a bachelor's degree in the USA and a degree in mental health. They can be a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), a marriage and family therapist (LMFT), a licensed professional mental health counselor, a psychologist or psychiatrist. But the degree is not enough.

2. Couples Counseling is a specialty

A recent national survey revealed that 81 percent of all private practice therapists in the United States say that they offer marital therapy. But only about 12 percent of the nation’s licensed therapists are in a profession that requires any course work or supervised clinical experience in marital therapy. How can the average consumer find a good marriage counselor when faced with so many choices?

3. Choose a marriage counselor with a practice devoted to couples.

Of course, you want to feel comfortable with your relationship counselor. You may also want them to know about child development to help you deal with the kids, or depression if you're battling it. But in addition, there are now science-based practices from skilled clinicians who have completed advanced training from reputable institutes of marriage counseling training programs!

These researchers have studied real couples over 40 years and done pre- and post- comparisons of couples before and after treatment. These studies even include MRI research and other biological markers of reduced physiological arousal after marriage counseling.

Marriage counseling now is sophisticated science with practitioners who are expected to demonstrate measurable skills before becoming certified.

They're not your grandmother's or even your parents' marriage counselor.

Ask the counselor what percentage of their practice is devoted to seeing couples each week. Seek someone specifically trained in couples therapy, and who does it exclusively, or primarily. A good guideline is at least half of their practice should be working with couples as a pair.

Couples work is a vastly separate way of working than individual work. If you want to know how to choose a good couples therapist, choose someone with a lot of daily practice in working this way.

4.. Pick a couples therapist who is a member of professional organizations devoted to couples.

A true professional spends his/her time and money with professional associations that reflect their interests, training aspirations, and specializations. Being a clinical member of The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT) designates that a therapist has been supervised by another marriage therapist and completed adequate coursework and training, at least in family therapy. 

AAMFT Clinical Members meet rigorous training and educational requirements. AAMFT requires Clinical Members to abide by the AAMFT Code of Ethics, the most stringent ethical code in the marriage and family therapy profession. Clinical Membership in AAMFT signifies that a couples therapist is dedication to his or her ongoing professional development. But surprisingly, not even training as a marriage and family therapist provides you with more than a general overview of how to work with couples. 

Professional Organizations for Sex Therapists

The American Association for Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) is an organization for those practicing sex therapy, and board certification also requires experience and supervision. With its history of impeccable standards for training, experience and ethical behavior, AASECT is recognized as the guardian of professional standards in sexual health. AASECT also has a Code of Ethics outlining conduct required of all members. Expect a professional to demonstrate their interests by investing in professional organizations who cater to helping couples with their sexual and intimacy needs. You might be surprised to find that the marriage counselors near you have very little training specifically related to sexual issues. Teaching in several clinical programs, my courses are 1-3 credits, and many programs have no requirement to learn about sex-related issues. When looking for someone when sex is a pressing concern, ask specifically about their formal training in "sex therapy" not just "intimacy."

The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists

5. Look for someone who studied and trained in a recognized institute in evidence-based couples therapy.

The two most well-known scientifically based or evidence-based treatments for couples are those designed by John and Julie Gottman, (The Gottman Institute and Gottman Method Couples Therapy) and Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy created by Susan Johnson (The International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy and Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy) and Les Greenberg (The International Society of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy).

Ask the marriage therapist near you not only if they are familiar with these theories, but if they hold credentialing in these models.

There are many other very skilled couples therapists who have a great deal of training in couples work and sex therapy and should be proud to explain this education to you.  Beware that some of these models do not offer certifications, the way Gottman, Johnson and Greenberg do.

If you aren’t familiar with the orientation of the approach, be sure to research the methods these therapists have adopted.

Better yet, find a therapist who has training & certification in several methods for a more thorough toolbox.

Others are clinically effective and are taught world-wide, but not research-oriented models.

Why choose Science-based Couples Therapy?

Because it works.  Period.

6. Choose a therapist who has the right attitude to be a skilled couples therapist.

Two-thirds of Marriage Counselors are "neutral" on divorce.

"A survey of clinical members of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy found that nearly two-thirds said that they are “neutral” about whether a couple stays married and divorces."

It is a bad sign when a professional psychotherapist has no opinion about whether a couple should make an all-out effort to remains married, or end it, especially if they are parents.

Is this couples therapist near me "Marriage Friendly?"

Find out. Ask the them:

  • “Do you consider it importance to keep a marriage together when there are problems?”
  • "Under what conditions do you suggest divorce?"

Marriage Counselors should be the last one in the room encouraging divorce.

The reasons are many, but here are two:

A. Divorce dramatically impacts everyone in a family.

While it was once a popular cliché to argue that “if the parents are happily divorced, the kids will do fine…” this turns out to be a more self-serving notion than fact. Research tells us that it takes two years before children adjust to their parents' divorce, and some percentage of children never do. The average household with children loses half of their incomes after divorce. This, alone, should give a reason to pause.

B. Marital unhappiness can fluctuate over time.

It also assumes that marital unhappiness is a permanent state. Research tells a different tale:

Our study found that unhappily married adults who divorced were no more likely to report emotional or psychological improvement than those who stayed married. In addition, the most unhappy marriages reported the most dramatic turnarounds. Among those who rated their marriages as "very unhappy" [3] almost eight out of ten, who avoided divorce, were happily married five years later."

Gottman’s work also supports this fact. Couples are often miserable and hopeless, believing nothing can change. However, the research on the state of “Negative Sentiment Override” demonstrates that when the couple completes evidence-based training, this feeling not only changes, but it “switches” suddenly, like turning on a light switch. It doesn't gradually modify like a ‘dimmer switch.’ We’ve seen this sort of dramatic switch during our intensive couples intensive marriage counseling retreats.

It may be fashionable to try to stay “neutral,” but it is hardly a good attitude for effective couples therapy.

Other therapists might encourage a "trial separation" without mentioning the statistics that 75% of couples who separate end up divorcing.

Individual therapists might unwittingly promote separation or divorce. They must weigh the value of attachment in one's life with the yearning for individual self-development. They aren't mutually exclusive.

Be aware that a highly skilled couples therapist is unlikely to accept health Insurance. Being on a health insurance panel makes little sense if most of your work involves non-reimbursable services. Getting help for a marital or relationship problem is not a “treatment” for a mental disorder. It is a treatment for relationship distress. 

If it will be billed as mental illness and given a "diagnosis," (other than a Z code) but it is in fact, marriage counseling, that is insurance fraud: a crime in the USA. Learn more about this in the article: "Is Marriage Counseling Covered by Insurance?".

At Couples Therapy Inc. we're specialists in intimacy relationships

Do you offer a couples retreat near me?

More than likely. We serve more than 34 states across the USA.

Our marriage counselors and trained sex therapists have coursework and training in at least two clinical approaches to couples therapy, one of which must be evidence-based. They are active in their professional organizations related to marriage counseling or sex therapy. They are highly skilled professionals that are here to help you function more effectively in your relationship. And they have certifications to demonstrate their competence.

We work in-person now and online using intensive "blocks" of therapy which begin with a State of the Union assessment, an online one-of-a-kind online questionnaire we call The BIG BIG Book and Coaching services.