A friend recently asked me to help them find a good relationship therapist. I responded with an email and then realized I may have just written a helpful blog. So here is what I told my friend:
I know there are some great ones outside of our practice, but I mostly know the older ones, which isn’t fair to the younger ones. I also know some that I think are incompetent. So if you end up with a short list, and want me to look at it, I might be able to cull out a few, but that is the long way to finding a good match. Speaking of short lists, if your work place has an EAP, those will be free for you and that WILL be a short list.
If I were cold shopping in a strange town, here’s how I would look for a relationship counselor:
1. Training: LMFT’s definitely have training in couples counseling in their graduate work. LCSW/LMSW and LPC/LPC Associates may or may not have. BUT many of those may have gotten post graduate training and be quite competent. If so, their webpage will likely mention that training. They might cite the Gottman method, or Emotion focused therapy (EFT) or Cognitive-Behavioral Couple Therapy (CBCT) or a handful of others. Don’t get bogged down in the specifics at this stage. Just note that they appear to have some training and an orientation to their practice.
2. Don’t click on anyone that lists Christian Counseling anywhere in their stuff. If religious or spiritual views are important to you, don’t worry, professional therapists are trained to honor and support YOUR beliefs, without injecting their own. To read more on this topic, read Not Christian Counseling
3. See who responds to your emails. If they are too busy to respond, they don’t need your money.
4. When they do respond, here’s some good first interview questions:
– “Tell me your experience with couples.”
– “Tell me your therapeutic approach” (e.g Cognitive, Gottman, etc…). If they hesitate or babble, move on. If they name an approach, ask them what that means in a couple of sentences. Andrew would say, “I place a lot of emphasis on communication and exploring where that can be improved. I believe that the more each partner has a better understanding of the other’s viewpoint and experience, the better the couple’s chances of resolving conflicts and feeling more connected in the relationship. You are the expert on your relationship – my area of expertise is helping couples gain clarity on what is getting in the way of them having the kind of relationship they want. This is approached with a blend of IBCT, EFT, Gottman, and Imago methods.” Jake uses a lot of cognitive/behavioral techniques, so he would say “I’m interested in how couples think about their relationship and how those thoughts are helpful or not to how they feel about their partner. Then I am interested in them trying out new behaviors that will lead to the thoughts and, therefore feelings that they would like to have.
– Tell them a quick overview of your relationship challenges (We disagree about parenting; Jim talks about the Buffalo Bills too much; We disagree about finances; We disagree about everything, etc…). See if they sound confident about addressing that/those issues. It doesn’t matter what they say, just whether or not they sound confident. On the other hand, no one should be promising you a certain outcome. You want them to be confident about managing the task, but the couples will be doing the work and creating the outcomes.
– Ask them what relationship issues they feel they are not effective with. If they say they are effective with all presenting issues, you are their second client, or they are incompetent, or they are lying. Jake would say he is not a good match for couples struggling because one of the partners has a Trump/Fox news obsession.
– Get an estimate! Ask them how many sessions most couples need. Again, the specific answer doesn’t matter, but their answer should be smaller numbers, not months or years. Jake’s answer is that most couples create solutions OR figure out that he is not a good match for them in 4-8 sessions.
– Once you have a first meeting with them, ask yourself if they are a good match for both of you. ALL of the research says that MOST of the gains in counseling can be attributed to quality of the match between clients and therapist. IF they are not a good match, do not hesitate to cancel your next session and go back to shopping. Don’t waste your time and money on a bad match. Andrew assigns this as homework at the end of the first session: “I think I could be helpful to you and would like the opportunity to work with you. Talk it over together and see if you both feel comfortable with me or think we’re a good match, and then let me know. If you decide to keep looking, I would fully understand and would be happy to help you find another counselor that might be a better fit.”