Let's say you've decided to work on your romantic relationship or marriage and you want outside help. What do you look for? As a Clinical Psychologist specializing in couples counseling and relationships for almost twenty years, these are the factors that I believe are important in searching for a couples or marriage therapist:
1. Are they specifically trained and credentialed to work with couples and relationships?
In addition to whatever licensure/certification requirements your State may have, you also want to find out if they have any specific training or certifications in working with couples. I teach graduate courses in marriage and family therapy in California, and can tell you that many graduate schools will give a Master's Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy while only having one or two specific classes on the subject in their curriculum. And, you can become a licensed psychotherapist in California without ever having had to treat a single couple!
Seek out additional, post-graduate training in couples counseling in your therapist. For example, in addition to being licensed in California as a Clinical Psychologist, I have completed and been Certified in Imago Relationship Therapy, one very effective form of couples therapy. The Imago Certification Program is a rigorous one with which takes a minimum of one year post-licensure to complete and includes training and supervision.
2. How long have they been working with couples?
As a rule, the more experienced a psychotherapist, the better opportunity you will have to achieve your results in marriage therapy. I know that there are exceptions to this rule and I have trained some interns who are far superior to many licensed professionals I know. However, what I was capable of dealing with as a couples counselor when I first began my training in 1991 is vastly different than what I am able to work with now. It is my hope that a good therapist will continue to learn, grow and improve over the time that they practice. That's why they call it Practice!
3. Are they strong enough to keep you "safe" during the sessions?
Couples enter counseling with very strong emotional dynamics, which they demonstrate (perhaps unconsciously) very quickly to the marriage therapist. This may involve the expression of anger directly, or may show up more with contempt, criticism, avoidance, finger-pointing and many other ways. While this is instructive to the therapist, if the couple is allowed to continue in these behaviors, they will continue to damage their relationship.
The couples counselor must be emotionally grounded enough and "strong" enough to prevent this from happening in a destructive manner and help the couple to create changes in their patterns of interaction. How the therapist does this is up to their own training and personality and presence. Believe it or not, sometimes I have to stand up in session and give my couples a "time-out" which is when being 6'3" and over 200 pounds really helps!
4. Do you feel like they can help you?
Your feelings about the marriage counselor and the "vibe" you get from them are really important. You will be sharing very intimate parts of your life with this person., as well as spending time and money. And, the fate of your relationship may rest in your choice of therapist.