How to Find a Marriage Counselor

You’ve decided to get marriage counseling. So how do you find a marriage counselor? And how do you know if he/she can help you?

“A dirty little secret in the therapy field is that couples therapy may be the hardest form of therapy, and most therapists are not good at it.”
– Dr. William Doherty[1]

Dr. Doherty’s warning is not meant to scare you into changing your mind about getting marriage counseling, but to remind you that choosing just any psychologist, psychiatrist, or social worker who says he does marriage counseling is not a smart thing to do. You want one who has plenty of the right kind of experience. After all, your marriage is at stake.

80% of therapists do couples therapy. But most of them have not been trained in the subject. They haven’t pursued a line of coursework in it, and they haven’t learned from and been supervised by someone who has mastered it. Most have only been to workshops, and learned through trial-and-error. Even those who put “MFT” (Marriage and Family Therapy) after their names may not have the proper training to do marriage counseling. It is possible to get licensed having only had parent-child supervised clinical experience.

So don’t just pull a name out of the phone book. Before we did marriage counseling, my wife and I didn’t consider any of the things listed below. The counseling turned out to be useless, and the therapist was clueless as to how to help us. I don’t lay all the blame for the failure on the counselor, for we should have seen early on that it wasn’t working. And the problems we came in with were of our own making. But in our distressed state we didn’t realize that we found a marriage counselor who simply didn’t have what we needed. Please don’t repeat our mistake. Use this Marriage Guardian guide to find a great marriage counselor, and make your marriage strong and healthy.

Thinking About the Counseling
You Want to Find

You and your spouse may have different ideas about what to look for in choosing a marriage counselor. That’s okay. You are very likely to have different reasons for doing marriage counseling, too. Use these differences to help you evaluate the counselors you interview.

You can find marriage counselors who focus on your relationship exclusively, and those who delve into each spouse’s psyche to determine why each of you behaves as you do. While this sounds like a legitimate choice, it isn’t. It is actually a reason why many people are reluctant to go to marriage counseling at all. The latter choice has the implication that at least one of you is wrong for being the way you are, and must change. Whether or not it is true that someone needs to change, no one is willing to walk into the lion’s den to get ripped apart. No one wants to be pathologized.

Change is not something you force on your spouse; it is what one does for oneself when experiencing and recognizing its benefits. The important thing is to improve your relationship, which both of you can probably agree needs improving. This choice is really about either doing marriage counseling or doing individual therapy together. But in individual therapy the focus tends to be on the client’s personal happiness at the expense of the marriage relationship. If you get into individual therapy, know the therapist’s values (see below).

Another consideration in choosing a marriage counselor is whether you want Christian counseling, and whether or not it should include secular psychology.

What is most important is that you find a marriage counselor both of you like and trust. The therapeutic alliance that develops is critically important to the success of marriage counseling. You can get an idea of whether a good therapeutic alliance will form by asking:

  • What is your theoretical orientation?

More than likely, the counselor will have at least two favorite theories, and borrow bits and pieces from others. This helps him tailor his approach to each couple’s needs. His response will give you some sense of how he might approach you as a couple and as individuals and what kind of interventions he may recommend. This can help the two of you determine how comfortable you might feel working with this person.

While the therapist is not going to become your personal friend, you will nevertheless be telling him things you don’t tell to just anyone. You both have to be comfortable with him/her to the point of not hiding feelings and facts you’d rather keep to yourselves. You may not be able to decide from the initial contact whether you can trust a particular marriage counselor enough, but after a full session you should be able. At that point discuss any reservations you have about the therapist with him.

The Therapist’s Education

Couples therapists will usually have a master’s degree, a PsyD., or a PhD. (Psychiatrists are medical doctors (MD) and can prescribe drugs.)

But please note, however, what I wrote above: most psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers have never taken extensive coursework in couples therapy, nor were supervised in their internships by an expert in it. If formal education is important to you, then dig deeper than asking what degree a counselor has:

  • How much of your coursework was related to marriage counseling?
  • Was your clinical training supervised by experts on marriage counseling, or in some other area?

The Therapist’s Experience

What you really want, though, is to find a marriage counselor with lots of experience in your type of issue. If he/she has been in business for 20 or 30 years or more, his formal education will not be so important. However, don’t assume a person with 15 years’ experience is better than one with 10 years’. The one with less experience may have a better grasp on your kind of issues. Again, it’s the therapeutic alliance – the rapport, the trust, the sense of collaboration and achieving goals – that is more important than who has more years of experience:

  • How long have you been a marriage counselor?
  • How much of your business is marriage counseling? Family therapy? Individual therapy?
  • I think our problem has to do with ____. How much of your work is related to that kind of problem? When was the last time you treated a couple with a similar problem?

Select someone whose practice is at least 50% marriage counseling. If children are part of your issues, select someone with substantial experience in both areas.

Unfortunately, having a lot of experience doesn’t mean a therapist is deeply interested in his work. As in any other profession, a therapist can lose interest or experience burnout. Ask if the counselor’s job wears him down:

  • What challenges you in your job?
  • How do you keep up your interest in marriage counseling?
  • Do you plan on shifting or expanding the focus of your practice?

The Therapist’s Competency

Find a marriage counselor who knows his/her limitations, and knows when he feels overwhelmed by a couple. Does he acknowledge it and refer the couple to someone else, or decide that their problems are insurmountable and they should divorce?
  • Do you sometimes refer a couple to another marriage counselor? In what circumstances?
  • What do you do with couples that don’t improve with your treatments?
Therapist Peter Fox reports,
“[It is] a monthly occurrence for me to hear of a health care professional apparently lacking depth of experience and expertise in couple's work, recommending after two or three sessions with a distressed, non-violent couple that they separate.”[2]
You don’t want to be anywhere near these counselors. Ask:
  • Do you ever suggest that couples separate or divorce? How often does that happen? Why?
  • Have you ever suggested that couples with our kind of problems separate or divorce?

The Therapist’s Values

The vast majority of counselors refer to themselves as “values-neutral.” They have been taught not to push their values or agendas onto clients. What goals you tell your counselor he/she will generally support. A big problem occurs when one of you states that you want to make your marriage better, but the spouse is not interested in making changes, or worse, is not really interested in continuing the marriage. If this is your situation, you need to ask your prospective counselors how they might handle it.

They will tell you, and rightly so, that change is an individual decision and they cannot change you or your spouse. But that does not answer the question. There are different solutions, and you should not go to a counselor who offers none, claiming to be neutral, because you don’t know where his counseling will lead you.

Values-neutral marital counselors and therapists do not measure their success by whether or not your marriage survives. This attitude can cause marriage counseling to fail, and can make individual therapy toxic to both your marital relationship and to couples therapy.

Individuals’ problems can interfere with relationships, and marriage counselors sometimes recommend individual sessions to deal with them. But individual therapy has different goals than marriage counseling, and the two can come into conflict, especially when different therapists are involved. How will your personal happiness and well-being be weighed against your marital relationship, and your commitment to that relationship?

Therapists who are values-neutral will often see that commitment as masking other problems, or even as an obstacle to overcome. You can be made to feel wrong for staying in the marriage. If individual therapy wasn’t recommended for other personal problems, your commitment to your marriage becomes a sign that deeper personal problems exist and individual therapy is needed.

The flaw in all of this is that most therapists and most people think in terms of “either/or.” You can either be happy or you can be married. Values-neutral therapists take that position because they are not very good at guiding you to the third alternative: be happy and be married. Otherwise, they would measure their success by how many marriages they save.

So, to find a marriage counselor who isn't values-neutral, ask:

  • When is individual therapy indicated for people wanting marriage counseling?
  • How often do you suggest couples do individual therapy while in marriage counseling?
  • What are the goals for individual therapy in such cases?
  • Which is more important, finding a way to make our marriage work or finding our individual personal happiness and getting our individual personal needs met?
An evasive answer to that last question or a refusal to answer means you can’t know for sure what his moral position is regarding commitment. As Dr. William Doherty says,
“Not to have a moral framework is to have an unacknowledged one, and in mainstream American culture, it will probably be individualistic rather than [relational.]”[3]

(A note of clarification: A counselor may suggest an individual session for each spouse near the beginning of the counseling process. This is not a bad thing. It allows the counselor to assess each person’s perspective on the concerns in the marriage, and allows each to speak freely without worrying about any in-the-moment reaction from his/her spouse. This is different from the individual therapy referred to above.)

You need to know where a marriage counselor will guide you. You don’t want one steering you in the direction of a divorce. You risk everything if you find a marriage counselor (or even an individual counselor, for that matter) whose personal value system puts the individual above his/her spouse and children.

The Therapist’s Gender

One of the most obvious choices in choosing a marriage counselor is gender – do you get a male or female counselor? The attitude, knowledge, and skill of a marriage counselor are much more important than gender. Still, you both need to be comfortable with the person, and gender might play a part in that.

Some people think that an opposite-sex counselor might automatically side with their spouse. Others think that an opposite-sex counselor will be better able to explain their spouse’s point of view in a way they can understand. There are lots of rational and emotional reasons for wanting a counselor of a particular gender. What is your preference?

If it doesn’t matter to you, then let your spouse decide. That will help him/her feel a little more favorably disposed to doing marriage counseling. If it matters to both of you, then write down your reasons and compare lists. A compromise may appear. If not, then interview therapists of both genders and maybe the issue will simply disappear on its own. If not, flip a coin. Seriously.

What Can You Afford?

Money will be an issue for most people. Marriage counseling isn’t cheap. If you have insurance, check with your provider to find out how much coverage you have. You may be limited in whom you can see, and for how long. Ask prospective marriage counselors how you can resolve your problems with the limited number of sessions your insurance will pay for.

If you don’t have insurance, or need more sessions than your provider allows, ask your prospective marriage counselors if they have “sliding scale” fees. Many will give discounts based on your income.

Psychiatrists are the most expensive to work with, followed by psychologists, social workers, and licensed professional counselors. However, “more expensive” does not necessarily mean “better.”

Location and Availability

The number one reason to find a marriage counselor who is inconveniently located is that the two of you believe that he/she is by far the best. Other reasons include not wanting to run into him at the store, at the neighborhood park, at church, or at a club you belong to. You may also not want gossipy neighbors seeing your car parked outside his office.

Wherever your potential counselor is located, remember that you will need to get there at least once a week for a while. Does the location fit with your schedule, or that of children or elderly parents that you have to chauffer? Will a long drive to and from his office be quiet and relaxing, or add to your stress?

Consider also the therapist’s hours of operation and how soon you can be worked into his/her schedule. Sometimes, a marriage counselor gets very busy and may not be able to see you for a few weeks. Do you want to wait? Can you get there easily at the time he/she has available?

And speaking of availability, ask whether the counselor is available by phone at odd hours for emergencies, if that is important to your situation.

Starting Your Search

You can begin gathering names of potential marriage counselors by asking those most likely to know who the good ones are. A priest, minister, or primary care doctor is a good starting point for referrals. You could even ask a marriage counselor! (The strategy here would be to find one in the phone book whose location is a little too inconvenient to have to drive to every week, but not too far from the part of town you are willing to drive to weekly. So you have an honest reason for not seeing this person, and would just like to get a referral.)

When you ask any professional for a referral, though, ask what he really knows about the person. People often give referrals just because that person goes to the same church or works in the same building. That doesn’t address the therapist’s skills or reputation. Ask:

  • What do you personally know about him/her?
  • Is he really sharp? Does he know his stuff?
  • Have others you've referred returned with good reports about him?

Some say it is best to not ask friends or family if they know of a good therapist; others say it is the best way to find one. This kind of referral is more difficult to get as people usually don’t talk openly to others about their marriage problems. If you do know of someone who has had marriage counseling, and you think the person will keep the matter confidential, go ahead and ask. You just may get a good referral.

Another source is the internet. Some websites maintain directories. Search “marriage counseling directory.” However, most are paid listings (i.e., advertising), and being listed does not necessarily address quality. One site, marriagefriendlytherapists.com , co-founded by William Doherty, requires its therapist-advertisers to agree with its pro-marriage values and pro-marriage therapy practices statement.

You can find marriage counselors in a particular area by searching “marriage counselor (zip code).” Some marriage counselors list their businesses with the search engines and will appear on maps, while others maintain their own websites. The quality of these websites varies. Most counselors are poor marketers, so site quality may not reflect counseling skills. But I personally believe they, of all people, should understand the importance of first impressions.

Other sources for gathering names are your state psychological association, yellow pages, or community health center. You can get lots of names, but usually can’t get any information about quality or reputation. People often pay to be on such lists, and the person, if any, giving out the names is unlikely to know anything about them.

At this point, you may want to read the sidebar article on searching for a counselor.

Make the Initial Calls

You have some names, now what? Please note: what I am about to suggest differs from what most counselors expect. By analogy, if you were to build a new house or add on to your existing house, you would get bids from several contractors and interview them to decide who might do the best job. Apply that same principle here. Contact 4 or more therapists before deciding on whom to make an appointment with.

Some therapists work in a clinic with others, and have a receptionist to answer the phone. Some work alone. Don’t be surprised if you get an answering machine or voicemail when you call. Just leave a brief message. There is no need to go into details here. Give them your name and number, and let them know when you will be available to receive calls. Remember that therapists have lives, too; don’t expect them to call outside of normal business hours.

Note whether your calls get returned within a day (or on Monday if you happen to call on Friday). It is a sign of good work habits and respect for others when they call back within a day.

For each contact you make, let him/her know how you got his name and confirm that he does marriage counseling. Then ask about those things you’ve just read about that are most important to you, the things that will help you narrow your list of potential candidates to interview in person. Now this is not what the prospective counselors will expect. For them, the initial phone contact lasts about 10-15 minutes, consists of you briefly describing your problem so that they can decide if they can help you, and setting an appointment. But it is not a given that you want to see them. Therefore, you need to ask questions, too, to narrow down the list of candidates.

Note whether the information he provides helps you to select him, or only boosts his ego by impressing you. Does he seem exasperated or irritated by your questions?

Set Some Appointments and Go

Once you have narrowed your choices, make appointments to see two or three counselors. You will be surprised at their different personalities, demeanor, and skill levels. Don’t short-change yourself on the opportunity to compare and find the marriage counselor who is best for you by interviewing only one.

For each interview, note whether or not the physical surroundings are conducive for good conversation. How is the therapy room? Is it quiet, or do you hear noises from outside? Is the furniture comfortable for you? Does the room smell okay, or like an ashtray?

How should these interviews proceed?

  1. Let them know that you haven’t decided on a particular therapist yet.
  2. Ask whatever questions above you did not ask over the phone that are important to you.
  3. Explain your problems, or the changes you would like to see in your marriage. Ask:What might be an effective course of treatment?What would be the first signs that it’s working?
  4. Then let them take over. The best way a therapist can prove himself to you is by doing his job. He will try to help you in that session, while knowing that you may not come back. Don’t expect a miracle, but do expect some practical advice, and to leave feeling hopeful that he can assist you in getting your relationship back on track.

You should expect to pay for the interviews because, as I said, they will try to help you. If you don’t want to pay anyone until you decide who you will hire, then let them know that when you set the appointment. In that case, expect only a brief 10- or 15-minute interview to get your questions answered. However, I doubt that you will get a good-enough sense of their skill levels to make a well-informed decision.

Evaluate and Decide on One

After each interview, talk about it with your spouse:

Was that prospective marriage counselor someone you felt comfortable talking to? Was there any hesitancy or reluctance to answer your questions? Did you have to work to get information out of him (a sign that you found a person who may not be able to help you resolve your problems)?

How well did the prospective marriage counselor handle the conversation? Were his questions about your issues relevant? If one or both of you tend to interrupt or deride the other, did he offer guidelines or set boundaries (indicating an ability and willingness to control the conversation, and to keep the session focused toward a positive outcome)?

Did the marriage counselor talk about goals and what needs to be done to reach them? He may not have, preferring to complete his assessment first. Depending on the complexity of your situation, that could take one or two more sessions. In couples therapy goals may be a bit on the vague side: better communication, more empathy, or improved relationship. Did he/she suggest possible concrete intermediate steps and mention any markers that would indicate real progress is being made? If goals weren’t discussed, did he at least offer any “homework”? These are signs that you found a good guide.

Did he inspire confidence? The therapeutic alliance, which is the prime factor in the success of any counseling, requires that you find a marriage counselor you can place a high level of confidence in.

Finding the right marriage counselor is not the easiest thing to do. But, that is why I have presented you with such a long list of considerations. Weigh them for their importance to you and your situation. In the end, trust your gut. Make a selection and move forward. May your counseling bring you a strong, healthy, and happy marriage!

Download Questions from This Article

By the way, congratulations on getting through this long article! You now have 20 questions to use in deciding which counselor to choose, along with the reasoning behind them and what to look for in the answers you get.

To assist you in interviewing prospective marriage counselors, you can download a free PDF that lists all 20 questions conveniently on 2 pages. Just click the button below.

Click to Download Free PDF

Another Aid

As you evaluate your choices for counselor, it will help you to write down your thoughts about each candidate, about marriage counseling in general, and about the process of finding a counselor. Putting your thoughts on paper will help provide clarity, not only for you, but also in sharing them with your spouse. So I encourage you to start a journal about your marriage counseling experience.


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[1] ^ William Doherty, “Bad Couples Therapy: How to Avoid It,” Psychotherapy Networker, Dec., 2002.
[2] ^ Peter Fox, “How to Choose Therapist 2,” Retrieved Feb. 21, 2012 from peterfox.com.au.
[3] ^ Doherty.

Download Questions
from This Article

As you can see, the article at the right is really long. Finding a good marriage counselor is not an easy task. Here, I give you 20 questions to use in deciding which counselor to choose. But, they won't do you much good if you don't understand the reasoning behind them and what to look for in the answers you get. So, take your time and absorb the material.

To assist you in interviewing prospective marriage counselors, you can download a free PDF that lists all 20 questions conveniently on 2 pages. Just click the button below.

Click to Download Free PDF

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Quote: A positive outcome is more likely when you expect it. Even when setbacks occur, remain optimistic and keep moving toward what you expect.

Sidebar

I recently came across the website of a person offering marriage counseling services. What she wrote on her website was very appealing. But in looking at her bio, I noticed she did not mention her education. She wrote that she has been helping people since 1977, and my first thought was that a degree would not mean much if she has been practicing that long. 

But after some more digging, I discovered that in 2011 she was slapped with a small fine and ordered not to practice psychology until she got a license. So she moved to a different state. That state has licensing requirements, too, and she doesn't have a license there, either. (Discovering the judgement wasn't hard. I simply searched for "court orders against" and added her name.)

Now, she may be excellent at what she does. And it is very possible for a person to become an expert in any field without being licensed in it, or even having gotten a formal education. But she is breaking the law. 

I am not a big fan of lincensing of any kind; it is rarely an indication of competence and does little to protect consumers. Still, it is your decision as to whether you want to use such a person's services.

For whatever way you find a marriage counselor, do your homework. Understand what you're getting. I believe the main article on this page provides you with the information you need to find the right counselor for you.

If you clicked the link in the main article to get to this sidebar, click here to return to where you were.