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How to Choose a (Good) Couples Therapist

Explore three forms of therapy that may be right for you.

September 1st, 2011

I was recently asked by some colleagues to contribute a guest column to the Science of Relationships website on the topic of how to choose a good couple therapist. When thinking about this week’s YouBeauty.com column, it occurred to me that the topic of couple therapy might be of interest to some of you. In fact, the topic of couple therapy follows nicely from my last YouBeauty.com column on “earned” attachment security. If I seek professional help to improve my relationships, how should I make the decision about who to see? Without further ado, here’s what I’ve written on how to go about choosing a (good) couples therapist.

First, let me say that if your relationship is struggling and you’re thinking about couple therapy, you are not alone. Recent research indicates that approximately 3 of 10 marriages may be classified as experiencing severe “marital distress” that is qualitatively distinct from the way more happily couples experience their relationship satisfaction.

Said differently, 30 percent of our marriages are in serious, high-risk territory for being really bad. By any account, that’s a lot of people. As you’ve seen time and time again on this website, relationships can be difficult to maintain and relationship quality can erode fairly quickly. As a result, many relationships are teetering on the brink of a breakup.

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The hopeful side of this story is that help is available. In a recent study of two forms of therapy I’ll describe below, more than 60 percent of couples who successfully completed treatment maintained clinical significant gains up to 2 years later. What does “clinically significant” mean? In essence, it means moving from being among the 3 in 10 (really distressed) couples to the 7 in 10 (relatively satisfied) couples and staying improved for over 24 months. This is a good outcome, and the lesson here is that couples treatment can work when people are engaged and motivated to change.

MORE: Dr. Oz and Dr. Roizen Talk Relationship Communication

Given all these facts, what do you need to know about choosing a good couple therapist? First, you want to find a therapist who regularly sees couples and has clear training in working with couples.

As a potential client, you also are a consumer (that is, you will pay for this service and you are entitled to shop around for the person who is best qualified to provide therapy for you). There is no such thing as “dabbling” in couple therapy, so your potential therapist must be qualified to provide you and your partner with the most up-to-date treatments based on contemporary science. Here are two initial questions to ask when you speak to a potential therapist:

  1. Can you tell me a bit about your professional background and training in working with couples?
  2. About what percentage of your practice is dedicated to working with couples?

With respect to #1, you want to find someone who has worked with couples for a long period of time and who mentions definite training experiences in couple therapy. I might answer this question with something like: “As part of my doctoral training, I received extensive experience working with couples, including spending multiple years being closely supervised while working proving therapy to couple. I took graduate classes in basic relationship science, as well as couple treatment more specifically, and I stay up-to-date on advances in the field by regularly attending continuing education sessions on this topic.”

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