Once a couple makes the decision to get marriage or relationship counseling or coaching, they assume that any counselor or coach can provide the couples counseling they need. Here some things you might want to consider in choosing the right match for you.
1. Many counselors and quite a few coaches say they do marriage / relationship therapy or coaching. Any licensed counselor can legally say they do marriage therapy, but that does not mean they have had the additional training in marriage/relationship therapy to do so. Most therapists have one or two college courses in marriage and family therapy. Often 'coaches' have none! In my opinion a couple of graduate courses is NOT enough to qualify a person to direct you in the most significant relationship of your life! Marriage or relationship counseling is different than just individual counseling with two people in the room.!
What to clarify:
Ask the therapist or coach, what additional training they have had for marriage and relationship therapy. Make sure the person has additional certification or extensive training in marriage and relationships. There are a variety of certification programs available for counselors.
Ask what percentage of their practice are marriages or other partnerships?
I recommend someone whose practice includes more than 50%. There are counselors and coaches who have 80-90% of their practice devoted to couples and other forms of relationship.
2. I have had many couples and others come to my office over the years, saying that they had been in therapy for months or even years for their marriage or relationship, but nothing happened. "All the counselor did was listen while we talked." Or, "the counselor just acted like a referee while we argued." Or, "The counselor thought I was the problem."
What to clarify:
Ask the counselor or coach to describe what kind of marriage or relationship counseling approach they use. Ask them to describe what a typical session is like.
I recommend a counselor or coach who has an active approach that teaches you specific skills. I strongly believe that counselors or coaches working with relationships should be teaching you skills, coaching you in the process and practice, and giving you things to do between sessions at home to reinforce what you are learning. The idea is to give you the skills so you can continue your journey successfully on your own!
A good marriage/relationship counselor or coach will help you both feel heard and understood and will avoid taking sides. It is never just one person who is 'the problem'. Both contribute to the climate of the relationship and both need to be taking steps to change their part.
3. When I hear couples or others say they have been in couples counseling for a year (or more!), a red flag goes up for me. Sometimes the explanation is that the partners do not practice or make significant effort to take positive steps forward. They expect the therapist to do it all and they just show up. That won't work! Change is challenging for all of us because truthfully, even those of us who are committed to our personal growth, can grow very attached to our 'comfort zone' ! Other explanations for lack of progress is that the couples counselor or coach does not teach skills they need to move forward or is looked to as the one who magically fixes the problem. That makes you dependent on the therapist or therapy in the future to solve other issues that will come up. While it is a small minority, there are counselors who will keep people in therapy just to keep them coming.
What to clarify:
Ask the counselor or coach how long an average couple or partnership spends in therapy or coaching with them. Usually they will say they cannot tell you how long it will take until they meet with you.
Ask them to give you just a ballpark average. I am a firm believer in short term counseling or coaching whenever possible -- meaning between 3-12 sessions. Some couples will require more, but I recommend a therapist or coach whose goal is to give you want you need to be successful and then send you out to use it!
4. Studies have been done that show that some marriage counseling or coaching can be hazardous to your relationship! Why? Many therapists and some coaches will say things that suggest if your marriage / relationship is in a rough spot and you are tired of being in the spot, you should just get out of it. Or, they will see only one partner in the relationship, hear their frustration or hurt, and tell them they deserve more and if it isn't happening in their current relationship, they should just move on. Stay away from them!
What to clarify:
Ask the therapist if they will see you as a couple or as individual(s). Studies have shown that seeing marriage / relationship partners separately often does not help and can add to the distress of the relationship. Go with someone who wants you both in session together. Some of these therapists may occasionally LATER see one or both persons for an individual session one time or a couple of times after starting you as a couple, but then they will bring you back to joint sessions. The repair needs to happen in the relationship, not just within one person, although you usually will be doing personal work as part of the couple's therapy. It also makes it very unsafe for the person not in the session when they know their partner has already talked about them to the counselor.
Ask the therapists what their philosophy is related to marriage, committed relationship and making efforts to repair and renew a current relationship. I recommend going with someone who believes that most marriages and committed relationships can be saved. Yours may or may not be. You may or may not choose to do the work. You might do the work and choose ultimately to end the relationship. But the reality is most marriages and committed relationships can become good ones. Some won't be great, but the majority can be good enough. At the same time, I recommend a counselor or coach who is committed to helping the couple transform the relationship, but at the same time will respect your ultimate decision, whatever that is. The bias needs to be in favor of the relationship without forcing you to stay in a relationship you really don't want to be in even if you can change the patterns and distress.
Ask what percentage of couples who see them decide to divorce -- ball park figure.
5. A good marriage and relationship counselor or coach will require or at least strongly encourage you and your partner to set goals for your work with them and often ask you to do a vision for your marriage or relationship. Creating a vision and working goals keeps you taking the specific and concrete steps necessary to co-create the marriage / relationship that you want. You are proactively creating more of what you want and not just focusing on what you want to get away fromt.
What to clarify:
If your counselor or coach does not have you setting goals or a vision by the second session, bring it up and put in writing what you want to accomplish with him or her and what you want to increase in your relationship.
A note about looking at the past vs. total focus on the present:
Some people believe that you should never deal with the individual's past if you are working toward goals. Sometimes it is not only necessary, but an opportunity to understand yourself and each other, to avoid letting your past run your present and future, and a way to release more of your potential as an individual. This does not mean you should be spending tons of sessions on growing up, but a brief visit to the past can provide a door for your success in the future. In fact, it is often necessary to get to some of the core 'buttons' and roots that get triggered in the relationship. The brain stores events with strong emotions attached to them and those events are roots of your 'buttons' and usually what undermines you in many areas of your journey to a more satisfying and successful life.Most coaches are not trained to do that briefly and effectively. Some therapists focus on it too much and have you wallowing in the past for weeks.
Ask your counselor or coach what his or her views are regarding this. You want a focus on building a new future, but also a realization that doing that also means consciously changing your automatic patterns which involve protection. Those patterns are rooted in the past and can quickly sabotage your work. Put past, present, future together and you can create a winning formula. Again, you want someone who can help you get to those core issues quickly, safely, and can help you use that knowledge to go to your next level.
6. Find a counselor or coach who will require you to focus on your own contributions to creating your relationship climate as well as creating a space to talk about your frustrations with each other. Some professionals have the couple essentially fight in front of them while they referee. Blaming does no one any good. There are ways of expressing frustration that promote intimacy and connection and help each person take next steps.