A quick guide to choosing a therapist

Choosing a therapist got you feeling overwhelmed? Find out what options are available and how to pick the best therapist for your marriage (or other counseling needs).

Couples therapy can help you and your spouse increase intimacy, stop fighting and relieve long-term frustrations and old hurts. Therapy is not just for couples on the brink of divorce. In fact, the earlier you start learning how to keep your marriage calm and loving (even before you tie the knot) the better prepared you will be for inevitable future challenges.

At the same time, choosing a therapist can feel daunting. Where do you start looking? What should you look for? How can you tell if your therapist is working for you? Start here with this simple guide.

1. How do you find a marriage therapist?

If you and your spouse want to see a therapist in-person, your primary care physician or insurance group may be able to recommend a local marriage therapist.  Friends may be able to suggest someone they found helpful.  Most couples end up choosing a therapist via the internet by searching terms like “marriage therapist,” “couples counseling,” “psychologist,” or “family therapy.” Add the name of your city, e.g. “psychologist Denver.” This is a perfectly good way to start.

Most therapists now have a website where you can read up on the clinician’s background and specialties. Trust your gut as to whether the therapist sounds like your type of professional.  Note especially if he or she sounds too abstract, too inexperienced, or off-putting in any way.  There’s lots of therapists out there so you can afford to be choosey.

Most therapists are open to answering your questions if you phone them.  Some also allow new clients to schedule a free appointment so you can get to know each other. Take advantage of these options of you can before choosing a therapist.

2. What credentials should you look for in a choosing a therapist?

The terms therapist and counselor are general labels for a professional who offers mental health services. Here are certain terms indicating different levels of training you may come across when choosing a therapist. Any of these titles can indicate a wonderful, competent marriage therapist:

  • Psychiatrist: Has a medical (MD) degree, and can prescribe medications.
  • Psychologist: Has a doctoral degree (PhD or PsyD) indicating approximately five years of training after college.
  • Social worker: In general has a two-year Masters degree in social work. You may see LSCW for Licensed Clinical Social Worker. In some states this is an unprotected title.
  • Marriage and family therapist: Indicates specialized training in working with couples and families in addition to one of the three degrees mentioned above.
  • Counselor: Some states require counselors to be licensed with further education, i.e. LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor) or MFCC (Marriage, Family and Child Counselor). In other states the term counselor is unprotected.
  • Pastoral counselor: Has a degree as a church leader as well as training as a therapist or counselor.

Marriage therapy is a specialty within the general area of therapy/counseling.  Be sure to choose a mental health professional with expertise in working with couples.  A general therapist usually has received training in working with one individual at a time.  Additional training is necessary for marriage therapy which involves two people and a marriage.

choosing a therapist

Choosing a therapist is a journey!

3. Do you want a marriage therapist with certain specialties?

Some marriage therapists have received training or have years of experience treating certain life situations. For example, you may consider choosing a therapist who specializes in grief or depression if you and your spouse have recently experienced a loss. A therapist with experience working with blended families is a good choice if you and your spouse are raising children from previous marriages together. Other therapists may specialize in anger, infidelity, or have a religious approach.

4. How can you tell if marriage counseling is working?

The simple answer is that in good couples counseling both people leave almost every session feeling closer and more positive.

In addition, effective therapy imparts these three qualities:

  1. You’ll feel less depressed, angry, anxious. Instead you’ll both feel more confident, loving, and upbeat.
  2. You will feel relief at having found win-win solutions to your differences.  That relief should apply both to your current and past upsets.
  3. You’ll have learned skills for continuing on your own to solve sensitive issues together.  In other words, the ultimate goal of therapy is no longer to need a therapist.

Half of these improvements comes from the insights and skills that your marriage therapist helps you to develop. The other half is the work that you and your spouse put into applying the skills you learn in your sessions. Yes, a happy marriage requires homework!

5. Are you learning insights and skills?

Insight about the origins of relationship problems can make it easier to pull up old bad habits from their roots and lay down new, healthier patterns. Most bad marriage habits come from experiences earlier in your life, especially in watching your parents’ interactions or in the relationships you had with your parents and siblings.  Seeing these origins of your current mistakes helps to free you from making them in the future.

At the same time, be wary if couples counseling has the two of you only looking backward. That’s not a safe way to drive ahead!

As opposed to the old stereotype about therapy, your counselor should not spend the session asking you “How do you feel about that?” You don’t have all the answers for how to fix a relationship. That’s why you’re seeing a therapist! Rather, your therapist should provide you with tools to change how you interact. Good counseling sessions include learning specific skills and techniques for success.

6. What danger signs should you beware when choosing a therapist?

Beware choosing a therapist who doesn’t intervene in negative interactions between you and your partner. Counseling is a place to recognize and arrest negative habits in your relationship. It is a bad sign if your counselor lets you indulge in these bad habits.  For instance, if your therapist lets you criticize each other with comments like, “You shouldn’t have…,” or lets irritation and anger in your dialogue keep escalating, consider choosing a new therapist.  In effective couples therapy the therapist intervenes quickly if either spouse is heading out-of-bounds.  It is the therapist’s job is to help keep the couple they’re working with stay positive and on a cooperative problem-solving track.

Beware, too, of choosing a therapist who takes sides in your arguments, tells you who is right or wrong, or encourages this type of thinking between the two of you.  A helpful therapist guides you to a win-win resolution that respects the concerns of both spouses.

7. What if couples counseling just isn’t working for you?

It can be discouraging to feel that counseling is not helping your marriage, yet stay positive. Chances are good you just haven’t found the right approach for you and your spouse.

Do give yourself permission to leave the therapist you have been seeing, even if you have seen this person for a while. Counseling is, in the end, a professional service.  It’s a mistake to stick with ineffective counseling out of fear of hurting your counselor’s feelings.

Choosing a therapist, like dating, is a process. Keep searching and keep trying different types of counseling until you find the right fit.

Also, for some people, in-person counseling is not the ideal situation. You may dislike discussing your personal life with a stranger, you may dislike having to drive to appointments regularly, and you may struggle with the costs of counseling. Luckily, there are several other therapy options for you.

Marriage retreats that take a marriage education direction can give you and your spouse spend focused time to rethink what has been going on in your relationship. Online programs also may offer private, affordable, and accessible marriage help, and some have been scientifically tested and shown to be just as effective as in-person workshops. What is the Power of Two Online?

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4 Responses to “A quick guide to choosing a therapist”


  • Counselor By Education

    While this is a generally good article there is some potential misinformation here. In many states Counselor is a protected title and represents someone with a two year masters degree plus additional licensure requirements. By the same token social worker is unprotected in some areas as well. These types of blanket statements are detrimental to people looking for a therapist. What if someone has read this, meets a counselor that he/she likes but abandons that because she presumes they’re less educated than others

  • Virginia W. Frederick

    These are great tips on choosing a therapist. There are many therapists around and simply because there are many, it can be difficult to choose. It is best to conduct a research or even ask friends or family members for referals. I completely agree with trusting your guts. It is not going to be easy to open up to some people especially if it’s a stranger but you can try and who knows, that person is the right one.

    EvolvingFamilies.net

    • Thanks for your feedback, Virginia! I like the idea of using family and friends for referrals too. Just as how having both spouses see the same therapist improves the understanding of the marriage and individual factors, a counselor or therapist who sees multiple friends and family can provide better treatment based on an understanding of the dynamics going on within an entire friend or family community.

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