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Marriage Counseling Questions

How To Choose a Marriage Counselor
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, LMFT, LP, BCC

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, LMFT, LP, BCC

Dr. Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. She a licensed marriage and family therapist, licensed psychologist, and board certified life coach. She’s the author of “Exaholic: Breaking Your Addiction to An Ex Love” and the host of The Love, Happiness and Success Podcast.

How To Choose a Marriage Counselor

You’ve just had another frustrating, hurtful experience with your partner. You think,”Something has got to change because the way things are going doesn’t feel sustainable for us.” You’ve probably already tried working on things yourself, but the same issues creep back in. It’s time to take action, and get help for your relationship. 

Now, you’re looking for the marriage counselor or couples therapist who can help you make real and lasting change in your relationship. The wise person who can get through, support you, challenge you, and guide you. The person who can help you both learn, grow, and reconnect with your love for each other. You want nothing more than to start hearing each other, working together to improve your relationship, and grow back together again and you’re hopeful that enlisting the support of a real relationship expert can help you accomplish this.

So you ask the all-knowing Google to find you an expert marriage counselor, and…. all of a sudden you’re knee deep in smiling, sympathetic faces. All with offers of understanding, support, and help. They all seem nice enough. Certainly enthusiastic. But in any given area — whether you’re looking to work with a Denver marriage counselor, or an online couples therapist here are lots and lots… and lots… of marriage counselors, couples therapists, relationship coaches. How in the world to you narrow it down, let alone choose a good marriage counselor?

With so many choices it can be easy to just click on the marriage counselor who looks nice, or who has a slick website, or who is even available to take new clients.

But this is a big decision, and it’s a good idea to slow down and do your research. Getting involved with the wrong marriage counselor or couples therapist can be not just a big waste of time and money, it can actually make your relationship worse. 

I, personally, have been a marriage counselor and a therapist (and a coach) for a long time, and I am also in the position to have hired many therapists and marriage counselors here at Growing Self. Having read through hundreds of resumes, interviewed hundreds of marriage counselors, and worked closely with dozens of amazing couples therapists (and some that have not been that amazing, and which have since been released from our practice) I have gained some insight into what to look for in a marriage counselor… and honestly, what to avoid. 

Here are my top tips to help you pick a winning marriage counselor who can help you create the loving, secure, happy partnership you want (and deserve). 

Finding the Right Marriage Counselor is Really Important

You must have some kind of criteria for choosing a couples therapist, because this is a big decision. This is the person who you are going to be trusting with the most important thing in your life — your marriage, and your family. This is a person who you’re going to open up to about some of the most important, sensitive, vulnerable things you can imagine. They might even ask you about your sex life. Your couples therapist needs to be someone you feel comfortable with.

But even more important than being likable and easy to talk to, the marriage counselor you work with needs to be competent. Because for many couples, deciding to finally go see a marriage counselor is a long time in the making. Too many couples put off getting expert help for their relationship until things have been feeling really hard between them for quite a while. If they’ve left it for too long, really regrettable, hurtful things may have transpired between them.

Some couples wait so long to get help that by the time they finally do, it feels like a last resort. They are literally on the brink of divorce. (Finally) contacting a marriage counselor is their final attempt to resolve long-standing relationship problems before calling it quits in their relationship. They may be Googling marriage counselors and divorce lawyers and setting up appointments with each, just to cover their bases. It’s bad.

So, in this kind of crisis, marriage counseling NEEDS to work. If it doesn’t, they’re done.

But even for couples who are not on the brink, no one just idly decides to try couples therapy just for kicks. It’s because they’re worried about their relationship and they want it to be better. They love their partner, they care about their family, and they believe that their future with this person is worth investing in.

So if they try marriage counseling and it doesn’t help… what does that mean? (The implications can be troubling).

Whether you’re in a relationship crisis, or drifting downhill towards one, when it’s time to get real help for your relationship you cannot afford to fool around with someone who is not competent to help you. Because if marriage counseling fails… your marriage might fail.

Sadly, when couples have a sub-par experience with a marriage counselor they don’t usually think, “Well that was just a bad marriage counselor.” No. They think, “We went to marriage counseling and it didn’t help, so this means our relationship is doomed.” (Which is terrible, because there really are legitimately bad marriage counselors out there practicing.) Furthermore, it’s hard to get a re-do. If you’ve had to beg and badger your partner to try couples therapy once, and it was a bad experience, it’s going to be a really tough sell to get them into marriage counseling a second time.

So this needs to be an informed decision. Choosing a marriage counselor because you like the face smiling at you in the photo, or they offer online booking, or the fact that they can meet with you on Tuesdays at 7pm, is simply not enough. Here are the things that  WILL help you find a good marriage counselor — one who can actually help you repair your marriage:

1). Avoid Bad Marriage Counseling By… Choosing a Marriage Counselor

This sounds silly, but it’s important: Stay with me here.

There are many flavors of mental health professionals. Licensing requirements vary a bit from state to state, but in my home state of Colorado you could see a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), Licensed Psychologist (LP), a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), a Psychiatrist (MD), or a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) or (heaven help you) a “registered psychotherapist” or relationship coach. (The latter two professional titles don’t even require a high school diploma). Almost none of these professions are qualified to conduct couples therapy, although many of them do.

Of all these professions, only Marriage and Family Therapists have specialized education, training and experience in helping couples.

I know this for a fact, because I am licensed as both a Psychologist and a Marriage and Family Therapist. To become and LMFT I had to complete a master’s degree with specialized coursework in family systems, family assessment, child development, sexuality, as well as all the basics of mental health counseling including abnormal psychology, ethics, substance use, basic psychology, and more. THEN I had practicums where experienced couples therapists watched me work with couples from behind a one way mirror (providing feedback and coaching). THEN I was allowed to do an  internship in couples counseling where I got more feedback, more coaching, did case presentations and continued learning.

Then, after I graduated I had to work for years (years!) amassing thousands of supervised hours  counseling couples under the supervision of another licensed marriage and family therapist, plus pass a difficult national exam that tested my knowledge of couples and family theory, methods, and more. Only then I was awarded my marriage and family therapist license.

In contrast, someone who is a mental health counselor or clinical social worker has… wait for it… almost zero explicit training, education, experience or mentorship in couples and family therapy. Even psychologists (who require a doctorate to become licensed) learn almost nothing about couples and family therapy.

I know this first hand: Because I love what I do and wanted to learn everything there was to know about helping people, after I finished my master’s degree in couples and family therapy  I decided to continue my education with a PhD in counseling psychology. This required four more years of coursework, practice, internships, exams, and while I did learn much more about the psychology of individuals and psychological assessments I was (shocked, actually) that I was only required to take ONE couples and family class. That’s it. In four years.

So even if someone is an LPC, LMHC, LCSW or LP, they might be great therapists, but they do NOT have specialized training and experience in helping couples. Do not get dazzled by doctorates either. Just because someone has “Dr.” in front of their name it does not mean they have any specialized training or experience in working with couples.

Only licensed marriage and family therapists do.

2) Watch For Warning Signs of Bad Couples Therapy

I routinely meet couples who have tried “marriage counseling” with a therapist who had no specialized training or experience in Couples and Family Therapy — and it almost cost them their relationship. Any therapist can offer “marriage counseling” even if their background is in social work, counseling individuals, or even as a school psychologist.

As the hiring manager here at Growing Self I am routinely fascinated (and more than a little horrified) with the number of applications and resumes we get from very enthusiastic therapists who “work with couples” …. with absolutely no basis for doing so. We do not contract with them, in case you’re wondering.

Here’s why we don’t work with them and why you shouldn’t either: Many therapists offering couples counseling without specialized training in this area attempt to help couples by using individual therapy techniques. This frequently disintegrates into their identifying one of the partners as “the person with the problem” rather than doing what actual couples counselors do which is working to the couple as a system.

This focused understanding of “systems” is a perspective that is unique to Marriage and Family Therapists. We don’t see you as just an individual. We understand that you are reacting to your partner. And that your partner is reacting to you. This is particularly true with couples who have become emotionally attached to each other. This pattern of reactions creates cyclic, emotional systems that create either conflict and disconnection or peace and unity. This systemic phenomena is why your relationship with your partner is entirely different than any other. (Haven’t you ever wondered why your relationship makes you crazy, when other friendships don’t? It’s the system!)

Without this systemic perspective, an individual therapist may genuinely not understand what is creating conflict between a couple. With limited understanding and focus on “symptoms” this individual therapist may diagnose one partner with depression, tell the other they’re overly anxious, recommend medication, speculate about various “underlying issues,” and when all that fails to help, ultimately resort to prescribing date nights.

Great. This couple may dutifully go on a date, only to spend the evening arguing, blaming and criticizing each other. The next day they may feel even more hopeless about the marriage. The “depressed partner” becomes more emotionally withdrawn and numb. The “anxious partner” gets even more worked up. Eventually they may drop out of marriage counseling, conclude that they are beyond hope and move towards divorce. In my opinion, this is a tragedy.

Because an actual, competent marriage counselor would have handled this whole scenario very differently: Helping this couple find hope, work together to connect, learn how to communicate, and strengthen their bond. Then date nights are actually fun!

So, quick rundown of warning signs that your “couples therapist” is not actually a couples therapist:

  • As described above, they don’t have something involving “MFT” after their name 
  • They don’t have a coherent, evidence-based, couples-specific, systemic theoretical orientation and skill-set (meaning that they don’t have a road map that informs 1) the nature of the problem and 2) what to do to resolve it)
  • They focus on one person’s issues or mental health diagnosis as the cause of the relationship problems
  • They were formerly one of your individual therapists, and then started seeing you together (a real couples therapist would never, ever do this)
  • They let you just talk (and fight) in couples sessions without any direction or guidance
  • They keep secrets between you
  • They offer suggestions that sound too basic to be helpful (they are), and
  • When all of the above fails to be helpful they tell you you’re just not compatible and should probably get divorced (because they are out of ideas!)

Non-MFT’s Don’t Know What They Don’t Know

Even highly competent, highly educated non-MFT therapists may not know what they don’t know about working with couples…. and therefore are extremely over-confident in their ability to be helpful to couples.

I distinctly remember talking to a colleague once — a very smart, accomplished and successful Licensed Psychologist who had a private practice as well as a leadership role in the Colorado Psychological Association — who said, “I really admire the work you do Lisa, couples counseling is just so hard. For some reason all the couples I see in my private practice seem to break up. I’m not sure why.” (!!!!)

But now YOU know why.

As you can tell, helping people get connected with high quality, effective help is a cause I feel passionately about. I’m so glad that I have this chance to share this insight with you, especially as you’re on the cusp of making such an important decision.

The fact that you’re reading this and educating yourself about the alphabet soup of credentials you’ll encounter as you look for a marriage counselor lessens the chances that you’ll fall victim to well-meaning incompetence.

Punchline: Seek out an Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) or, at the very least, an LMFT candidate who is practicing under the supervision of a senior Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.

3) Look For A Marriage Counselor Who Uses Evidence-Based Approaches

But wait, there’s more!

Even among LMFT’s, there is a wide variety of approaches used by marriage counselors. Some marriage counselors believe that the best way to improve your relationship in the here and now is by figuring out how you are re-enacting patterns from your families of origin. Other marriage counselors focus on what you do, specifically, to have better interactions with each other. Some marriage counselors will focus on things like boundaries, and individuation. Some are all about communication skills. Some are extremely solution-focused. Still others attempt to help you feel more securely attached, and only then address specific problems. 

“Awesome!” You’re probably thinking sarcastically, “More marriage counselor choices!”

It’s okay: There is usually a safe harbor in science.  While psychology is a soft science (meaning that there is seldom one Absolute Correct Answer to matters of the heart) we DO know from decades of thoughtful research that particular kinds of marriage counseling are more effective from others.

The best, most reliable kinds of marriage counseling have been scientifically tested, replicated, written about, and tested some more… and then the long term outcomes have been tested. They have been compared to other approaches (and a control) with a large number of people, and shown to be more helpful to more people for longer periods of time.

Evidence-Based Marriage Counseling and Couples Therapy

The types of marriage counseling that have been shown by research to be most genuinely effective and helpful are Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, and The Gottman Method. This is not to say that other methods are not at all helpful, they can be. But if you’re looking for the gold standard, you’ll want to get involved in one of these types. (Or both — some marriage counselors draw upon each at different points in the counseling process).

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy is all about helping to restore attachment bonds between two people. This approach helps you reconnect with your loving feelings for each other, repair trust, increase emotional intimacy and help you feel like you are each other’s number-one fan again. Once you are feeling good about each other again it becomes easy to solve problems together. This is a “bottom up” approach in that it focuses on the foundation first. First you restore your connection, then you focus on making changes.

The Gottman Method is all about helping you learn behaviors, skills and strategies to communicate more effectively, handle conflict productively, strengthen your friendship, and be a better partner to each other. Where Emotionally Focused Therapy goes deep to help you repair your bond, The Gottman Method teaches you real world, practical skills for “how to do healthy relationships.” It involves homework assignments, and is focused on helping you make day to day changes. It’s a “top down approach” meaning that it’s focused on making changes in your behaviors first, rather than on changing your feelings first. (Though feelings often change in response to having better experiences with each other).

In combination, these two approaches dovetail perfectly: EFT addresses the deep attachment needs of both people that help restore your foundation, and The Gottman Method provides you with the real world  relationship skills you need to succeed.

Couples who go through these kinds of couples therapy (or relationship coaching that applies these techniques) get better, longer lasting results than couples who work with therapists practicing other methods…. or a therapist who does not have theoretical orientation at all.

When you’re on the market for a marriage counselor, look for someone who practices Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy and / or The Gottman Method. Virtually all of the marriage counselors and relationship coaches at Growing Self embrace one or both of these methods — it’s what we look for when partnering with relationship experts. We only want to do what works.

4). Shop Around, and Test Drive Marriage Counselors Before Committing

What research into the outcomes of couples therapy and marriage counseling consistently show is that what matters even more than the tools or approach of your therapist is the quality of the connection that you have with them.

I have met marriage counselors who are blazingly smart and insightful, and who know everything there is to know about the research and best practices in couples therapy, and who still fail to do great work with clients… because client’s just don’t click with them personally. 

This makes sense.

In order for couples therapy, marriage counseling or relationship coaching to be meaningful and successful, it’s vital that you feel like your counselor understands you, and supports you in achieving your goals. It’s also essential that you feel good about them, like you trust them to help you.

Because a really meaningful, effective couples counseling experience requires both of you to open up: Be real, be authentic, dig deep, talk about things you don’t usually talk about. It also requires you to take feedback, learn things about yourself, and start doing things a little differently.

It’s really hard to be vulnerable and radically honest with someone who you don’t feel a connection with. And it’s nearly impossible to take guidance from someone that you don’t feel emotionally safe with. I wouldn’t do it, and neither should you.

Because the quality of the relationship that you have with your couples counselor is so important, I believe that it’s vital for you to meet the person you’re thinking of working with to see how you feel before moving forward. I, personally, am suspicious of any practitioner who doesn’t offer a free consultation of some type. If they don’t understand and value the importance of the relationship they’re going to have with you, why should you??

At Growing Self, free consultations are always the starting point of meaningful personal growth work. If you’d like to work with one of the relationship experts on our team, we encourage you to start this entire process by simply scheduling a free consultation session in order to make sure it feels like the right fit for YOU. You can ask questions, get to know each other, and ensure that you’re a good match to work together. If it’s a fit, then you can move forward together and begin meeting regularly until you’ve achieved your goals for your relationship. 

But whether or not you choose to do this important work with Growing Self, I am really glad that you took the time to read this article. You are educating yourself about your options, researching what things mean, and going about this major life decision very thoughtfully. That says so much about you. Thank you for allowing me to be part of your growth process (even if our journey together ends right here).

Wishing you all the best, 

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

You provided us such a safe place to be honest with ourselves and with each other our fear of being vulnerable and weak were transformed into a feeling of opportunity to be heard. My husband and I are better friends, parents, lovers and companions than we have ever been.

– Former Clients

 

 

 

Meet a Few of Our Relationship Experts

The marriage counselor, couples therapists and premarital counselors of Growing Self have specialized training and years of experience in helping couples reconnect. We use only evidence based strategies that have been proven by research to help you restore your strong bond, and love your relationship again.

 

 

 

Teresa Thomas

Teresa Thomas

M.A.

Teresa Thomas is a marriage counselor and couples therapist with years of experience in helping couples communicate more effectively, find new solutions to old problems, repair their strong bond, rebuild trust after affairs, successfully blend families, improve their sexual intimacy, and parent joyfully together. She is a couples therapist and parenting coach with a positive, solution focused style who specializes in helping you both make positive changes to your life, as well as to your relationship.

Meagan Terry

Meagan Terry

M.A., LMFT

Meagan Terry is a relationship specialist. She is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with over nine years of experience in helping couples reconnect, and enjoy each other again. She uses effective, evidence based forms of marriage counseling including Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy and The Gottman Method. In addition to working one-on-one with couples, she teaches our Lifetime of Love premarital and relationship class.

Seth Bender

Seth Bender

M. A., LMFTC

Seth Bender is a marriage and family therapist with specialized training and experience in helping couples heal their relationships, improve communication, release resentments, and achieve new levels of enjoyment and fulfillment with each other. He practices Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy to help you strengthen your bond, as well as positive, empowering and solution focused coaching strategies to help you both take positive action in your relationship.  

Dori Bagi

Dori Bagi

M. S., ASORC

Dori is a kind, empathetic couples counselor, individual therapist, and life coach who specializes in sex therapy, and helping couples create healthy emotional and sexual intimacy. Her friendly style makes it safe to talk about anything, and her solution-focused approach helps you move past the past, and into a bright new future of intimacy and connection.

Brittany Stewart

Brittany Stewart

M.S., MFTC

 

Brittany specializes in helping couples strengthen their bond, and heal old hurts, in order to develop a more secure and satisfying relationship. She can help you both understand yourselves, and each other, so that you can create new, positive ways of relating that heal your connection— on every level.

 

Anastacia Sams

Anastacia Sams

M.A., N.C.C., LMFT-C

Anastacia's authentic, caring approach to marriage counseling and relationship coaching helps couples find each other's "noble intentions," and re-commit to showing each other love and respect. She can help you heal old hurts, improve your communication, restore trust, and work together as a team.

Amanda Schaeffer

Amanda Schaeffer

M.S., MFTC

 

Amanda is a Marriage Counselor and Relationship Coach with a warm, gentle style that will help you both feel comfortable, respected, and understood. She has a gift for helping couples understand each other compassionately, feel emotionally safe, and start enjoying each other again.

 

Polly Drew

Polly Drew

M.Ed., LMFT

Polly is a marriage counselor with over 25 years of experience in helping couples "come back from the brink," heal their strong bond, and enter into a positive and satisfying new chapter of life together. Her warm, competent style will put you both at ease and help you find new solutions to old problems.

More Relationship Questions? We Have Answers.

If you have more questions about Marriage Counseling, we are happy to answer them in person. Schedule a free consultation session with one of our expert marriage counselors today. You can meet with them at our Denver or Westminster office locations, or through online video conferencing. Call 720-370-1800 for personal assistance in scheduling. (Our phones are answered 24/7). In a private, professional environment we can get to know each other, you can talk about your hopes for your relationship, and start moving forward together in mending your marriage.

Thank you for helping us find our strong bond again. I can’t tell you how much it’s helped us.

Former Client

Questions? We Answer 24/7.

Call with questions or for personal assistance in scheduling. We always answer. 844-331-1993

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