Editor's note: One of our readers asked about how to find a good couple therapist/counselor, so we contacted our colleague Dr. David A. Sbarra:
As a guest contributor to ScienceOfRelationships.com, let me tell you a little bit about myself and why I was asked to write this column. I am a Clinical Psychologist and Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Arizona, where I also serve as Director of Clinical Training. At the U of A, I have an active research program on divorce and how people cope with the end of relationships. I also have an active clinical practice, and I see couples who are dealing with a variety of relationships difficulties. None of this is all that important, except to say that I have decent amount of expertise on couple therapy, and I thought you’d like to know why I was asked to dole out some advice on how to choose 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% 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.
The hopeful side of this story is that help is available. In a recent study of two forms of therapy I’ll describe in Part 2 of this article, more than 60% 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.
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.” If someone merely says, “I’ve attended several workshops on couples treatment,” I personally do not believe this is enough. A good couple therapist has a history of being supervised by qualified professionals when they first learned how to do the work.
With respect to #2, it is often difficult to sustain a clinical practice with couples alone, but I think most good couple therapists will devote 50% or more of their time working primarily with couples. There’s no hard-and-fast rule here, but you want to find someone who spends a good deal of time providing the treatment you’re interested in receiving. This is why we think of a couple therapist as a specialist and not a generalist. Analogously, if you break your ankle you want to see an orthopedist, not an internist or family doctor. It’s the same for couple therapy: Try to find someone who can explain or demonstrate why they are a specialist in this area.
Next, a brief word about professional certifications. Notice that I used the broad term “therapist” and not “clinical psychologist.” I don’t believe your therapist needs to be a psychologist. A licensed marriage and family therapist will most likely have the degree of training needed to provide high quality couple therapy. In a similar vein, just because someone is a licensed clinical psychologist does not mean they are qualified to provide couple therapy. Regardless of your therapist’s degree, look for someone who has demonstrated experience and expertise working with couples.
Dr. David A. Sbarra is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Arizona. His research focuses on self-regulation and recovery following social disruptions, normative attachment processes in adult relationships, and treatment outcome research related to family transitions. You can read more from Dr. Sbarra on his blog at youbeauty.com.