Qualities to look for in a Couples Therapist & What to Expect

conflict among couplesThe reasons for conflict among couples are many and varied. While each relationship has its own unique dynamic and considerations, some common causes of conflict among couples are infidelity, money issues, communication problems, weight gain, control issues, abuse, addictions, intimacy problems, parenting differences, lack of attraction, and lack of intimacy.

Couples and individuals do not need to navigate these challenges alone. Therapy can help sort through relationship wounds and work towards breaking negative cycles. It can also help in the decision-making process about whether to stay together or move forward individually. Therapy can help strengthen the relationship, or it can help the couple untangle from each other’s lives mindfully – if that is what is needed.

Choosing a skilled therapist is very important.

Qualities to look for in a Couples Therapist:

When you are facing relationship challenges, the last place you want to focus your energy on ‘therapist shopping’. It can get confusing to compare multiple therapists when you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. Here is a checklist of what to look for in a couples’ therapist:

  • The therapist must specialize in couples/relationship counseling, and not be a ‘generalist’, or someone who provides many different services.
  • Discuss the possibility of longer sessions with your therapist. Often the traditional 50-minute hour is not adequate for couples’ work, especially initially. Many seasoned couples’ therapists offer longer sessions.
  • Ask about the policy for support between sessions. You might want to and benefit from having a safety person – someone you can reach in between sessions if required. Especially if you are dealing with a relationship crisis, you might need a way to contact your therapist if needed. Another question to ask do they accommodate emergency sessions or is their schedule very rigid.
  • You may want to check reviews, websites, years of practice, years of licensure, and specializations or training post-licensure to determine how experienced and trained the therapist is.
  • The therapist’s supportiveness and investment in your relationship can be assessed in the first few sessions. Trust your feelings about this. Do you feel supported, and safe with the therapist? It is extremely important to have that comfort.
  • The therapist must demonstrate leadership in handling your relationship concerns. In some sense, a relationship therapist’s work includes taking charge of the flailing or distressful relationship. In order to do so, they must have leadership skills, and the ability to help channel pain, anger, anxiety, etc. appropriately.

Personality traits of Effective Therapists/ Therapists:

  • One of the most important attributes of an effective therapist is empathy. It’s vital to determine if your therapist is empathetic and caring in the therapist-patient-relationship.
  • Effective and active listening is irreplaceable and essential for a therapist to have, as is the skill to read body language and other non-verbal cues. A therapist must pay attention not only to what the patient is saying but also to what the patient is not saying or avoiding. Everything is grist for the mill to determine the effective and appropriate treatment.
  • Confidentially is of the highest importance, and therapists must follow the laws and code of ethics put forth by their board. What is said in a therapy session is not to be ever divulged by the therapist unless mandated by law.
  • The therapist must be caring and empathetic. Patience to fully hear and understand the client’s experiences is important in order to extend empathy and decide on effective treatment.
  • Traits of observation and interest as well as patience, kindness and tolerance are needed in order to help clients explore and process their experiences and emotions.
  • The therapist should have gone through their own therapy or rigorous self-analysis process, so they can be aware of and address their biases and beliefs in the context of therapy.
  • The therapist must be of sound mental well-being themselves. If their own life circumstances are disruptive it would likely impact their ability to assist their clients towards well-being.
  • An essential aspect of therapy is to inspire trust and foster safety with the client. A non-judgmental space helps clients get the courage to go to their deepest, darkest thoughts and fears
  • The therapists need to be able to navigate with patience and compassion if there are times when the client regresses or falls back into old patterns and help them get back on the track to progress.
  • The therapist must be insightful and willing to piece together options, solutions and practical actions to be taken when needed.
  • Highly effective therapists are those who treat their work as an art and a science, integrating analytical skills with the ability for empathy and patience, and keeping in mind the new and innovative approaches in the field.

Quick reference list: Questions to discuss with your partner to determine the course of action:

  1. What are the most important issues or concerns in the relationship?
  2. Can we problem-solve the concerns we have?
  3. Is separation or divorce being considered by either or both partners?
  4. Is this a difficult phase that will pass, or is it a crisis situation?
  5. What are the feelings each partner has about the relationship, and about each other?
  6. What bothers each most about the other?
  7. How would you rate the romance in the relationship?
  8. How intact is the trust in the relationship?
  9. Is there a way to repair trust if it is damaged?
  10. How is the intimacy in the relationship?
  11. Is there a betrayal or infidelity involved?
  12. Is there a temptation to step out of the relationship?
  13. What are the expectations from couples’ therapy?
  14. How much and what is the motivation to save the relationship?
  15. What are the past resentments that need to be addressed to move forward?
  16. What are the biggest barriers to personal contentment in the relationship?
  17. What are the biggest barriers to smooth communication?
  18. What do you envision for the future?
  19. Has everything possible been tried?
  20. Is there a willingness to try and change as needed?
  1. How long will therapy be needed?
    Typically, within the first session or two, the therapist will be able to assess your situation and give you some idea as to the timeframe needed for effective change. Deeper or chronic issues like infidelity and betrayal may take an average of 6 months or more of working through the crisis and towards healing, while less painful situations may take on average 2 or 3 months. However, every couple and every situation are different, and time to heal and recover is subjective and dependant on the individuals.
  2. Will the therapist take sides?
    In couples work, the ‘client’ is the relationship. It would be counterproductive for the therapist to choose an alliance. They may provide feedback and opinions, but the goal is to create repair and not a divide in the relationship. The therapist must understand both sides and perspectives though one or another partner may get more attention in certain sessions.
  3. If I go alone will my relationship still be helped?
    If a partner goes for therapy alone, they can still impact their relationship through change and growth within their individual work. Though relationship change is most catalyzed with couples sessions, some interspersed individual sessions may be recommended along with couples sessions.
  4. Can sex be discussed?
    Sex and intimacy can and absolutely should be discussed in couples’ sessions. Your therapist may refer you to a specialist such as a sex therapist, or a medical professional such as a urologist if needed.
  5. Should therapy issues be addressed between sessions?
    With less volatile couples and less volatile issues, sometimes it is helpful to discuss therapy conversations between sessions. But with couples who have communication issues, and or high volatility, difficult topics should be contained in the therapy room. However, rely on the therapist to advise you whether to table discussions between sessions or not.
  6. Will my relationship be saved due to therapy?
    The therapist can help catalyze and support change, but the efficacy of the outcome depends on the motivation and commitment of the clients. Effective therapists can help clients understand and gain insight into their negative patterns and provide tools to use in the relationship. However, the actual utilization of the tools depends on the clients.
  7. It didn’t work before so why will it work now?
    Timing, motivation and therapists’ skills impact the outcome. It is important to keep an open mind even if you have tried therapy before.
  8. Can I change my therapist if I don’t like her or him?
    It is important to find the right fit. If the therapist provides a free consultation, it might be a good time to get a feel for their working approach and personality. In a session trust your feelings and if you are not comfortable, don’t hesitate to look for someone else who might be a better fit.

Some Skills Taught in Couples Therapy

  1. Make an effort to understand your partner’s world.
  2. Provide empathy to your partner even when you communicate difficult things.
  3. Take care of yourself and regularly practice activities of self-care.
  4. Work towards a vision of a shared future.
  5. Agree to disagree when needed and walk away when needed.
  6. Express your feelings effectively and kindly, even during conflict.
  7. Be emotionally available to your partner.
  8. Focus on the positives along with the negatives.
  9. Calm high emotional intensity.
  10. Try to problem solve.
  11. Be open to change.