Attending couples counseling is already hard enough without the added stress of feeling that your counselor is unqualified or unfit to address your specific issues. Fortunately, as a couple's therapist myself, I am going to share with you what I believe makes a couple's counselor worth your time and money.
I will add a caveat or two before we begin: Couples counseling takes time, and things will usually get worse before they get better; that's not necessarily a sign that your counselor is unskillful. Beginning to address topics that have been swept under a rug for a long time is not easy and may bring out unpleasant emotions. Furthermore, what you put into therapy is what you get out of it. Think of a therapist as a relationship consultant. As with all consultants, they can give you guidance, but you are responsible for implementing the changes.
A Couple's Counselor Is Worth Your Time And Money If:
THEY KNOW THE BASICS OF ATTACHMENT THEORY
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for a couple's therapist to be aware of the impact their clients' attachment strategies are having on a relationship. For instance, it is very common for couples to have different, nay, opposite attachment styles; Avoidant and Anxious partners join together all the time, and this often creates what we call a "pursue/withdraw" dynamic. One partner chases their spouse, desperate for love and attention, and the other partner pulls away, desperate for space and independence. Without a basic understanding of adult attachment theory this painful, yet obvious dynamic could go unaddressed session after session.
THEY LISTEN MORE THAN THEY SPEAK
A good therapist knows the importance of listening, listening, listening. Often they are listening for not-so-obvious patterns of interaction, pivotal moments that negatively impacted the relationship, and distorted narratives and perceptions that keep the couple in a constant cycle of conflict and avoidance. By listening and asking good questions, a good couple's counselor can more efficiently get to the heart of the problem and help the couple make long-lasting, positive changes.
Furthermore, a good counselor knows to avoid talking about their personal lives, except when clinically relevant. If a counselor tells long stories about their personal lives in more than one session it's probably time to find someone else. Your counseling session is about you and your partner. It is not a place for a counselor to vent or express their wants or needs.
THEY RARELY "TAKE THE BAIT"
A couple's counselor with a trained ear and insight into common underlying patterns is not so easily hooked into the details of an argument.
"Who vacuumed the floor last?"
"How late were you to the recital?"
"What if you put a reminder in your phone to take out the trash?"
"Can you agree to exercise 10 minutes a day if your partner does the dishes?"
These are the kinds of questions that are not relevant to what's lying beneath the surface of the couple's cycle of pain and disconnection. A counselor without appropriate training in working with couples, however, will likely "take the bait" and join in on problem-solving the specific event the couple brought up. A couple's counselor with a keen eye, however, is more likely to ask questions like:
"What goes on inside for you when your partner says they don't want to help you vacuum?"
"When he criticized you for showing up late to the recital what was that experience like for you?
"I'm hearing you say 'he doesn't care about me' because he didn't take out that trash. Are there other times you feel this way?"
"What do you hear when your partner says 'you need to exercise'?"
These are the kind of questions that help couples begin to "see" the impact their words and actions are having on one another, intentional or not. They guide the couple to explore and express things differently than they normally would at home.
THEY ARE OPEN TO FEEDBACK FROM CLIENTS
You would think that all counselors would be open to receiving and responding well to client feedback, but sadly, this is not the case. I have heard more than one story from the clients' perspective of how a counselor responded defensively, explaining and justifying some apparent mistakes. Again, all counselors make mistakes, but a good counselor is able to hear the feedback, take it in, and adjust accordingly.
What If Your Past Experiences In Counseling Were Bad?
There's a lot more that I could say on this topic, and perhaps I will in future posts, but I will close by saying this: Couples counseling is valuable and can have a major positive impact on your relationship. A negative experience with a couples counselor is not a strong enough reason to never try counseling again, especially if you have worries about your relationship. There are plenty of couple's counselors out there that take their jobs seriously and are constantly growing and learning. I have my couples counseling office in Phoenix, Arizona, and I personally know and even work with many quality counselors who love what they do and care about their clients. Just as it can take a few tries to find the right mechanic, barber, or dentist, it can take a few tries to find the right couples counselor. Don't give up!