I recently had a relative ask me how to find a good marriage counselor, so I had the opportunity to experience the selection process through the eyes of a client. Since my relatives live out of state, I could not provide them with my typical referral sources, so I considered how best to make a recommendation. I established the following three criteria to find a good marriage counselor:
- The therapist’s base knowledge
- The therapist’s professional presentation
- The fit of the therapist with the couple
Therapist’s Base Knowledge
There are multiple types of licenses in the counseling profession. Each license indicates a different education, training, and set of requirements needed to earn the license. The most common licenses are:
- LMFT — Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
- LCSW — Licensed Clinical Social Worker
- LSW — Licensed Social Worker
- LPC — Licensed Professional Counselor
- LMHC — Licensed Mental Health Counselor
A Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist has studied extensively how to identify and manipulate patterns in a relationship, such as a topic of conversation that always ends in a fight. Marriage and Family Therapists are pros at spotting and breaking these patterns, which results in a better connection between partners and a positive outcome in counseling.
While the other license types are represented by qualified individuals, the training is focused on individuals rather than a relational system. As a result, I looked for therapists with the LMFT designation to find a good marriage counselor.
Therapist’s Professional Presentation
I began my search for an LMFT by visiting two websites I knew had localized lists of marriage counselors:
- AAMFT – the American Association of of Marriage and Family Therapists
- Psychology Today – Psychology Today includes all professionals in the mental health field
I evaluated the therapist’s professional presentation in each listing. I only chose those that had a professional picture along with a separate professional-looking website.
The professional picture demonstrates the therapist is interested in establishing personal contact with a client. The separate professional website demonstrates a concern about customer service, recognizing clients need easy access to basic information, such as fees, location, and scheduling a session. This step narrowed my options from a list of 250 names to just five.
Next, I made a phone call to each therapist to hear their professional presentation of themselves and their work. Words to listen for to identify whether a person is knowledgeable about marriage counseling include (but not limited to):
- Sue Johnson
- John Gottman
- Systems Theory
Many therapists talked about number of years in practice and how they have worked with a wide variety of clients. However, the following questions were better at helping me find a good marriage counselor.
- Are you current in your knowledge and research in the field?
- Do you rely more on personal experience or professional training?
- Are you able to explain the process in a warm and plain language manner?
- Are you courteous and welcoming of questions and feedback?
It wasn’t important to me if the therapist was able to help Joe Average or treat a five-year-old with tantrums. I wanted to know, just as my own clients want to know, “Can you help the relationship right here, right now, effectively and efficiently?”
Fit of the Therapist with the Couple
After the phone screening, only two therapists received my final recommendation to my family member. At that point, it was down to the fit between the therapist and the couple, so my part ended in helping them find a good marriage counselor.
I encouraged my relative to schedule a session with each therapist before making their final decision. Therapists often give 15-minute meet and greets to allow a couple to ask further questions and evaluate their comfort level with the therapist. I asked my relatives to make the following assessments:
- How did you feel before, during, and after the session?
- What were your perceptions of the therapist?
- How comfortable did you feel with the therapist?
- Were you able to begin building trust with the therapist?
With these three evaluation phases of 1) the therapist’s base knowledge; 2) the therapist’s professional presentation; and 3) the fit of the therapist with the couple, I was extremely confident my relative would find a good marriage counselor. As a professional relationship therapist myself, if I recommended this process to my loved one, then I am confident it can work for you as well.