People often arrive at their first couples therapy session at a point of desperation. But it's so important to slow down and make sure you're with the right therapist before investing time, money, and valuable emotional energy in the wrong one.
As a licensed couples therapist myself, I've seen the tremendous potential therapy has to help partners understand each other better and create real change.
However, sessions can easily go awry and become dreaded, frustrating, painful experiences if you're with the wrong therapist.
So how can you know if you're in good hands? Here are nine signs that your couples therapist is a keeper:
1. You and your partner both feel understood.
Your therapist should be able to reflect back to you and describe how you are feeling in the relationship. Even when there are two conflicting perspectives, the therapist should “get” each of you. Ideally, you’ll notice this happening in the first session. If it feels like the therapist is understanding one of you more than the other, there should be some acknowledgment of this imbalance and a plan should be created to make up the difference during your next session.
2. You both respect the therapist and feel respected by the therapist.
To put this simply, you and your partner should both think of your therapist as a good person who sees you as good people, too. This mutual high regard will help you feel safe opening up to your therapist about difficult topics.
3. The therapist does not blame or take sides.
This can be tricky when one person has done something he or she is not proud of, but your therapist should use compassion to help you make sense of poor judgment. Regardless of the issue — whether it’s a parenting misstep, a financial regret, or an affair — the therapist should be able to help you understand the drive behind the behavior without taking sides.
4. Your sessions are not regular repeats of what happens at home.
The therapist’s job is to interrupt the patterns in which you and your partner have gotten stuck. Conversations need to play out differently in therapy than they do at home. A good couples therapist won’t be afraid to interrupt you. He or she will help you regulate your emotions and create opportunities for both of you to express yourselves differently.
5. The sessions should not be repetitive.
There’s no magic wand and relationship progress is often slower than you may want it to be, but there should be some sense of improvement from session to session. Improvement can take many forms, such as increased empathy for each other, less reactivity, increased hopefulness, and greater insight or clarity.
6. Your therapist understands how context and identity shape your dynamic.
Context includes everything from your family or personal history to your cultural understandings, race, and religion. Often people have experiences that contribute to greater sensitivity (and greater reactivity) around a particular issue or feeling. It’s important that your therapist understands how your past affects the ways you respond to your partner.
7. The therapist has the same agenda that you do.
Whether you're in therapy to mend your relationship, explore separating, or something in between, it's all about what you and your partner want, and your therapist should be supportive of this. It would be counterproductive if you were in therapy to repair your relationship and your therapist was working to break you up. If you are wondering what the therapist is thinking about your relationship goals, ask. Let them know if you feel any misattunement and see if that alters the situation at all.
8. The therapist has advanced training in couples therapy.
In couples therapy, both partners need to be heard without spurring a raging argument or total shutdown. This means the therapist needs to be more active than he or she would be during individual therapy, which requires advanced training. Before you schedule your first appointment, find out if your potential therapist has had specific training for couples therapy and ask how he or she envisions the therapy unfolding. A properly trained couples therapist should set a specific plan rather than saying something ambiguous like “We’ll work to improve communication between the two of you.”
9. The therapist is responsive to feedback.
This might be the most important trait of all. If one of the above guidelines has not been your experience in couples therapy, it could be acting as a roadblock to your progress. As difficult as it might be, you need to talk to your therapist about it. The right therapist will understand the problem and will work to create a different experience. Ideally, the therapist will check in periodically to see how therapy is going for each of you, invite feedback, and make sure any issues have been resolved.