When it comes to couples therapy, the earlier you go, the better. “Prevention is better than cure. The best time to see a therapist is when the relationship patterns are still fresh and couple dynamics are not written in stone,” said Mudita Rastogi, Ph.D, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Arlington Heights, Ill.
Clinical psychologist Meredith Hansen, Psy.D, also stressed the importance of “early intervention or preventative care. Couples who check in every so often with a therapist and work to strengthen their relationship tend to have the most success.”
For instance, it’s helpful to see a therapist before you get married, according to both relationship experts. “This is the easiest time to make healthy changes,” Rastogi said.
Any transition, in addition to tying the knot, has the potential for conflict, said Hansen, who has a private practice for couples in Newport, Calif. That includes having kids and an illness in the family.
Yet, most couples wait until they’re distressed or one partner wants out of the relationship, Hansen said. Naturally, this makes it harder to create positive change. (But it’s not impossible.)
Whatever place you’re in as a couple, finding a skilled specialist is key. Below, Rastogi and Hansen shared their tips for finding a reputable expert.
1. Ask for referrals.
For instance, you can ask your primary care physician, pediatrician or OBGYN to recommend several couples therapists, Hansen said. Online therapist finders are another option. “Rastogi recommended searching on this website for the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
2. Interview potential candidates.
“Almost all therapists say that they work with couples,” Rastogi said. But that doesn’t mean they’re qualified to do so. That’s why it’s important to ask about the focus of their practice, Hansen said.
What should you expect to hear? “You will want to find a clinician who has sought out training and education specifically related to interpersonal relationships and couples dynamics.” This could be a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), a psychologist (Ph.D or Psy.D) or a social worker (MSW or LCSW).
Again, the goal is to find someone who’s “focused their education, training, and practice on relationship dynamics,” and “continues to educate themselves and train in the latest couples therapy theories and interventions,” Hansen said.
Rastogi suggested asking these questions: How often does the therapist work with the issues you’re struggling with as a couple? What percentage of their work is with couples (versus individuals)? (“A safe bet is 30 percent or more,” she said.) Will they accept your insurance? (“If not, you should figure out up front what your weekly out-of-pocket costs will be.”)
3. Shop around.
“It is totally acceptable to meet with a few providers before choosing one that feels best for you and your partner,” Hansen said.
How can you tell if a practitioner is best for you? “Pay attention to your own feelings of connection with the therapist,” Rastogi said. It’s important for both partners to feel understood and validated, she said. It’s also important for both partners to trust their therapist, Hansen said.
If either of you feels uncomfortable – you think your therapist is “taking sides, encourages one of you to leave the other, meets more often with one of you alone, allows for secrets” – voice your concerns.
Remember that therapy is a process, Hansen said. And sometimes either of you (or both) will be dissatisfied with it. Again, speak up, and address your concerns.
Also, keep in mind that your problems won’t be fixed in the first few sessions, Rastogi said. But in two to four sessions, “you should have somewhat of a better understanding of your own and your partner’s issues.”
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