If you and your partner are having the same old arguments and can’t seem to get past them, couples therapy is in order. If you are feeling distant from your partner, regularly misunderstood, angry and resentful, or like your partner is no longer interested in you or in the relationship, couples therapy is more likely to help than individual work. If your sex life has diminished and you long for more intimacy, that too is more responsive to couples work. If one of you has cheated but you want to save the relationship, couples therapy may be the answer.
Couples therapy can help — provided your partner is at least willing to give it a try. A good couples therapist will help the two of you get on the same team to solve your problems instead of on different teams, fighting with each other. Good couples therapy can help you each learn how to support and heal the other. In the process, you may heal your relationship and send it in a more positive direction.
It’s important to be aware that few graduate programs in psychology, social work or counseling are designed to provide the training and supervision necessary for being an effective couples therapist. Most therapists, therefore, learn how to work with couples by going to workshops and in-service trainings. This does not necessarily mean that the therapist is unqualified. It does mean it falls on you to look for a therapist who has specific credentials to do couples work.
Licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs) have a master’s or doctoral degree in marriage and family therapy and at least two years of clinical experience. Each state has credentialing requirements for obtaining a license in marriage and family therapy. Some states grandfathered in some therapists who met some specific criteria when licensing for doing couples work was established in that state. Specific information can usually be found on your state’s licensing board’s website.
How to find a couples therapist:
- The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) is the professional organization for clinicians who do couples work. Use the therapist locator tab on their website as a place to start your search for a qualified therapist.
- Refer to your insurance company’s list of preferred providers.
- Is there a university near your home? If so, consider calling the psychology department to ask if there is free or low-cost couples therapy available through their graduate program. Graduate students provide treatment under the supervision of experienced instructors. Determine if the training is specifically geared to couples work. Such programs often also are aware of graduates who have stayed in their geographical area to either join clinic staff or open a private practice.
- Is there a community mental health clinic near you? If so, the intake department generally knows the credentials of therapists on staff. They often also have a referral list of private therapists and their specialties in their area as well.
- Ironically, it is often the divorce lawyers who are most aware of therapists in their area who do well with couples. A responsible lawyer will respect your intention to try therapy before making a final decision to separate or divorce. You can also ask your doctor or clergy to suggest names of therapists.
- Don’t forget to ask friends, family members and colleagues for recommendations. Often they are the best source of information either because they themselves have worked with a therapist or they know someone who has done so.
What to ask when you call for an appointment
Ask if the therapist is licensed as a marriage and family therapist.
If not, ask how the therapist has gained training and whether she or he has followed up with supervision specifically geared to couples work.
Ask how long the therapist has worked with couples and what percentage of the practice is with couples. Don’t hesitate to ask a prospective therapist how many couples improve and stay together; how many separate or divorce.
Bear in mind that not all separations are failures of treatment. Sometimes it is in the best interest of both members of the couple to separate as amicably as they can. Ask whether those who separated did so in a healthy way for both partners and for any children involved.
Ask the therapist to also share his or her philosophy and attitudes about marriage. It’s sobering to me that studies have shown that fully 40 percent of couples who divorce later regret the decision. If you want support for staying married, make sure the therapist believes in marriage as an institution and sees it as a legitimate goal to help people who once loved each other enough to marry (and perhaps have children) find that love, trust and connection once again.
What if my partner won’t go?
There are many possible reasons a person is reluctant to start couples work. Sometimes the conversation about therapy becomes part of the fight. Sometimes the partner is afraid of being blamed. Sometimes, there is a fear of stigma if someone else finds out. And sometimes a partner has already given up on the relationship. Generally, pressing the issue with a resistant partner only makes it less likely they will participate.
Instead, make an appointment with the couples therapist and go. The therapist may help you find more effective ways to talk with your partner about the importance and possibilities of couples work. You may also learn how you, however inadvertently, have been contributing to the problems in your relationship. If your partner sees you making new efforts, he or she may feel friendlier about starting to do some couples work with you.
What if one of you is already in therapy?
Sometimes it’s appropriate for a therapist who has been doing the individual work with one partner to move into couples work with both people. But sometimes a new therapist is needed because the partner feels at a disadvantage if he or she goes into sessions where the therapist already has a relationship with the spouse. It’s essential that the decision about who to see for treatment is a careful and shared one.
Many couples therapists recommend that you suspend individual therapy if you are working on couples problems. Individual problems as they impact your life as a couple can be addressed in the course of the couples work. If one or both members of the couple simultaneously do individual work, there is a risk that the material from the couples therapy will be processed in the individual sessions rather than in the couple session where it belongs.
Does couples therapy work?
It depends on both the expertise of the therapist and the willingness of the couple to work on their relationship and make changes.
According to the AAMFT (American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy), most couples who seriously engage in treatment do report increased satisfaction with their relationship and recommitment to their partner. Even when couples separate or divorce, they often report that counseling helped them do so with less animosity and more lessons learned.
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