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The Girlfriend's Guide To Finding The Right Marriage Counselor

Be aware of these big red flags.

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Animation of marriage counselor encouraging couple to speak during therapy session.
Alice Mollon
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Before she sought out a couples’ therapist, Jessica* had been feeling frustrated in her marriage for years. She and her husband always seemed to have the same fight — about money — until finally it felt like there was no point in even talking anymore. “I didn’t want to get a divorce, but I honestly didn’t know how to fix things,” she says. “I hoped that therapy could help us find a path forward.”

But Jessica was stumped at the prospect of finding a good therapist — someone whom she and her husband could trust and respect.

“Normally, when I’m looking for a new doctor, I just ask my friends or coworkers who they see,” she says. “But I wasn’t comfortable asking other people for therapist recommendations because I didn’t want them to think that my marriage was on the rocks.”

That kind of anxiety is common, says Joyce Houser, a marriage and family therapist in Santa Monica, Calif., and author of the book Someone To Talk To: What Really Happens in Therapy and How it Can Work for You. “It’s unfortunate, because one of the best ways to find a therapist is to get a reference from someone you trust, but there’s still a stigma against admitting that you need counseling.”

So what’s the alternative? Here are some guidelines for finding a therapist who is right for you.

Talk to your doctor. If you’re not comfortable asking your friends, says Faith Tanney, a psychologist in private practice in Washington D.C., consider asking your physician or even your priest for a recommendation.

Check their license. Therapists can have all kinds of academic training; they may be social workers, counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists. But the type of degree your therapist has is less important than whether or not they are licensed, says Tanney.

Just start googling. The internet can be a good source of referrals — if you know where to look, says Houser. Psychology Today and Zocdoc both offer lists of licensed therapists, and you can search by zip code and insurance provider. Many therapists also have their own websites, which can give you a better idea of their approach and background.

Consider your comfort zone. Ask yourself whether it matters if you see a man or a woman, or someone older or younger, suggests Houser. “Do you want someone who specializes in gay couples, or interfaith couples, or particular issues like eating disorders? Ultimately you want somebody who is going to understand you.

Do your research. Therapy can be expensive, and it’s important to be an informed consumer, says Tanney. “You should hopefully have an idea of what the basic therapy approaches are, and what you think will be most helpful to you,” she says. “There’s a lot of information out there, and it can be overwhelming, but if you’re going to put the time and money and effort into therapy, it’s important to do your research first. Just the same as if you were buying a mattress or a new car.”

Nail down the details. There are a few basics that you need to work out right away, either by phone or email. Can they see patients at a time when you’re available? What do they charge? How many sessions do they recommend? Do they take insurance, or will you have to pay out of pocket?

By the way, “it’s not true that good therapists don’t take insurance,” says Houser. “You should be more concerned about how much experience the person has and whether they are specialists in the area that you’re interested in working on.”

Set up a test meeting first. Some therapists will agree to a free or reduced first session or phone call before you decide to proceed, according to Houser. But Tanney suggests meeting face-to-face if you can.

“You’ll get a better idea of whether you like this person,” Tanney says. “Are they saying things you don’t already know? Do they have an idea of what you should be working on?” Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Shop around. If you don't love the first therapist you see, try someone else. “Just because you had one session doesn’t mean you’re locked in,” says Houser. “Trust your gut. Don’t just withdraw from the process because you don’t trust the first person you find.”

Make sure you both feel heard. One big red flag is a therapist who seems to favor one person over another. “If you don’t feel like you’re both being attended to, that’s a problem,” says Tanney. If one person feels targeted, it can undermine their trust in the therapist — and even the prospect of therapy itself.

Know what you’re getting out of it. Despite what you may have seen on TV, a good therapist doesn’t just sit there mumbling, “Uh-huh. And how do you feel?” says Houser. The therapist should be directing the session, keeping things on track, and helping you define what the issues are and what you need to work on. There should be continuity and progress from one session to the next. And you should have an end goal — and an endpoint — in mind from the start.

“Of course part of therapy is listening. You know your life best and you want to be heard — but you also want to feel like you’re understood and guided, and the therapist is really offering you something,” she says.

* Not her real name