Aside from my wonderful family, therapy is my great love. Seriously, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else all day. (Though, I did really want to be a flight attendant for a long time; I would love all that travel.) So, when potential clients call me up to inquire about my services, I can barely contain myself. I want to tell you everything right away. I have books to offer and pointers to share. I want to explain how cool my new office is, and brag on the many folks who have turned their lives around through the hard work they have done in the therapy room. But mostly, folks aren’t ready to hear that yet. When they’re in distress, all they want to know is if I have any experience working with their particular brand of trouble. I think that’s reasonable, actually. I mean, why would you want to bring your heart and your relationship to someone who hasn’t got the foggiest idea where to start?
So, let’s get down to brass tacks, as my grandmama used to say. I want to give you a few pointers on how to choose a couples therapist, because I think it’s actually a bit trickier than selecting someone with whom you’ll do individual work.
Let me set the stage for my own perspective a bit:
I learned to do couples therapy with couples that were deeply in distress. I don’t mean just a little bit on the outs, but folks who were knee-deep in systemic problems. These issues had landed them in trouble with social services, the legal system and just about everyone else who was a stakeholder in their lives. My couples were coming to renegotiate not just the small social contracts we have with our partners (we won’t scream until the neighbors call the cops) but also the large ones as well (we won’t beat one another black and blue in front of the kids). If anything stuck with me from those days, it’s a keen sense that serving as a couples therapist is a sacred role. When are we more vulnerable than faced with the loss of our partners? In the face of that kind of fragility, you need to have someone on your side that you can trust. Though we’re certainly not all mired in troubles as severe as those clients faced, everything is really relative to your own situation. So, do your homework before you sit down with just anyone.
Now, I’m not saying that I’m the best therapist in town or anything. Though, if you want to believe that, I can totally endorse it. Raleigh has a whole bunch or really well-qualified clinicians. Rather, my hope is always that clients go into the process as educated consumers. Looking for a therapist is like buying a new car. You want one that’s reliable, won’t leave you stranded without notice and one that is able to navigate extreme heat, ice and twisty roads. That’s why I offer a free 30-minute session; so you can take me out for a test drive before signing on for the long haul. Any therapist that you are considering should at the very least be willing to talk with you by phone to hear the particulars of your situation so that he or she can knowledgeably proclaim that your concerns are within his or her clinical purview.
So, how will you know that you’re riding with a keeper? Here’s the stuff I think that I, and every other counselor who wants to work with couples should be able to talk about and answer:
1) What’s your training? This question is very, very important. Counselors who view couples therapy as an individual session with more than one person present will not be effective. Therapists who want to work with couples should have received special training to do relationship counseling either via their degree coursework, or afterwards through continuing education seminars. It’s important that as clinicians, we have some strong ideas about how to shape sessions so that couples are encouraged not only to enact the problems they are having, but also to play out new behaviors. This is a complex task that involves a strong belief in clients’ innate abilities to change and a whole tool box full of skills. I am not overstating the issue when I say that I believe that an unskilled couples therapist can do much more harm than good.
2) How does change happen? Couples therapists who are passionate about their work can probably talk for a long time about how they think change occurs in a couple. For example, I believe that my job is to help couples communicate with kindness and a sense of humor, coach them through articulating the parts of their shared history that hurt and need to be healed, and to work very hard to help couples rediscover the strengths in their relationship. It is always my goal to encourage couples to get out of autopilot and chart a course together. This involves discussing all kinds of things including family of origin issues (like the stuff you learned about how to be a partner) finances, sex and future hopes. I do this by asking clients to work hard with me in session, and to work hard outside of session as well by doing homework assignments to bridge our hours together.
3) Let’s talk about sex: I am continually surprised that there are therapists who do couples work that don’t talk about sex. Every couples therapist from any clinical orientation, even those who are counseling from a religious lens, should be able to comfortably discuss intimacy issues. In fact, it is probably even more vital that those who counsel from a religious orientation are comfortable talking about sex, because those therapists’ office may be the only places that their clients can talk deeply about sexual issues. Your therapist should be upfront about his or her comfort level in working with common sexual concerns and know who to refer to if the problem is outside the scope of his or her practice. In addition, therapists should be clear about how they feel about working with clients who have a different sexual orientation than their own, and should be honest and upfront about that. I am comfortable working with clients of any sexual orientation, and I am always happy to answer questions about my experience working with the LGBT community.
4) I think we’re alone now: In my practice, I do at least one whole or half session with each partner alone. I insist on this because it gives me an opportunity to really get to know each partner, draw on each person’s strengths and advocate for individual’s concerns much more effectively. Often couples–even embattled ones–protect one another from the depth and breadth of their feelings in co-joint sessions. This happens for a multitude of reasons including fear of alienating their partners further, worries about articulating one’s self perfectly and nervousness about how well the therapist understands. I want therapy to be as efficient and effective as possible. The individual sessions, particularly when done early in the course of treatment, always give us the edge we need to make progress. However, I do not generally do couples therapy for clients who have been in individual work with me for a long time. I think this is counter productive in most cases and can lead the parter who was not my client to be leery that I am truly neutral.
5) Keeping secrets: Your therapist should have a clear answer for how he or she will handle the keeping of secrets in couples work. I will keep what you say with me in individual therapy confidential, unless you ask me to help you share it with your partner. I must do this by law and by my own moral code. However, I will not do long-term work with couples in which one partner is maintaining an affair that the other partner doesn’t know about yet. It is my goal to foster honesty and emotional intimacy between partners, because I deeply believe that relationships are unsatisfying without those things. If you tell me that you are cheating, I will be sympathetic to your struggle and I will help you sort out how this happened and what you want to do next. I won’t tell your partner. However, if you continue to refuse to tell your partner I will refuse to do long-term couples work with you.
So, there’s just a few of the many tips I can share with you about couples therapy. Are you ready to get started putting your relationship on the right track? Why don’t you give me a call today so that we can begin the next phase of your lives together?
Your Partner in Healing,
Are you looking for individual, couples or group therapy in Raleigh? Call me today to schedule a FREE 30-minute consultation to learn how counseling can help you. Please contact me at (919) 714-7455 or email me at [email protected] Visit me on the web at www.lotustherapycenter.com or:
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