How to Find a Couples Therapist Who’s Right For You—And Make the Most of Every Session

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Relationships are multi-dimensional. Whether you’ve been with your partner(s) for a few months or a few decades, chances are you’ve gotten to this point in your relationship by tending to each other’s needs and maintaining a healthy line of communication. But the demands of everyday life—juggling your career, family, and other responsibilities—can create tension and, at times, lead to a communication breakdown. If you find that you and your partner are arguing more frequently, or you’re starting to notice red flags in your relationship, you might consider seeking couples therapy. Wondering how to find a couples therapist who’s right for you?

A study in the Journal of Marriage and Family Therapy found that couples wait “an average interval of 2.68 years from onset of problems and entering couples therapy.” So, if you and you and your partner feel like you’ve been jumping through hoops for a while now, you’re not alone. As Rachel Sillman, LMFT and EMDR therapist, explains, many couples may be intimidated by the thought of starting therapy because of their preconceived notions of how it reflects on themselves or their relationship. “There is this fantasy of the ‘perfect couples’ on TikTok or Facebook or in the movies,” Sillman tells Well+Good. “So then people can have this [shameful feeling] of ‘What's wrong with me? My relationship isn't like that.’ The reality is that being a human is very messy. And that's okay.”

Once you and your partner(s) can address any impeding feelings of shame around couples therapy, you’ll be able to create a more solid foundation to work through any issues surrounding your relationship, Sillman adds. “Remember that the relationship is a living being, too, and also needs care when there are other things in life that come up, especially in longer-term relationships,” she says. “[Once] you clear shame out of the way, then you can make space for curiosity and see what's really here [in the relationship].”

No matter what issues you and your partner are currently facing, couples therapy is an opportunity to explore which psychotherapy treatments work best for you as partners and work toward improving your relationship. Ahead, see what experts had to say about the benefits and complications of couples therapy and how to find a couples therapist who's right for you.

Experts In This Article

What happens in couples therapy?

Before we can get into how to find a couples therapist, allow us to explain what couples therapy is all about. The objective of couples therapy is to assist each partner in examining emotions and changing behaviors that are causing distress within their relationship. Your initial therapy session is an opportunity for you, your partner and your therapist to assess what brings you to therapy. The therapist will ask questions about your history as a couple and the things your relationship is struggling with. The therapist may also ask what your expectations are in terms of your therapy goals. A therapist may use this session as an opportunity to outline the therapy techniques they use within their practice.

“The one thing that everybody says is ‘We're having a hard time communicating,’” says Audrey Schoen, LMFT. “This isn’t wrong, but it's not the whole story. Usually what they're actually having a problem with is self-regulation. And both partners are getting so dysregulated that they're unable to have conversations about things because they get too angry, or whatever the emotion may be, takes over. A breakdown of communication is usually a symptom of a bigger issue.” As you and your partner continue to attend therapy sessions, a therapist will enable you to decipher the symptoms of these perceived issues to get to the heart of the conflicts in your relationship.

What kind of therapist is best for couples?

Still wondering how to find a couples therapist who's right for you and your partner? There is no one-size-fits-all kind of therapist for couples seeking help; what matters more is the therapist’s approach to addressing the barriers in your relationship. Psychotherapy—also referred to as talk therapy—is an umbrella term under which a variety of professionals—including psychologists, couples therapists, marriage, family therapists, or social workers—work with clients to identify and change concerning emotions or behavioral patterns. Couples therapy is a specific kind of psychotherapy aimed at improving relationship satisfaction and moderating conflict resolution between couples. So, if you're mulling over how to find a couples therapist, consider the following.

Regardless of their exact credentials, the work of each of these professionals is focused on the long-term mental health and well-being of their clients. “All of these titles are pretty synonymous, but you want somebody that has done a lot of training in couples therapy, especially emotionally focused therapy (EFT) and internal family systems therapy,” says Amy Margolis, LCSW and author of Here’s the Memo. “You don't want to just go to somebody because they have letters behind their name.” So, whether you and your partner(s) opt to speak to an LMFT or a psychologist, it’s important to consider selecting a professional who is experienced in treating recurring or chronic issues in relationships, as opposed to seeing a couples counselor, who is more likely to focus on treating short-term or current issues in the relationship.

What is the difference between couples therapy and marriage counseling?

Couples therapy and marriage counseling are often used interchangeably in conversation and, therefore, can be confused pretty easily. To differentiate the roles of a couples therapist and marriage and family therapist, it’s important to examine the focus of each therapist. “When people come to therapy, they're usually in the stage of the marriage called the power struggle,” says Margolis. “It's the stage where somebody's trying to get somebody to change so they can be happy, or they're triggering each other's old attachment styles. So you want a therapist that has the experience to help a couple get beneath the wounds that may be getting triggered.”

"[A therapist is] there to empower both people to make an educated decision about the relationship, and to point out concerns." —Amy Margolis, LCSW

Marriage counseling places a spotlight on current issues within a marriage to repair and strengthen that marriage. Couples therapy analyzes the relationship between two partners who may or may not be married and focuses on improving communication and emotional intimacy in the long term, regardless of the relationship status. “Couples therapy indicates that something's amiss, that we as a couple are having a communication issue,” says Margolis. “Marriage counseling can be a broad term. It could be maintenance. It could be preparation, or wanting to jump-start your marriage. Some couples do marriage counseling before their wedding to discuss being on the same page with things like having kids.”

Does gender matter when choosing a therapist?

For those considering how to find a couples therapist, gender may be a factor in the decision making process. Although gender typically doesn’t matter when choosing a therapist, it may hold more weight when selecting a couples therapist depending on you and your partner’s personal history and triggers. As Margolis explains, “People have different triggers. If somebody had a domineering father, they might not be as comfortable with a male therapist because of their history.”

According to a 2013 study published in Counseling Psychology Quarterly, people may also have a gender preference when selecting a therapist due to how comfortable they feel disclosing certain information. The study found that, when it came to topics such as the couple’s sex life, female clients, in particular, were much more comfortable discussing this with a female therapist. The study suggests that “women may have a preference in the sex of their therapist. It is especially relevant when the clients are women experiencing female sex-specific problems.”

Will a couples therapist tell you to break up?

A therapist should not tell a couple if they should break up,” Margolis says. “A therapist should definitely call out what they're seeing, what they're noticing, and call out their concerns [though].” A therapist empowers a couple by giving them the tools to work through their issues and determine, on their own, if both partners want to remain in the relationship. So, if you and your partner(s) do choose to see a couples therapist, that therapist’s role should be to provide guidance and help to build any treatment plans necessary to improve the relationship, not to pass judgment or end the relationship. “I would say [a therapist is] there to facilitate good and healthy communication. [A therapist is] there to empower both people to make an educated decision about the relationship, and to point out concerns,” Margolis adds.

What is the most effective form of couples therapy?

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is viewed as one of the most effective forms of therapy for couples. The purpose of EFT is to revive the physical and emotional bond between partners by breaking repetitive patterns that have made the relationship feel stuck and may have created feelings of isolation or resentment among the partners. This form of therapy highlights the importance of your connection with your partner and the feeling of security that this connection can provide. EFT also empowers each partner to be open and attentive to their own needs while also listening to the needs and feedback of their partner.

Initially, many couples go to couples therapy to improve communication issues. There are many common relationship problems, though, that may be more urgent than any communication barriers. “Many clients will say ‘My partner doesn't listen to me’, ‘I don't feel like my partner's really present, or pulling their weight around the home,’” Sillman says. “Sex desire differences, frequency, or satisfaction will also bring couples [into therapy]. Often, the difficulty of communicating is actually a symptom of the problem. It's not the problem itself.” Using the EFT method, psychotherapists will be able to offer a platform for you and your partner to express your needs and get to the heart of any relationship problems.

How to tell your partner you want couples therapy

Figuring out how to tell your partner you want to attend couples therapy together is tricky in itself, especially since expressing your desire to go to couples therapy may, understandably, cause them to go on the defensive. “Your partner could become defensive and that could be the initial reaction to pain. They may worry, ‘Are you saying there's something wrong with me? Are you saying there's something wrong with the relationship? Are you going to reject me?’ They may feel as if they’re being pushed away or judged,” Sillman says.

Schoen provides a gentle approach to the topic if your partner won't go to therapy initially. “One of the best ways to approach it is to share the facts. ‘We are struggling, and there are some things that we're not making movement on,’” Schoen suggests. Additionally, be sure to express your desire to have “the best relationship possible” and emphasize that “therapy can help with that.” If your partner is resistant to your request, you can remind them that you’re doing this as a team “to have a better relationship.” “Express that ‘I want to want you. I want to be happy with you, and I want that for you, too,’” Schoen adds.

How to prepare for the first couples therapy session

So, you've solved the problem of how to find a couples therapist. Now, it's time to attend your first session. To prepare for your first couples therapy session, Schoen encourages each partner to reflect on “the things that are not going well with your partner that you'd like to see change or be different.” “The hard part is also reflecting on your contribution to the problem,” Schoen says.

Sillman adds that one of the biggest challenges she sees in her practice is couples not understanding their attachment style in relationships. “That's a big pattern I've noticed in the couples that I've worked with. You'll have a lot of couples where one [partner] is more avoidant and [the other partner] runs more anxious. The biggest challenge is not understanding their own needs.”

To better understand your role in solving any issues within your relationship, Sillman advises that each partner be in their own individual therapy outside of couples therapy. Individual therapy can help each partner to develop “an openness and a want for change within the relationship,” Sillman says. “It can create a shift in the way that they're thinking and connecting. And if you can have that openness to yourself, to your partner, to the experience, it is easier to access the change you want to create. Plus, [individual therapy] only enhances the work you do in couples therapy.”

Should couples have different therapists?

After building a relationship with your couples therapist, it’s understandable that you may want to turn to them for individual therapy. Individual therapy can provide time and space for personal growth and reflection to determine what you desire to change in your relationship and within yourself. Margolis explains, however, that many therapists prefer not to provide individual therapy outside of couple therapy sessions.

“One of the cardinal rules of couples therapy is there's no secrets. You want to keep that strong communication and make sure everyone [therapist and both partners] are all on the same page,” she explains. “I don't even start the session until both people arrive. I do not text one person, even about an appointment without all 3 of us on the text. There are no secrets. If I want to see them each individually to get more detail, I will make sure they know anything you share [with me].”

In an academic journal published in 2006, psychologist Eleanor F. Counselman stressed that another complication of a therapist providing individual therapy outside of couples therapy is that the therapist could develop a bias in favor of one client over another. “The therapist risks seeing the relationship from the perspective of the client being seen individually,” the journal reads, indicating that receiving individual therapy from a couples therapist could result in couples therapy being counterproductive. That said, you’re always welcome to attend therapy sessions with another professional who is not your couples therapist to work on your individual goals and express your emotions outside of couples therapy.

What are the disadvantages of couples therapy?

Each of the three experts Well+Good spoke with highlighted the same key disadvantage to couples therapy. If serious issues like domestic violence or addiction are present in the relationship, couples therapy may only exacerbate these issues. Schoen stresses that if a partner is being physically abused then “couples therapy is contraindicated,” or ineffective in treating the true problem. “If a partner is a narcissist, truly emotionally manipulative, and lacks empathy, couples therapy can actually help weaponize them,” Schoen points out. A 2016 study4 reiterates Schoen’s point, stating that “professionals are cautious to risk the possibility of violent retaliation between partners.” In this case, it may be more helpful to reach out to resources such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800.799.SAFE (7233) or your local addiction helpline.

Does couples therapy mean the relationship is over or can it fix a broken relationship?

Attending couples therapy does not mean a relationship is over or beyond repair. With this said, there are things to be aware of to ensure you aren’t setting up artificial roadblocks in your therapy work, which may slow down your progress and convince you that your relationship is beyond repair. (Spoiler alert: it probably isn’t.) Schoen explains that couples should have realistic expectations when entering therapy before determining the future of their relationship. She finds that some couples “wait until [the relationship] is on its last leg, and then just after a few sessions will say therapy didn't work. The reality is you waited 10 years before entering therapy. You can’t expect 10 years of damage to be repaired in five sessions. In this instance, things can still improve, but the road to recovery is longer.”

Margolis adds that couples therapy can be very humbling and that humility can be a springboard for positive change in your relationship. “Everybody comes in wanting their way, wanting the therapist to side with them. If partners can look at each other and really empathize with each other and make themselves vulnerable, it will allow the couple to get underneath their wounds to assess what is really going on.”

How long should you stay with the same couples therapist?

Beyond navigating how to find a couples therapist period, it's important to consider how to find a couples therapist whose approach to therapy works for you and your partner. The general consensus from our experts is to attend at least five or six sessions of couples therapy before determining whether the therapist is a good fit for you and your partner. For example, professionals like Sillman provide coaching that prioritizes personal advocacy. “I find sometimes people come to therapy, and they give up their own power,” Sillman says. “They give up their own sense of autonomy and intuition, and what's right for them because of the struggle that they're going through. They don't feel like they can advocate [for themselves].” For this reason, Sillman likes to empower people by encouraging them to advocate for themselves and verbalize “what's working for them and what's not working for them, and what they want more of.”

Of course, no matter how effective your therapist may be, it’s important to remember that couples therapy will take time in order to have a lasting impact on you and your relationship. Give yourself, your partner, and your therapist time to work on the issues at hand, and, if you’ve attended multiple sessions and still feel as stuck as you did at the start of couples therapy, find another professional who can tend to your relationship struggles. “If you're repeatedly going to sessions, and nothing's changing, and you are dwelling on the conflict, and the conflict's not moving, something's not working. I always encourage people to trust their bodies and trust their feelings,” Sillman concludes.

What is the failure rate of couples counseling?

When it comes to the failure rate of couples counseling, the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy reports that “the success rate of marriage counseling is around 70 percent, but up to 90 percent of couples find therapy to be beneficial.” These benefits include better communication between partners, stronger relationship dynamics, and overall improvement of each partner’s well-being.

The key to seeing these results? Attend therapy as soon as the issues in your relationship start to repeat themselves. While delaying couples therapy can prolong the road to recovery, it doesn’t mean that the road will come to a dead end. A motivated couple can begin to explore their problems from a different perspective and learn new ways to recognize and resolve conflicts with the help of tools gained through couples therapy.

As Sillman reminds us, “A relationship is a living being, too, and needs care.” Couples therapy enables both partners to become vulnerable and empowers individuals to “clear shame out of the way and make space for curiosity.”

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Lebow, Jay L. et al. “Research on the Treatment of Couple Distress.” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy vol. 38, no. 1, 145–168. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2011.00249.x
  2. Landes, Sara J et al. “Women’s Preference of Therapist Based on Sex of Therapist and Presenting Problem: An Analogue Study.” Counselling psychology quarterly vol. 26,3-4 (2013): 330-342. doi:10.1080/09515070.2013.819795
  3. Counselman, Eleanor F. “Combining Individual and Couple Therapy: Is It Always a Bad Idea?” Group, vol. 30, no. 1, 2006, pp. 3–17. JSTOR, Accessed 22 July 2024.
  4. Karakurt, Gunnur et al. “Couples Therapy for Intimate Partner Violence: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Journal of marital and family therapy vol. 42,4 (2016): 567-583. doi:10.1111/jmft.12178

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