A good counselor is one of the best marriage improvement tools out there. Assuming you and your wife are both motivated, an experienced marriage counselor can:
Unfortunately, an ineffective or mismatched marriage counselor is the complete opposite. They are a waste of time at best, and at worst can actually speed up divorce.
All marriage counselors are not created equal.
If you want a better marriage, you NEED due diligence when choosing a counselor. You can’t afford to pick the wrong counselor because every session counts.
Through my experience talking with 1,700+ men going through separation, I’ve seen a lot of men try marriage counseling. Some had a great experience, others found that counseling only made things worse. Plus, my wife and I did some counseling last year, so I have personal experience with this.
As you continue reading, you’ll find everything I’ve learned about finding a good marriage counselor.
10 Tips To Find The Right Marriage Counselor For YOU
First we’re going to look at 10 things you and your wife should look for in a marriage counselor, and then I’ll give you the top 4 questions that you should ask your counselor before your first session. Finally, we’ll finish up with a step-by-step roadmap to find your ideal marriage counselor and schedule your first session.
If I had to sum up all this advice into one sentence, it would be this:
If your marriage is on the rocks, you need an experienced, trustworthy, pro-commitment counselor who shares your religious beliefs. This list will help you find exactly that.
Does Marriage Counseling Work? Yes, But...
They Are Primarily A Marriage Counselor
(but also offer individual counseling)
Especially if your marriage needs some work, you want to find someone who is a marriage counselor first, individual therapist second. Ideally they are licensed to do couples therapy.
I don’t think there are any marriage counselors that don’t also offer individual counseling as needed, but just in case, make sure you are able to get those individual sessions for you and your wife if you decide you want them.
If you’re going to do marriage counseling, I highly recommend individual counseling alongside it. That’s what my wife and I did, and I believe the individual sessions actually helped us need LESS sessions of couples counseling, and actually saved us money when all was said and done.
They Share Your Religious Beliefs
Since your religious beliefs affect how you think about marriage, you are significantly handicapping your counseling experience if your counselor doesn’t share your beliefs.
I can’t think of a situation where you would receive better counseling from someone who does NOT share your beliefs than someone who does.
For example, let’s say you’re a Christian. I’m not saying you can only hire people who label themselves as a offering Christian counseling services. But, one of the questions you ask your counselor before working with them is, “Are you personally a Christian?”
Does that make sense?
I would say the same thing about whatever you believe. If you are non-religious, find a counselor who is also non-religious, both personally and in their practice. If you are a Muslim, find a Muslim counselor. If you are Mormon, find a Mormon counselor, and so on.
Christians should be counseled by Christians, Muslims by Muslims, atheists and agnostics by atheists and agnostics, and so on.
Pro-Commitment vs. Pro-Empowerment
One reason it’s so hard to make a blanket statement about how well marriage counseling works is because every counselor is different.
This isn't so much about the therapy techniques used, but rather how about how the counselor prioritizes saving the marriage.
A couple in crisis who desires to save the marriage should ALWAYS seek a pro-commitment counselor.
By definition, all marriage counselors are pro-marriage. But some prioritize the marriage over the individual, and others prioritize the individual over the marriage. Let’s call the counselors who prioritize the marriage “pro-commitment” and the counselors who prioritize the individual “pro-empowerment”. These are not technical terms, and you won’t find counselors claiming these labels on their website. These are qualities you need to feel out for yourself.
... Will always encourage both the individual and the couple to stay in the marriage.
These counselors believe that the greatest happiness always awaits inside a committed, healthy marriage. Therefore, unless there has been abuse or some other truly dangerous circumstance, these counselors will always try to guide the couple back to a happy marriage. They believe that 99% of marriage problems are solvable. Christian marriage counselors often fall in this category.
The risk here is that a pro-commitment counselor won't make you feel as heard or like your individual needs matter, or won't give you the tools that you need as an individual to cope when things really just aren't going to work out.
... Are more focused on each spouse’s well-being than the couple together. The individual's happiness, well-being and growth are the top priority.
These counselors believe that people will only be truly happy if they do what they want or what they're meant to do, and so their job is to help each spouse individually on that journey… If marriage together is at the end of it, great, if not, then they help clients accept the loss of the marriage as a cost of pursuing happiness.
The risk here is that a pro-empowerment counselors will be more likely to recommend a trial separation, or encouraging an unfaithful spouse to "see where things go" in their extramarital relationship... Doing whatever you need to make yourself happy.
I firmly believe that a couple in crisis who desires to save the marriage should ALWAYS seek a pro-commitment counselor.
Now! Before I start getting flack here…
Both counseling styles have their place
It might sound like I think the pro-empowerment counselors are straight up worse than the pro-commitment ones.
But! Both counseling styles have their place. Here are some instances where you might actually WANT a pro-empowerment counselor:
Many times, I find myself having to put on my pro-empowerment hat too, encouraging men facing imminent divorce at the hands of infidelity or other destructive problems to accept reality and start preparing for the next chapter of life.
Although I do occasionally hear stories from men Inside the Haven about a counselor who recommends divorce within the first one or two sessions, remember that except for a few burnt-out rotten apples, ALL marriage counselors are pro-marriage.
They are accessible Via Phone, Skype Or Email
This one is optional, but you’d be surprised at the flexibility of finding a good counselor who offers not-in-person counseling services, i.e. email or phone or Skype, or even via Facebook.
Even if you plan to do all your sessions in person, a counselor who can be available online or via phone gives you future flexibility.
That being said, I do think it’s important that SOME of your time as a couple should be spent in-person with a counselor, or at least using Facetime or a webcam or something, especially in the beginning. It’s much harder to judge a couple’s non-verbals when you can’t see them in front of you.
For individual counseling it doesn’t matter nearly as much, and an online counselor may actually work better.
References are great, and you should get them, but…
Every couple is different, and most counselors work better with some couples than others.
Every couple is different, and most counselors work better with some kinds of couples than others.
They should be taken with a grain of salt.
Every couple is different. A good reference could just mean the couple had low needs, or that their personalities meshed particularly well with that counselor.
On the flip side, a bad reference could reflect that person’s individual bias, that the couple was unfit for any counseling, or simply that their personalities didn’t line up very well.
Again, every couple is different, every couple has a different story, and most counselors work better with some kinds of couples than others.
So! You should absolutely ask around for references. A REALLY good reference is still worth more than any amount of online reviews, and a REALLY bad reference should always be a red flag. Just take them with a grain of salt.
They are relatable and trustworthy, with good chemistry
You can’t be honest or vulnerable with a counselor you don’t trust.
It’s extremely important to find a counselor that you and your wife can both connect with.
Marriage counseling is a three-person job. It’s not just about the couple; the counselor needs to fit well into the mix too. You will never be vulnerable or honest with a counselor you don’t trust.
If something seems off to you (or your wife) and you both don’t feel completely comfortable being honest with your counselor, or if for whatever reason the chemistry just isn’t there, then you are not a good fit.
You can’t be honest or vulnerable with a counselor you don’t trust.
That’s okay! That doesn’t make them a bad counselor, but it does mean that you should move on.
Just because you’ve had one or two sessions with a counselor does not obligate you to continue with them if either you or your wife are getting a bad feeling.
Just make sure that any “bad feelings” you get about your counselor are truly about the counselor and not just about counseling in general. If one spouse or the other finds a problem with every counselor, then it’s probably not the counselors that are the problem.
They seem highly engaged and “on their game”
Even the best counselors go through seasons of burn out… It’s inevitable in the help industry. There is no way to spend your life helping broken marriages and NOT get burnt out or depressed from time to time.
At any given time, only 50% of all therapists would rate themselves at peak function.
Yes, I am speaking from experience here. I know I’ve gotten burnt out just from talking to guys through email. It’s hard!
Of course, I love helping and I truly want to save as many marriages as possible, and the same is true for the burnt-out marriage counselor. But it’s hard to stare such pain in the face day after day.
One study found that at any given time, only 50% of all therapists would rate themselves at peak function.
All that to say…
As the client, it’s your responsibility to spend your time and money wisely by finding a counselor who’s focused and engaged in giving you the best therapy possible.
Nothing against the burnt out counselors out there, except that I would encourage them to dial back their caseload for a month or two.
Trust your gut!
If something seems off or you get a bad feeling, trust that and move on. On the flip side, if you get a really good feeling, but they don’t meet all the other requirements, great!
What type of couples therapy… Insight or behavioral?
Most of you don’t know the difference between these two types of therapy, and that’s totally fine. This is optional knowledge.
Basically, some types of therapy focus on changing specific behavior patterns (behavior-oriented), while others focus more on changing the underlying beliefs behind those behavior patterns (insight-oriented).
In practice, behavioral couples therapy is where you will often receive specific instruction on negative behaviors that need to change, and how to change them. Insight-oriented couples therapy is where your counselor will guide you to deeper understandings and realizations about who you and your wife are as people.
Most counselors outside of specifically labeled clinics use a combination of behavioral and insight-oriented therapy. That’s why this one doesn’t matter too much.
For those that know and care about the difference, I’ll tell you that the research and my experience says that the type of therapy really doesn’t matter as much as the individual counselor and the couple’s approach to counseling.
The type of therapy doesn’t matter nearly as much as the couple and the counselor.
One study directly compared insight-oriented couples therapy to standard behavioral therapy and found that in the short-term, the insight-oriented methods slightly outperformed behavioral methods in terms of relationship improvement, but that there was no meaningful long-term difference without ongoing therapy.
I’ve heard really good things about CBT, which would be a behavioral therapy, and I’ve also hear really good things about EFT, which would fall under the insight-oriented umbrella.
Interview Questions For Your Potential Counselor:
Many of the qualities we listed above are hard to judge from a counselor’s online information. Most of the time you’ll need to call or email a potential counselor to really make sure they fit your needs.
For example, my wife emailed back and forth with her counselor a couple times before their first session, just to make sure she was a good fit.
What questions should you ask potential marriage counselors?
If I had to pick out the top questions you should ask when looking for a marriage counselor, it would be these:
You can ask these questions via phone or email, doesn’t matter as long as you get answers.
If you have any very specific requirements, like needing a counselor with experience helping couples with mental illness, or the loss of a child, or infidelity, or something like that, you would include that in your question too.
These questions will reveal as much as possible about the counselor without actually going in for a session. You should be able to tell whether you and your wife will be a good fit based on how they answer these.
5 Steps To Find A Good Marriage Counselor
This is where we’re going to really get specific and I’m going to tell you EXACTLY what to do, step-by-step, to find a marriage counselor that is a perfect fit for you.
- 1First, write down at least 5 qualities you want in a marriage counselor… Male or female? Christian or secular? Younger or older? You might also write things like, “They need to be available by email,” or “they need experience helping couples who’ve suffered infidelity.”
- 2Start by doing some broad research of the counselors available in your area, making note of the counselors that SEEM to fit your needs. Try to make a list of 3 counselors you like at first glance.
- 3Find the email address or phone number for each individual counselor you found in step 2. For a counseling agency or clinic, you’ll probably need to first call the service and see who they have available.
- 4Send an email or make a phone call to ask each candidate the four questions we discussed above, plus any other questions you may have.
- 5Review each counselor’s answers and make a decision! Schedule a first session, and be sure to ask your chosen marriage counselor what you and your wife can do to prepare and make the most out of this first session.
This is part of my marriage counseling series, where I give you everything you need to know to (A) decide if marriage counseling is right for you and (B) show you how to make the most out of it if it is.
If you’re ready to dive into marriage counseling, then the next thing for you is to start preparing for your first marriage counseling session.
However, if you’re still on the fence about marriage counseling - maybe because you’re the only one trying to save the marriage, which is when marriage counseling rarely works - I would encourage you to take a look at this:
That report will also include alternatives for couples who are dedicated to saving the marriage, but might like something faster or cheaper than marriage counseling… If your problems aren’t too severe and you just want general marriage improvement, a couple of those options might be a perfect fit for you.
To read more about whether marriage counseling is the right thing for your marriage, I suggest you head over and read my in-depth study of marriage counseling’s effectiveness, which is what started this whole series in the first place:
Does Marriage Counseling Work? Yes, But...
Either way, thanks for reading, and good luck finding your perfect marriage counselor!
Much manly love,
With much manly love,
I'm Stephen, the guy behind Husband Help Haven. I'm not a marriage counselor or a lawyer, I'm just a guy on the Internet who has talked to a loooooot of men going through separation... Over 2,000 in the past 5 years. My goal is to give men the tools they need to save their marriage from separation.