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Finding a good marriage counselor that's affordable and nearby is hard enough. But discovering one you both actually feel comfortable talking with can be even tougher. While asking a spiritual adviser or married friends for a referral is really the ideal choice, many couples find it difficult to disclose their private marital issues. But conducting an online search, too, can feel like you're looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
"It's always helpful to ask for a personal referral—talk to your primary care physician or ask a friend or family member who has experience with therapists in your area," suggests licensed marriage and family therapist Emily Tinling Cook, Ph.D.
Meet the Expert
Emily Tinling Cook, Ph.D., is a marriage and family therapist and owner of Emily Cook Therapy. She is also the author of The Marriage Counseling Workbook.
If you're serious about marriage counseling, solving recurring arguments, and busting open those clogged lines of communication, this guide will help you vet a counselor's credentials, conduct your search, and ask all the right questions so you can confidently choose a marriage counselor you both like and trust.
Types of Marriage Counselors
Once you start vetting marriage counselors, you'll find they go by a few different titles. Here's how to understand the acronyms after their names.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)
Licensed marriage and family therapists specifically work with couples and families to manage problems within their relationships, using a framework that views patients as part of a larger couple, family, or community system that impacts and influences mental health and well-being.
They have a relational focus on dynamics and treatments that directly address relationship skills and repair. To become an LMFT one must hold a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy (or a related mental health discipline), accumulate supervised clinical work experience, pass licensing exams, and obtain and maintain their licensure to practice in their state.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
Licensed clinical social workers have a social focus and utilize a social improvement perspective, with some specializing in marriage counseling or family therapy. Some may hold couple or group family sessions, but the majority of their counseling strategies are for individuals.
To become an LCSW one must hold a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree and pass the social work licensure exam in their state. Some state requirements include an accumulation of supervised clinical work experience.
Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) or Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)
Counselors guide positive behavioral change through a personal improvement perspective that focuses on the individual patient and the particular personal issues they are struggling with that influence their mental health and well-being.
Certification requirements include a master’s degree in psychology (or related mental health field), accumulation of supervised clinical work experience, and passing a licensing exam. Accreditation is state-specific; states that do not offer an LMHC license will offer the equivalent LPC license and vice versa.
Psychologist (Ph.D. or Psy.D.)
Psychologists provide professional mental health services, including specialized assessment, diagnosis, and therapy with the ability to evaluate and diagnose mental illness. The difference between the suffixes is that a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) is trained with a greater emphasis on research and a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) receives more clinical training.
Psychologists hold a doctoral degree within their discipline, partake in a year-long supervised internship, accumulate additional supervised practice experience, pass national and state licensing exams, and complete annual continuing education hours to maintain their license.
How to Find a Marriage Counselor
Once you know how to discern between the different types of marriage counselors, here's how to find the right one for you and your partner.
Search Reputable Directories
Each of these three online directories includes a handy counselor-search feature along with the specialties and qualifications of the therapists therein.
- The National Registry of Marriage Friendly Therapists
- Gottman Referral Directory
- American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT)
Cook also recommends Psychology Today and GoodTherapy for databases that can be narrowed down by criteria (location, specialty, language, session cost, etc.), so the volume of results isn't completely overwhelming.
All therapists are required to be licensed (or license-eligible) to practice therapy—but deciphering mental health credentials can prove confusing. Since license requirements vary by state, double-check your state's specifications. Specializing in the treatment of a particular issue or population—like marriage and/or couples therapy—usually requires advanced education.
"Being a good therapist and being a good couple therapist are two different skill sets," explains Cook. "It's important to note that every therapist has a different and unique journey in the field—each training program, clinical internship or experience, and how they have developed a clinical practice matters! It would be unhelpful to judge any therapist based on licensure alone."
Furthermore, they may be trained in additional techniques, like emotionally focused therapy (EFT), for example, and you should check their credentials for that approach or modality.
Questions to Ask
Ask direct questions to better understand a marriage counselor's techniques and credentials, gauge competency, and learn what to expect.
"Remember that you are the consumer of therapy services, so it's OK to ask questions about the therapist's training in couple therapy, approach to therapy, or treatment methods," says Cook. This is particularly important if the therapist wasn't a direct referral or found via an online search.
"You can also get a good sense of the person by how they write on their website, what their brand feels like, and how they describe themselves," says Cook.
It's also important to understand that no therapist can predict how long you will be in therapy until they're able to make a thorough assessment—and even then it can be difficult. Expect to be in counseling for a minimum of four to six months and possibly up to one year, depending on your issues' seriousness and how long you've been suffering.
Consider asking these questions before hiring someone.
- How long have you been practicing couples therapy?
- What portion of your caseload is couple therapy?
- Do you have advanced training? Can you elaborate on that?
- How long is one session?
- What should we expect?
- What would rule us out as good candidates for marriage therapy? (A history of domestic violence and/or substance abuse, for example.)
- Are you single, married, or divorced? (If this is important to you, ask it.)
You might feel more comfortable speaking to a counselor who's married with children than one who has never been married or has divorced—just be sure to limit personal questions to only those that deal with the therapist's marital status.
Any therapist worth their salt will spend a few minutes answering basic questions via telephone about fees, no-show penalties, and treatment and scheduling options. If they aren't willing to do so, move on.
"One of the strongest predictors of the success of therapy is the strength of the relationship between the therapist and the couple," says Cook. "As you're speaking with the therapist during the consultation, check in with how you're both feeling. Do you feel chemistry with the therapist? Do you feel listened to, safe, and connected? Do you feel trusting, like this person 'gets' you and your relationship?"
If you're still answering "no" to any of the above questions after the first couple of sessions or feel the counselor doesn't have a good understanding of how to improve things, it's probably not the best match. It's OK to seek help from someone else.
Bottom line: A marriage counselor will assist and guide you both to finding your own ways to reconcile your union, but they're not there to solve problems for you; you'll always need to put in the work. Finding help to reconcile your marriage is a loving, noble, and brave endeavor—and hopefully, it's a positive one, too. Kudos for taking the first step.