If you and your partner seem to be having the same arguments day after day or sense a strange sense of distance or lack of romantic interest, it may be time to seek out professional help. A great marriage counselor can be the difference between overcoming struggles and forging a stronger bond or splitting up over unresolved issues.
One of the big focuses of relationship counseling is coming together as a team to solve problems. Over time, you can begin to learn new ways to support each other and set your relationship in a more positive direction.
But what makes a good counselor? Conversely, what are the signs of a bad marriage counselor? Dr. Sachi Ananda, Ph.D., is a renowned sex and relationships therapist who directs Shatterproof at FHE, our specialized treatment program for first responders. In the sections that follow, Dr. Ananda offers an insider’s insight into issues like therapist bias and how to ensure a good fit of therapist.
How to Find a “Good” Couples Therapist?
Well, first off, you should assess your definition of “good.” No therapist is a miracle worker, so it’s important to set realistic goals. Plus, many of the skills and traits that go into successful relationship counseling are intangible. That being said, there are a few things you can look for that might indicate if a therapist is right for your relationship:
- Even in your earliest meetings, a great counselor will be able to command the space without seeming overbearing or demanding.
- A good therapist can establish a sense of calm, even when emotions start to run high.
- Finally, after hearing your relationship goals, they should be able to explain what getting there might take and what “success” might look like.
The Issue of Therapist Bias and How to Spot It
Therapy is an inherently personal experience. For it to be successful, you have to be willing to be vulnerable and honest, and that can be a scary prospect.
With relationship counseling, you then have to add other people into the equation, which can further complicate the dynamic. For example, it’s common for one partner to be less willing to participate in marriage counseling. Plus, most people come into counseling with a firm idea of what the relationship’s problems are and what it takes to solve them. When a therapist explores other options or doesn’t immediately agree with these conclusions, that may prompt questions like, “Is my therapist biased?” (And, there can be utility in exploring whether the issue really is one of therapist bias or just a different approach to your relationship problems.)
Moments like these are when truly great marriage counselors shine. Primarily, the goal is to help clients learn to face existing relationship struggles and work through them as a team. A therapist should be able to even the playing field and make everyone feel equally involved.
It’s not about winning fights or deciding who is the better partner. It’s about what we can all do in these moments to build stronger connections. One way to do this is to reframe comments that are one-sided and harmful (“You’re always late because you don’t care enough about me to be on time”) to ones that are more positive or neutral (“I understand that you have difficulty with our schedule”).
That being said, marriage counselors are human, too. Everyone has bias and everyone has their own idea of what a successful relationship looks like. There absolutely are cases where a counselor lets their own biases affect their work. In fact, one study showed that as many as 50 percent of polyamorous clients felt like their therapists were biased. Therapists typically are trained to be able to recognize their biases and overcome them to properly help people from all walks of life, but not every therapist can do this.
“A sign of a good couple’s therapist is that they will be up front with their personal biases and theoretical frameworks,” Dr. Ananda said. “They may believe in trying to save marriages at all costs or they may not think a non-monogamous relationship is healthy even if it is consensual. More importantly, they will not overly favor one person’s perspectives and feelings over the other and appear to be blaming relationship problems to one side.”
Can Marriage Counseling Make Things Worse?
A related question that many people ask: What if a therapist really is bad and can’t do their job? What should people do if they feel a therapist has ruined their relationship?
Unfortunately, not every couple that goes to counseling stays together—for countless reasons. If you’re thinking to yourself, “My therapist ruined my relationship,” you should reflect on what counseling was like. Do your best to be impartial.
If your therapist singled out only one person’s “flaws” without exploring other aspects of the relationship, encouraged you to end your relationship for any reason (other than personal safety), or set up an aggressive or argumentative environment, they may have caused damage to the relationship. On the other hand, if you or your partner were unwilling to participate or actively inhibited the counseling process, the therapist may not have been responsible.
“Not every marriage counselor will be a perfect fit for every couple,” Dr. Ananda said. “If one therapist is not helping the couple with their goals, it is important to not give up. Find another couple’s therapist and before committing to working with them, explain the problems you had with the previous therapist to see if they will work differently with you.”
Your best bet is to seek out a second opinion. Even individual therapy with another counselor could help you recognize if your therapist played a role in damaging the relationship or is otherwise a poor fit for your counseling needs.
Should You Feel Worse After Marriage Counseling?
As with many aspects of counseling, it depends. It’s normal to sometimes feel worse after marriage counseling, especially in the early stages. It can even be a sign of progress. The therapy process is difficult, especially for relationships. You’re often digging into and uncovering deeply emotional moments that can leave people feeling vulnerable and then facing them head-on.
You should feel like you’re trending upwards, though. After a period of rough sessions, you should feel as if you’re making progress. If a marriage counselor doesn’t seem to be able to help you through these low periods, reach out to them. They may be able to offer advice or provide support.
If you feel worse after a session because you feel you were attacked in some way, it may be time to evaluate if it’s your perceptions or if the counselor is a poor fit.
What if My Therapist Told Me to Leave? Should They Have?
In general, therapists do their best to keep clients at arm’s length and allow them to come to their own decisions. Some clients make tremendous progress after being told to leave a relationship. It’s usually unethical to discuss divorce unless a client brings it up first, however.
Beyond that, if there is a risk of serious harm, a therapist may suggest leaving. Mental, physical, and sexual abuse are key signs to suggest ending a relationship, especially if the aggression is escalating. While it may be possible to address these issues, counselors can tell when doing so is beyond the scope of their ability. If a client is in danger, the therapist will provide them with the resources they need to be safe.
“Couples therapy can be a great way to learn how to communicate better with others,” Dr. Ananda said. “It can also clarify problem areas where couples can make healthy changes for themselves and their relationship. It helps couples feel empowered to take responsibility for their happiness rather than victimized by their relationship woes.”
If you’re exploring how couples or marriage therapy might help you address an addiction or mental health problem, reach out to us today to learn more. At FHE Health, we’ve helped many couples successfully tackle these issues with treatment and therapy.