When my marriage was in trouble we decided to ‘go see someone’. Our daughter was very small and it was hard to find time to meet together when we weren’t both exhausted and stressed out, let alone someone to babysit while we went for couples counselling, so I found a counsellor round the corner who said she ‘did’ relationship counselling.
We met our counsellor, a charming and empathetic woman who works successfully with individuals to unpack and look at their issues. Unfortunately as the weeks progressed it became clear that unpacking and looking at our relationship issues was making us feel even more miserable and helpless, without giving us any idea of how we could improve things.
We ended counselling further apart than we had begun. It had taken a huge leap of faith for my husband to attend the sessions at my urging and it proved to be another nail in the coffin of our failing marriage as it convinced him further in his conviction at the time that ‘nothing could be done’.
Currently there’s nothing to stop any counsellor saying they can work with relationships, and unfortunately some misguidedly think it just means having an extra person in the room. Or maybe they qualified as an individual counsellor then went on a day’s workshop on working with couples.
I learned this lesson the hard way. Eventually we made it to Relate, but by that time all they could help us with was making sense of our separation, my husband’s new relationship and moving forward together as parents.
So how do you find a trustworthy, qualified relationship counsellor? And what questions should you ask to make sure that you’re about to spend your precious time and money on a service that supports you as individuals and strengthens your relationship?
1. Do you get a good feeling from this person? This goes for any counsellor, they can be well qualified, experienced, trustworthy, but sometimes the fit is just wrong. If you’re attending a counselling centre they’ll be used to couples requesting a different counsellor without needing any explanation, if you’re seeing someone who practises on their own it’s perfectly acceptable to say you might feel more comfortable with someone else and to ask if they would recommend a colleague.
Sometimes it can be useful to ask yourself why you’re feeling this way and to be open about it if appropriate. Does the counsellor remind you of an ex girl/boyfriend, the teacher you hated, your boss? Do you feel the counsellor took sides between you and your partner? A good counsellor will listen and accept your reasons, and help you make a decision about your next step.
2. What training has the counsellor undergone specifically in relationship therapy and what qualifications do they have? Was this over a number of years or just a few days? Do they continue to attend regular professional development sessions?
3. How long have they practised relationship counselling? Remember to ask not only how many years but how many couples they’ve seen over their career and on average how many hours a week they practise couple counselling.
4. Can they explain the way they work in a way that you understand? Most counsellors will have studied a LOT of theory, but an excellent counsellor will also be able to connect with you on an equal footing.
5. How affordable are sessions? Having a happy relationship is priceless, but in the real world cashflow can be tricky. Does your counsellor offer options such as longer gaps between sessions to spread the cost?
6. Do you need to find someone with flexible availability or could you realistically commit to a regular slot to get in earlier? For most people work and childcare are the issues which make attending couple sessions tricky. It’s often worth having a confidential word with your boss and/or close friends or family to see if they can support you here. Some counsellors offer flexible timings but you could wait longer to be seen.
7. Does the counsellor discuss how long things may take, ask you to set clear goals and flag up regular review opportunities? Relationship counselling is about looking at how things currently are, why this might be, and also how to effect the changes you both want. A good counsellor will take on board your wishes and give the work a structure so you can keep moving forward to achieve the relationship you want.
What do you think? Have I missed anything out? Have you had any disappointing experiences with counselling? I’d love to hear from you.