How Do You Find a Good Marriage Counselor?

By Dr. Robert Burbee
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Once the decision is made to seek assistance the next few steps can be discouraging if one is not prepared.

Finding a good counselor or psychotherapist can be a challenging task. Several sets of factors may contribute to the challenge; the number of professionals available in the community, the specifics of the need, the cost of services, is the professional recognized by one’s health insurance, etc. Then there are those factors related to one’s Christian values and beliefs. Does the professional address spiritual aspects of a situation during counseling or psychotherapy? How sensitive are they to a client’s religious sensibilities? What is their view of the Bible and its place in counseling and psychotherapy? There are dozens of questions swirling around the decision and choice to see a counselor or therapist. The next few paragraphs will try to address some of these issues briefly.

If you’re reading this, chances are you have been thinking about seeking some help for a challenge in your life. The most critical decision in seeking a therapist or counselor is the resolve to seek help. It is estimated that only a fourth of those who could benefit from counseling and mental health services actually seek assistance from a professional. It takes a great deal of courage to come to the point of trusting details of one’s personal life with a total stranger. Anything that can decrease the sense of vulnerability will help support someone to actually arriving for their first visit. Anyone who finds the resolve to seek guidance, understanding, and support about their life challenges is to be commended. Simply getting to a point of being willing to see a professional may be the biggest step of all toward help and recovery.

Once the decision is made to seek assistance the next few steps can be discouraging if one is not prepared. The following tips may be of help in finding and selecting a counseling or mental health professional to work with.

Tip #1 Pray.

Beginning the work of counseling or psychotherapy is a big commitment for you and for the professional. In much the same way as one might pray for God’s direction in finding a church home when moving in to a new community. Or, praying for the right teacher for your child at school. Asking for God’s guidance and provision is the right place to begin when seeking a counselor or therapist.

Tip #2 Talk to someone you know who has gone for counseling or psychotherapy.

In many cases the best suggestions about who is good in your community are from trusted friends and family who have been in the same situation themselves of trying to find a good counselor or therapist. These individuals can give first hand observation about a professional and what to expect. And, they are giving a client’s perspective which may be the most important.

Tip #3 Talk with someone who regularly refers to counselors and mental health professionals.

Pastors, physicians, nurses, attorneys, and school teachers are good places to start. These professionals interact with counselors and mental health professionals on a regular basis and are in a good position to know who has a good reputation in the community. A good professional reputation is very important and professionals who do not have a good reputation should be considered with caution. The informal grapevine is not foolproof but depending on the community, word of mouth may be a very good indicator of who does good work with people.

Tip #4 Do not waste time with people who are not properly credentialed.

Once you have the name of a professional do some research and determine whether they are licensed or being supervised by a licensed mental health professional. If you have health insurance contact the customer service representative and determine if the professional you’re considering is a covered provider. There is a reason why someone must have a license before collecting money for providing counseling advice. To be licensed a professional must complete a course of graduate study from an accredited institution and have completed literally thousands of hours of supervised experience in their field of mental health or counseling. The licensing laws are there to protect the public from frauds, charlatans, and other sometimes well meaning individuals who are trying to circumvent the law and make a living giving advice and guidance without appropriate training or supervision. Such people can do a great deal of harm to an individual, marriage, or family. Sadly, unlicensed individuals providing counsel are most common in church settings. Christians beware!

Tip #5 Interview the professional you hope to see by phone before you see them.

It is a legitimate request to talk with a professional by phone before you meet them in person and pay for an initial visit. It would not be fair to the professional to try and get counseling started over the phone, but five to ten minutes of discussion prior to a first visit may be helpful. Prepare a list of questions before you talk with them related to your concerns. Ask questions that will help you feel more at ease about going in for a visit. Ask if they are a Christian and how their faith influences the way they do counseling or psychotherapy. If finances are an issue, ask about fee adjustments or other ways to manage the cost of services. A lot can be determined about a professional by experiencing how they respond to your concerns as you mention them briefly by phone.

Tip #6 Do not be surprised if it takes two or three visits to determine if a professional is a comfortable fit for you and your needs.

One visit may not be enough to determine how helpful a particular professional is likely to be. Most people know by a third or fourth visit if the relationship will be productive. It is important to be as direct and straight forward as possible about one’s needs and feelings about the services received in order to get the maximum benefit from the service. Remember your difficulties likely did not develop overnight and it will likely take some time for the issues and needs of your situation to be fully understood and addressed. While you may determine in a few visits whether or not you can work with someone, it may be some time before the full benefit of counseling or psychotherapy starts to be realized.

Tip #7 Keep an open mind about what should happen and where the focus should be in counseling or psychotherapy.

Many people become quickly frustrated with counseling or mental health services because they enter the service with preconceived expectations about how the process should occur that are unrealistic or misguided. A big part of the reason you are seeking help is that your own efforts were not getting you the results you wanted. Letting the professional guide you toward attainable realistic goals can be a big part of one’s growth and recovery. Some professionals will let the client determine many of the goals. Other professionals will negotiate with clients what is the most sensible set of goals to pursue. Either way keeping an open mind about the process will allow the professional’s gifts, training, and insight the best opportunity to contribute to healthy change.

Finally, do not be discouraged if you need to meet with several professionals before finding someone you can work with. Research indicates that the capacity to establish a working relationship with a professional is the most important factor in successful outcomes in counseling and psychotherapy. All professionals will have some people they connect with easily and others who may be more challenging to establish that working relationship with. A genuine professional will not be offended if you decide you want a second opinion or want to try working with someone else. In fact many professionals may even be able to refer you to someone they know and trust.

As stated earlier the biggest step is committing to the goal of giving professional counseling or mental health services a chance to be of help. Whether it’s weekly counseling sessions or a four day marriage counseling retreat. With God’s guidance and presence the experience can be life changing and extremely satisfying. The Scripture records Jesus saying he came to give us life and life to the full. Counseling and mental health services can be an instrument of God’s provision in the life of an individual, couple, and/or family.

Copyright © 2014 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Dr. Robert Burbee

Dr. Bob Burbee has 26 years of experience as a licensed psychologist working with individuals, couples, families, and groups. As one of National Institute of Marriage Intensive therapists Bob leads both Couples Intensives and Marriage Intensives.

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