>Why (you think) couples therapy doesn’t work

There is some seriously bad work going on out there – and they’re calling it “couples therapy”. People tell me horror stories about prior therapists telling them to give up and get a divorce; that their problems are unsolvable, or worse. You probably know someone who had an awful experience, who could agree with the Consumer Reports study that cited couples therapy as the lowest rated for consumer satisfaction1.

Whaaaaaat?! I mean, I couples coming into my office for the first time usually feel pretty demoralized, but there is often some relief within the first few sessions, and when the work really gets going, many improve! And it’s not just me; the research consistently shows 70% of couples reporting positive change in their relationship after a course of treatment!2 Those are a LOT of satisfied consumers… so what gives?

I’ll tell you; anyone can call themselves a couples therapist.  It’s estimated that 70% of psychotherapists treat couples2 which doesn’t seem reasonable, given the limited amount of training in couples and family work outside of marriage and family therapy/family psychology training2. Consumer Reports doesn’t qualify therapists’ training, but research studies generally utilize skilled clinicians so their results don’t get messed up.

Ohhhhhhhh! That 70% improvement we hear about is couples therapy done with therapists who are actually trained in couples work. NOW I get it!

So although there are some (hopefully) well-meaning therapists out there, it’s important for you to know who you are asking to help you save your marriage, or at least support your quest for an improved relationship. When you’re thinking about couples therapy, definitely do your research. You wouldn’t just grab the first cardiologist listed on your health insurance website to do your triple bypass, would you? Isn’t this at least as important?!

If you know someone who likes their couples therapist- ask them for their name; say it’s ‘for a friend’ if you’re shy. Search websites that specifically require couples experience of their members*. When you call the therapist, ask them about the nature of their training and experience in working with couples; ask if they use a specific model. There are no “right” answers; rather, you’re looking for a sense of how the therapist works – (s)he should be grounded in an idea of what is important to effect change in your relationship; and should be able to explain it to you in words you can understand. Beware of someone who throws terms around but can’t tell you what it looks like in the therapy room. ‘Eclectic’ is fine, but if you give me five model names and tell me ‘it just works’, I’d probably move on. You are looking for whether it ‘feels’ right to you – if not, thank them for their time and move on to the next therapist on your list.

*(Resources below are not an exhaustive list, by any means; Full disclosure: I’m listed on three of them)

 American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists www.therapistlocator.net

International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy  www.iceeft.com  (in NY Metro area – www.nyceft.org)

National Registry of Marriage Friendly Therapists www.marriagefriendlytherapists.com  

1Consumer Reports (1995) Available at http://www.consumerreports.org/main/home.jsp?source=DG&AFFID=S145MC0

2 Lebow, J.L., Chambers, A.L., Christensen, A., Johnson, S.M. (2012). Research on the Treatment of Couple Distress. Journal of Marriage and Family Therapy, 38, 145-168.







2 responses to “>Why (you think) couples therapy doesn’t work”

  1. sarah

    Well, we got lucky because Maggie O’Connor’s website was the first to come up when I began my search; and I had to look no further, thanks to an impressive website that seemed to just click with me. Then, after one phone conversation, in person I knew my husband and I found the right fit. Thanks,Maggie!!

    1. Maggie

      Thanks for the testimonial! I’m so glad to hear it!

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