Trying to find a therapist can be a bit intimidating for people. This is especially the case if your only experiences of counseling come from TV and movies. Many people are unsure what therapists do, how much training they have, and if a therapist can really help their current situation. Some of these concerns can be addressed by asking a few good questions before working with a therapist.
What is your level of education?
There are several differences in educational levels when it comes to counselors. In fact, you’ve maybe even heard of counselors, marriage therapists, Biblical counselors, Christian counselors, pastoral counselors, social workers, psychologists, and life coaches. All of these people can offer services to couples in crisis and understanding the differences between all of these choices can be quite a headache.
Generally speaking, life coaches do not have to have any formal education to call themselves life coaches. However, some do get a certification as a life coach by going through a life coaching program. The training can vary some, but are not usually of an academic nature. In other words, they will not receive a masters or doctorate through these programs. However, some licensed mental health care workers also offer coaching services.
Counselors, marriage therapists, and social workers could have a master’s degree or a doctorate. You’ll have to check directly with them to know which degree they actually earned.
Psychologists have to have a doctorate degree to use the term “psychologist” as that term is specific to people who have studied psychology, completed their doctorate, and earned their license as a psychologist.
Biblical counselors and Christian counselors can complete programs online that will grant them certificates or they might have attended courses in college. Typically, they learn some basic counseling skills and have a set of theological beliefs and standards that the counselor agrees to. If you see one of these counselors, you might want to make sure that your theological beliefs align with theirs since this will impact the treatment they offer.
Finally, many churches have pastors that will see their congregants one or more times for pastoral care and counseling. Most churches seem to stick to three sessions and then a referral out if the couple’s concerns warrant more than three sessions. Pastors vary greatly in their education in regards to counseling. Some pastors have only taken a couple of classes or minimal training, while others have their masters or doctorate degrees. You’ll have to ask your pastor specifically what their level of education is in regards to counseling services.
What area do you specialize in?
Marriage and family therapists clearly specialize in marriage and family concerns, just like sex therapists have a niche in intimacy concerns. Most of the time though, you will not know a therapist’s area of specialty just through their title alone. Don’t be afraid to ask your therapist what they specialize in. You’re going to be paying money and expending time and energy to have your core concern resolved. Make sure that the therapist you choose is well-versed in working with your relationship concern, or that they have the ability to work under the supervision of someone who can help with your primary concern.
Do you typically work with couples?
While all good therapists have the ability to help people problem-solve their big concerns, working with couples is a special skill set that some therapists just don’t have. Couples work requires a therapist to focus on the goals of each person as individuals, as well as the goals they have as a couple. Couple therapists also need to be able to help couples communicate more effectively and keep conflict to a minimum while in session. Make sure the therapist you choose is not one that typically only works with individuals.
Have you been specifically trained in __?
While some issues are common to almost all couples that seek counseling (communication difficulties, issues with conflict resolution, personality differences), other issues are more specialized. If you’re a business owner and wearing multiple hats has caused problems at home, you may want a therapist that has some experience here. If you’re dealing specifically with sexual difficulties, you’ll want to know that your therapist is up on the latest research regarding these concerns. And, if you’re trying to restore your marriage after an affair, you should make sure that your therapist has worked with other couples in affair recovery and that they believe the marriage can be saved after an affair.
Are you married?
This may or may not be important to you, but many couples want to make sure they are being helped by somebody who has been able to maintain their own marriage. If you want to know if your therapist is married or if they’ve been divorced, go ahead and ask.
Can you work with me if my spouse will not come in?
There are no hard rules on this one. Some therapists will be happy to work with you as a couple and occasionally as individuals, other therapists will help you work on your relationship when it’s only you, and others will only work with you as a couple. Since there isn’t a standard that every therapist is expected to stick to, therapists are allowed to determine what they believe works best. Ask your potential therapist what their thoughts are on this, especially if you know your spouse is not interested in attending.
What are your thoughts on divorce?
Go ahead and ask your potential therapist what they think about divorce. This is especially true if you or your spouse have said that they want a separation or divorce. You need to know if your therapist works with couples on the brink of divorce and how you, your spouse, and your therapist will talk about divorce.
What is your approach in working with couples?
Working with a therapist can be pretty intimidating because of the unknown, but you definitely don’t have to go in blind. Ask your potential therapist to explain the process to you. You should have a little bit of understanding of the general process even though therapists work to make sure the approaches are specific to you.
Are you a Christian?
Therapists are trained to work with people regardless of their faith background. In other words, therapists are taught to respect other people’s beliefs even if they contradict their own. However, many Christians find that they prefer to work with someone who not only honors their beliefs, but also believes similarly. If this is important to you, ask your potential therapist if they are a Christian. By the way, I’ve even been asked about my personal church involvement so that couples know I’m committed to Christ. If you want to know this, just ask.
Are you licensed in my state?
Sometimes, someone will promote themselves as a counselor without having ever earned their license or without keeping it active. Licensing boards exist so that you have somewhere to make a formal complaint if you have an ethical issue related to your therapist. They also exist to verify that therapists are continuing to get education and training after they’ve completed school. Find out if your potential therapist is licensed and if you plan on receiving psychological services that can be reimbursed by insurance, make sure your therapist is licensed in your state.
Dr. Jessica is in Virginia and provides counseling services for those in VA and a variety of services for those outside of the state. See if one of these services is right for you.