• Isabelle Morley, PsyD

"How Do I Know if a Couples Therapist is Qualified?"

Updated: May 19

Understand what the term "couples therapist" really means and what to look for in a qualified professional when you want to start couples therapy.



It can be hard to find a good therapist. Most people will agree that it can be a long process of looking through search directories, asking for recommendations, and sending out emails that never get answered.


The process is made more difficult if you don't know what to look for in a therapist, so this post will explain what the term "couples therapist" means and what you should look for when you begin your search.



If you want the quick answer so you can jump into your search, find a provider who:


  • Has a degree in the mental health field

  • Can explain their education, training, and therapeutic orientation/style

  • Has had specific training in couple therapy

  • Holds a professional license



What "Protected Term" Means

One of the confusing parts of the mental health field is that certain terms are protected, meaning that they represent a certain level of training. Other terms, however, are not, which means that anyone can use them without any specific expertise.


To find someone qualified to help you, here are some things to know about the term "couples therapist" and what to look for in a provider.


Be wary of anyone calling themselves a therapist with no legitimate education, training, or certifications in the services they provide.


"Therapist" is Not a Protected Term

The terms "therapist," "psychotherapist," and "counselor" aren't protected, which means anyone regardless of their educational or training background can call themselves any one of these titles.


There are many problems with this, but a major one being that unprotected terms lead to unregulated industries (just like how anyone can be a "life coach"). Unregulated industries have the risk of ethical transgressions and the "providers" causing harm instead of helping, with no repercussions.


Be wary of anyone calling themselves a therapist with no legitimate education, training, or certifications in the services they provide.


This is a great description of the different types of licensed mental health professionals and their qualifications. It's good to know what each term means. For example, you might be surprised to know"psychologist" is very different from "psychoanalyst."Psychologists have a doctoral degree, have trained for thousands of hours, and are regulated by state and national boards, whereas psychoanalysts can have a lesser degree in psychology with 2 years of psychoanalytic training and are only supervised by local institutes.



"Couples Therapist" is Also Not a Protected Term

Just like how anyone can call themselves a therapist, anyone can decide they are a "couples therapist" too. In other words, your neighbor who just got married and now considers themselves an expert on relationships can call themselves a "couples therapist" and that's okay.


When looking for a couples therapist, make sure the provider has had specific training in couples work and can tell you about their education/training and which orientations or interventions they use.


All too often, highly educated and well-meaning therapists decide to offer couples therapy even though they have never trained in couples therapy. They apply other concepts and training to working with couples, which can actually be harmful to couples.


Couples therapy is an entirely different type of therapy. Find someone who has specialized in it, not someone who has thrown it onto a long list of services they offer.


And in general, be wary of a therapist who seems to offer everything. It's unlikely that a therapist who treats kids' behavioral issues is also great at addressing specific phobias, addictions, couples issues, grief, ADHD, and panic attacks. Good therapists have comprehensive training to treat many disorders and they can help many people, but they are not specialists in everything. And with something like couples therapy, you want a specialist.


All too often, highly educated and well-meaning therapists decide to offer couples therapy even though they have never trained in couples therapy... Couples therapy is an entirely different type of therapy. Find someone who has specialized in it, not someone who has thrown it onto a long list of services they offer.


A Professional License is Important

Finding a therapist with a professional license will ensure they have met some basic educational and training criteria, and that they will practice ethically. If they practice unethically and do harm, there are professional and financial consequences.


The license safeguards you, the consumer of this service. You can rest assured knowing that the therapist has been trained, is qualified, and that they are held to a professional standard that is intended to guarantee you quality care.


Find a provider with a professional degree in the mental health field and who is licensed. You can even verify their license to ensure it is active and in good standing. For example, in Massachusetts you can check psychologists licenses on this website.



Avoid Life Coaches

I know some people will take issue with this, but a life coach is not someone to entrust with your relationship. They might have never taken a class in psychology, let alone have a degree in the field.


Life coaches are self-proclaimed experts without any expertise. A real expert will be able to tell you their education, training, orientation, and clinical style. They will have a professional degree and a license. Life coaches do not have these things.


At best, they have attended a life coaching school which, again, is an unregulated industry. A certificate from one of these schools does not represent consistent or meaningful criteria of achievement, it's just whatever that school chose to define as the necessary requirements for being a life coach. Without a national standard or regulations on life coaching, the title doesn't mean much.


The fact is, they are not trained and they don't really know what they're doing.

The real risk is that an unqualified "life coach" or "couples coach" could actually do damage to your relationship. They could feed you inaccurate information. They could suggest incorrect or counterproductive strategies for fixing the problems. If their industry doesn't have an enforceable ethical code, they could cross important boundaries and become overly involved in your relationship. And, in the worst case scenario, they could reinforce unhealthy or abusive tendencies and align with an abuser without realizing it.


The fact is, they are not trained and they don't really know what they're doing.



We Have Professions for a Reason

Protecting consumers from bad care is why society has created professional standards that include strict requirements for education, training, licensure, and continuing education. People with a license in the mental health field are held to a higher standard of care and will face consequences if they do not meet this standard.


Just as how you would see a medical doctor to treat your heart condition instead of seeing someone calling themselves a "medical health specialist," you want to make sure you're seeing a qualified professional for treating any mental health issue including for couples therapy.


You deserve good care. Your mental health and your relationship is too important to leave in the hands of someone who is not trained or qualified to help. Find a therapist who has a professional degree, who is licensed, and who can speak to why they specifically are qualified to help you.






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