Shopping Shrinks

Hi Dr Darcy,

My boyfriend and I both love your advice column -- reading it helped us decide to find a couple's counselor to help us work through some issues where we're deadlocked. :)

When my boyfriend suggested going to therapy, I loved the idea... But now we're overwhelmed. What should we look for in a therapist/counselor?? What should we ask him/her the first visit to see if it's a good fit? We're both late-20s entrepreneurs who grew up as only children, so we need to learn how to compromise, fight/talk effectively, and not overcompensate by being pushovers. How do we make sure that the counselor won't take sides?

Also... My boyfriend is black, and I'm white. We don't have (or don't think we have) any problems related to race right now, but should we try to find someone who works with biracial couples anyway?? Thanks so much for your help and for writing a terrific column :)

ANSWER

Thanks for the straight love! Now let me hit you back with some:

Shopping for a shrink can feel overwhelming but it doesn’t have to be. You’ve done the hardest part: You’ve decided that you want a couple’s counselor. Now you need to figure out what kind of a therapist you’ll work best with.

Research indicates that the relationship between the therapist and client is the most important factor in whether therapy has a positive outcome. It’s even more important than where the therapist went to school, what her training is and what theoretical framework she practices from.

I use the same criteria in choosing a service provider that I use when I’m deciding whether I want to be friends with someone. I need the right chemistry from anyone who I interact with. Consequently, when I’m scrolling through dozens of bios on Psychology Today, I’m looking for someone who sounds real, who sounds alive and who is excited about their work. I like a therapist who has a distinct personality and who isn’t afraid to show some of it. If the therapist is afraid to express an opinion, that’s a red flag for me.

In addition to the therapist’s personality, you might have a preference for the type of training she has undergone. Do you imagine your therapist being passive in the sessions, or would you prefer someone who leads the session in accordance with your therapy goals? I have the added advantage of having been a consumer of therapy for years and years, so I’ve learned what type of therapist I do well with and what type I should avoid. Click here to read more about this.

My wife and I were in couples counseling for about a year and I credit that therapist and that experience for providing us with the tools necessary to have the relationship we enjoy today. I knew it wouldn’t be easy working with two shrinks, and as a client, I’m not a pleasure to work with, so I knew we needed someone particularly skilled and someone who wouldn’t be intimidated by us. We chose an Imago therapist because they are known to be more direct and are specifically trained to work with couples.

Every person who enters couples counseling worries that their shrink is going to pick sides or pick a favorite. I’ll let you in on a little secret: When I see a couple, I know that if I pick sides I’m going to lose the couple because no one’s staying in therapy to have fingers pointed exclusively at them. What you’ll learn in couples counseling is that most of what you bicker or fight over can be resolved without anyone identified as right or wrong. It’s about how the feelings are communicated and about how that communication is received by the other partner.

As far as you being a bi-racial couple, I'd say that any therapist who works with a diverse population should be fine. I'd rather see you work with someone who is specifically experienced as a couple’s counselor rather than limiting your options based on the therapist's experience with bi-racial issues. There are always going to be issues specific to each client/couple, and a good therapist knows that she's made a career-long commitment to researching those specifications whenever needed.

Do an hour or two of research beginning with this directory: http://gettingtheloveyouwant.com/. If you still find yourself overwhelmed, shoot me an email and I’ll send you some names. Remember, with video chat sessions available, you’re no longer limited by geography. Did I mention that we’ve never seen our couple’s counselor in person because she lives thousands of miles from New York?