Couples Counseling Guidelines

If your romance is on the rocks (but aren’t married yet), should you seek professional help? Yes! Here, our resident expert Dr. Gilda Carle explains everything you need to know before you go.

By Dr. Gilda Carle, Ph.D.

anting to grow is a great and necessary personal aspiration. But when you’re part of a couple and your relationship is stuck, getting help requires buy-in from both parties; the only question is, “when?”

Celebs that could’ve benefited from couples counseling
Kim Kardashian’s mother, Kris, summarily mouthed, “I don’t believe in therapy” when pondering its value
Could therapy have helped the unmarried Twilight co-stars…
for of one of her daughter’s relationships. It’s hard to imagine anyone generalizing that way. However, according to a study recently published by the Journal of Family Therapy, 25 to 30 percent of couples show no benefit from seeing a counselor together. Yet, I wonder at what point in their relationships the subjects of these studies decided to seek help. And what kind of therapy and/or therapist did each couple have? Such variables are qualitative, and thereby difficult to assess. Further, did these subjects wait until the last possible moment before they sought help, when the likelihood of successful change was already dubious? Also, if 25 to 30 percent of couples who sought therapy saw no benefit from it, what about the 70 to 75 percent that did?

As “The Relationship Expert to the Stars,” I argue that celebs falling in and out of love would benefit from counseling before they end up in divorce court. Could therapy have helped the unmarried Twilight co-stars Kristen Stewart and Rob Pattinson before their debacle (or at least as much as married couples like Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise and the multi-vowed Heidi Klum and Seal)? Marital status pales in contrast to the insight gained from counseling sessions that can push people to probe their motives and behaviors before they start acting them out. Unfortunately, most couples wait until the fire has already spread before reaching for an extinguisher. Too often, this is too late to save their romance.

Counselors seek professional help, too
I’ve personally experienced an array of various therapists and therapies before dispensing any advice to my own clients. As I advise in this Gilda-Gram, “Everyone who touches us teaches us,” and I’ve personally gleaned great knowledge and growth from every counselor I’ve had — before, during, and after a marriage. But I also learned that no one professional or treatment could take me to the place I needed to be. I also avoid the decades-long Woody Allen approach to therapy that can keep people dependent. Besides, as an educator, I know it’s healthiest when an approximate graduation date is planned.

My first therapist was a caring male Ph.D. psychologist. After years together, I began to feel that he was less perspicacious than I, and that his intractable values were coloring his judgment. Therapy is most productive when the therapist is a facilitator, not a judge… so I left.

I was therapist-less for many relationships after that, until I went through a tough breakup. Now in need of an emotional tune-up, I chose a female M.S.W. social worker for a new perspective. She was valuable for our intense probing, but her new European lover would interrupt our sessions with his long-distance phone calls — which she answered! I told her that I had achieved what I needed, so I was ending our sessions. She urged me to taper off gradually rather than going “cold turkey.” I disagreed, and terminated our therapy sessions anyway.

Along with these two counselors were a long list of assorted marriage advisors, relationship experts, inspirational authors, meditations, guided healings, self-help books, workshops, healing music, tapes, and courses. I’ve spent a lot of time and money over the years, but each one was an investment in the person and therapist that I am today. I continue to refresh my training in different forms to become smarter and more compassionate in my advising and healing of others.

What do you want to get out of it?
Finding a therapist right for you can be daunting. Counselors boast different perspectives, experiences, political views and educations, and each also has personal biases and a range of skills limited by being a human navigating a course through this tough world. So the first step is to know what you want to get out of counseling, and how long you’re willing to invest before you see change. You must also accept that no therapist can fix you or your relationship; ultimately, you must do all the heavy lifting. Also understand that moving beyond your comfort zone is painful, and some people end treatment when their familiar walls become threatened. So a probable rocky path should be expected from the start. For me, the pain was worth it, but would it be the same for you?

Note these necessary points to optimize your counseling experience:

1. Select the kind of therapist you believe will best treat your needs. Is your advisor oriented in child development issues, relationships, families, domestic violence, rape, a particular disease, or something else? As a licensed educator, I teach relationship skills to be applied long after our sessions end. Not everyone works from this perspective. Websites such as the American
You can’t teach what you haven’t experienced yourself.
Association for Marriage and Family Therapy ( or the Gottman Relationship Institute ( may be helpful in your selection process, but getting personal references from people you trust is always your best bet.

2. Contrast the therapist’s philosophy about life, healing, and time with your own. People have different thresholds for patience and hard work; do yours mesh well?

3. Decide whether you’re willing to withstand a few sessions, despite your first impressions. A study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that alliances with a therapist during only the first meeting were less predictive of change than assessments made after multiple meetings. As with dating, don’t try to predict your success after only one encounter with someone.

4. How perceptive is the therapist? A terminal degree and a license to practice won’t guarantee this person is right for you. Ask the counselor to suggest the most efficient manner to combat your problems, and then determine whether that seems appropriate to you.

5. Does the counselor encourage your independence? Therapists are human, and some may want to insure a steady income flow and a codependent connection that may not advance you to the place you’d like to be emotionally.

6. Has the counselor had therapy, too? You can’t teach what you haven’t experienced yourself.

7. Does the counselor provide hope (which is optimistic), or offer guarantees (which are impossible)? You want a realistic guide in this endeavor.

8. Does the counselor adhere to ethical boundaries and client confidentiality? Research the Code of Ethics for organizations like American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, American Psychological Association, American Counseling Association, and National Association of Social Workers, and then you’ll understand what constitutes appropriate guidelines for the type of therapist you choose.

9. Can the counselor provide clarity on your issues? You seek an outside source to gain a perspective you don’t have currently regarding your problem.

10. Will the counselor challenge your rationalizations? Too many people admit to manipulating naïve and unsuspecting therapists!

11. Does the counselor support and encourage your thoughts and feelings without denigrating them? You must feel safe and non-threatened during this vulnerable time.

12. Does your counselor demonstrate an appropriate amount of empathy for your problems? You should seek someone with a respectful rapport.

13. Have you researched complaints and testimonials for this counselor beforehand? As with anyone you hire, it pays to do your homework first.

14. Will both of you be present during counseling sessions? If you want counseling and your mate doesn’t, let this Gilda-Gram guide you: “Whoever’s hurting must seek the healing.” Even if your mate negates the idea, if you’re in pain, go by yourself!

15. If you’re in danger, immediately call one of the national hotlines, such as 1-800-799-SAFE.

You don’t have to be married to seek an unbiased professional’s opinion about your romance, but don’t wait until your relationship’s already a train wreck to do so. I prefer clients who do what they can on their own before we start working together, so I recommend they read some key books before we get started. But that’s the way an educator works. I also avail myself of our vast technology. I’ve seen great results with counseling clients on Skype, via email, and even on the phone. My approach is quicker than most, while others prefer (and may require) longer periods for self-exploration.

Relationship expert Dr. Gilda Carle, Ph.D., gives Instant Advice throughout the world via Skype, email and phone. She is the 30-Second Therapist for Her best-selling books include Don’t Bet on the Prince!, 99 Prescriptions for Fidelity and How to Win When Your Mate Cheats. Please visit her website at (
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