Edited from a chapter in 5 Steps to Romantic Love.
How To Find A Good Marriage Counselor
by Willard F. Harley, Jr.
The information described on this page will assist you in finding a good marriage
counselor. However, if you have not yet read our
home page, or have not been introduced to Dr. Harley's
basic concepts, we encourage you to do that first
and then return to this page.
How to Make Your First Appointment
What Is the Cost?
What to Expect In Your First Session (Intake)
What to Expect In Your Second Session (Assessment)
What to Expect In Treatment
My books and articles provide you with methods and tools that have proven useful to me in saving
marriages. But even the best concepts and forms in the
world won't help under certain conditions. Sometimes you need the support and
motivation that only a professional marriage counselor can provide.
The purpose of a marriage counselor, from my perspective, is to guide you
through (1) emotional minefields, (2) motivational swamps and (3) creative
The emotional minefields represent the predictable, yet overwhelmingly painful
experiences that many couples go through as they try to adjust to each other's
emotional reactions. Hurt feelings are the most common, but depression, anger, panic,
paranoia and many others seem to pop up without warning. These emotions distract
couples from their goal of creating romantic love, and often sabotage the entire effort.
A good marriage counselor helps couples avoid many of these emotional
landmines and is there for damage control when they're triggered. He/she does this by
understanding the enormous stress couples are under as they are facing one of their
greatest crises. When one or both spouses become emotionally upset, he/she has the
skill to diagnose and treat the emotional reactions effectively. I counsel with a
psychiatrist who prescribes psychotropic medication (anti-anxiety and anti-depressants)
to alleviate the emotional pain that often accompanies the process of
marital adjustment. A good counselor knows how to calm the couple down and assure
them that their emotional reactions are not a sign of hopeless incompatibility.
The motivational swamps represent the feeling of discouragement that most
couples experience. They often feel that any effort to improve their marriage is a waste
of time. Over the years, I believe that one of my greatest contribution to couples has
been my encouragement when things looked bleak. My clients knew that at least their
counselor believed that their effort would be successful. Eventually, each spouse
would come to believe it too.
Discouragement is contagious. When one spouse is discouraged, the other
quickly follows. Encouragement, on the other hand, is often met with skepticism by
the other spouse. So its easy to be discouraged, and difficult to be encouraged, when
you are trying to solve marital problems. A marriage counselor should be there to
provide needed encouragement when there's none other in sight.
The creative wilderness represents the typical inability of couples in marital crisis
to create solutions to their problems. In the books I've written, many solutions are
suggested but they're only the tip of the iceberg. Many marital problems require
solutions that are unique to certain circumstances. In this site, I put more emphasis on
the process you should follow to solve marital problems than I do on the specific
strategy you should use. That's because there are too many situations that require
A good marriage counselor is a good strategy resource. While you can, and
should, also think of ways to solve your marital problems, a marriage counselor should
know how to solve problems like yours. That's what you pay him/her to do! And his
strategy should make sense to you. In fact, his strategy should encourage you in the
belief that your problems will be over soon. Counselors often obtain special training
for many common marital problems, such as sexual incompatibility and financial
conflicts. These counselors can document a high rate of success in finding solutions to
To summarize, the three most important reasons to find a marriage counselor are
(1) to help you avoid or overcome painful emotional reactions to the process of solving
marital problems, (2) to motivate you to complete your plan to restore romantic love to
your marriage, and (3) to help you think of strategies that will achieve your goal.
If you can handle your emotional reactions, provide your own motivation and
can think of appropriate strategies, you don't need a marriage counselor. In fact, I
suggest that you try solving your problem on your own until you hit a roadblock. But
if your efforts hit a snag, find a professional marriage counselor to help you. Marital
problems are too dangerous to ignore, and their solutions are too important to
How to Make Your First Appointment
The yellow pages is probably one of the most common places to discover where
to find marriage counselors. Your physician or minister may also be able make
suggestions. But the most reliable sources of referral are people who have already seen
a counselor that has successfully guided them to romantic love. Since couples are
usually tight-lipped about their marital problems, that kind of referral is usually
difficult to obtain.
Regardless of your source of referral, however, you should take steps to be
certain that you select someone who can help you. And remember, the counselor who
can help your marriage helps both you and your spouse. If at all possible, make sure
your spouse is an active participant in this selection process.
Begin by calling one clinic at a time, asking the receptionist to speak to the
counselor you are considering by telephone. There should be no charge for this
preliminary interview. You should ask the counselor some of the following questions:
* How many years have you been a counselor?
* What are your credentials (e.g. academic degree)?
* Do you help your clients avoid some of the emotional hazards of marital adjustment?
* Do you help motivate your clients to complete the program successfully?
* Do you suggest strategies to solve your clients' marital problems?
You may wish to add other relevant questions. You may also try to let the
counselor know what type of marital problem you have. After going through this site,
you'll probably have more insight regarding your problem than counselors are
accustomed to hearing. Use that insight to discover if the counselor has the
background and skill to help you with your particular problem.
I would highly recommend that you ask if the counselor is presently using my
books, His Needs, Her Need, and Love Busters. If they are not using these books, ask if
they'd be willing to use them when counseling with you. While this may seem like a
marketing ploy on my part, the reason I would like you to take my materials with you
is that I'd like you to stick to the program I've recommended. There are many
ineffective marriage counseling methods being used these days and I think you'd be
more comfortable with a counselor who uses my direct method of dealing with the
problem. Counselors that only sit and listen to couples complain should be avoided at
Most couples who see me are in a state of crisis. They don't go to the trouble and
expense of marriage counseling for marriage "enrichment." They are facing marital
disaster! With that in mind, time is of the essence. You cannot wait weeks for your
first appointment. In fact, you should probably be seen the same day you call.
After speaking to several marriage counselors on the telephone, and taking good
notes on their answers to your questions, try to narrow your choice to three counselors.
Keep all your notes, since the first one you select may not work out.
When you and your spouse both feel comfortable with a particular counselor, set
up your first appointment.
What Is the Cost?
Cost varies widely among marriage counselors. But before we talk about cost, I
strongly advise you against counselors that cannot see you soon and often. That rules
out most Health Maintenance Organizations which are free or low cost because their
overworked counselors are usually weeks away from taking new couples, and they
tend to schedule follow-up appointments weeks apart. Furthermore, their counselors
are not likely to talk to you on the telephone prior to an appointment.
Insurance generally will not pay for marriage counseling unless the counselor
finds you or your spouse suffering from a mental disorder. Marriage counseling is
covered as treatment for the disorder, but not otherwise. If you see a counselor who
uses your insurance, you can be almost certain that you've been diagnosed to have a
mental disorder. It'll be on your record for years to come and may prevent you from
obtaining certain jobs or qualifying for certain types of insurance. Furthermore, if you
really do not have a mental disorder, but it's been diagnosed just to collect insurance,
your insurance company may challenge the diagnosis leaving you responsible for the
bill. If you're offered counseling for what your insurance pays with no other cost to
you, its illegal. Call your insurance company or your state's insurance commissioner to
report the attempt to commit insurance fraud.
It's safe to assume that you may need to pay for therapy out of your pocket. So
how much do marriage counselors charge? Rates vary from about $45 to $200 per session. The
average is about $95. Since most marriage counselors see couples one session a week for
the first three months, you can expect to pay about $1200 in that period of time if it's at
about $95/hr. Most of my clients have paid under $1200 by the time they've completed
therapy. But some counseling can continue weekly for as long as two years before the
problems have been resolved. That would cost a couple $10,000 over two years. While it
may seem like a fortune, the cost of divorce is often many times that figure.
To help put the cost of marriage counseling in perspective, there's nothing you
can buy for $10,000 that will give you the same quality of life that a healthy marriage
provides. If you and your spouse love each other and meet each other's important
emotional needs, you'll be able to do without many other things and still be happier in
the end. Besides, I've found that people seem to earn more and save more after their
marital problems are solved. The money you spend to resolve your marital problems is
money well spent.
What to Expect In the First Session (Intake)
If you see a counselor in a clinic or suite of counseling offices, a receptionist
should be present and the waiting room should be pleasant and relaxing. You should
register at the desk when you arrive and you'll be asked to complete registration forms
and contracts. Read them carefully. You may also be asked to complete insurance
Most "hour" sessions are actually forty-five minutes. Fifteen minutes are taken
by the counselor to complete notes and prepare for the next session. While I've always
tried to time my sessions carefully, I try to be flexible and considerate at the end of each
hour. Sometimes I find myself giving a couple an extra fifteen minutes to pull
themselves together, putting me fifteen minutes behind for my next couple. The extra
fifteen minutes between sessions helps me catch up when I'm running behind.
Punctuality is very important. While most counselors will sometimes run about
half an hour late, it should not be a pattern. Your time is important, and you shouldn't
be expected to waste it waiting for your counselor. Complain if it becomes a problem.
Most marriage counselors see couples together in the first session, but I do not.
Instead, I see each person separately for fifteen minutes so that I can gain their
individual perspectives. Besides, I've seen too many fights break out when I see
couples together for the first time. For your own comfort and security, I recommend
that you see your counselor separately, at least briefly, during the first session.
The purpose of the first session is to familiarize yourself with the counselor. He
has almost no opportunity to discover how to solve your problem at that point, but you
can often determine your comfort and confidence in him/her. If you or your spouse
react negatively to his/her style, find another counselor. He/she is there to inspire you
and if he/she doesn't do that, you'll be wasting your time.
The counselor will ask you why you've come to see him/her, and you should
answer that you've come for help in restoring love to your marriage. When you're
asked to be more specific, you explain that you've both developed habits that hurt each
other more than they help each other, and that you want to develop more constructive
habits. You want to learn to meet each other's needs and avoid being the cause of each
other's unhappiness. You go on to explain that you want him/her to help you achieve
At the end of the session, you're seen together and asked to complete forms so
that he/she can evaluate your marital problem. I use my Love Busters Inventory
(LBI), my Emotional Needs Questionnaire (ENQ) and a test of romantic love.
The LBI and ENQ are available to you in this site. If the counselor does not use these
forms for his evaluation, you may suggest providing them to him to help determine
I usually try to schedule the second appointment for no more than a week later.
If possible, I try to see the couple within a few days. This is because they are usually
suffering from their problems and would like relief as soon as possible. I can't give
them any advice after the first session because I don't know much yet. The advice
comes after I've had a chance to review the forms they complete.
What to Expect In the Second Session (Assessment)
The purpose of the second session is to review the forms you've completed and
plan a strategy to resolve your marital problems. It's usually impossible to do this in
one hour so you should expect this strategy session to take two.
You and your spouse should be seen alone again for at least part of the session.
As your counselor suggests his/her plan, you need to be able to react honestly and the
presence of your spouse may inhibit your reaction. At the end of the session, however,
you should be together to formally agree to a plan which is carefully described in
There's no point to treatment before a treatment plan is completed. Poorly
organized counselors will often see clients for weeks before they get down to deciding
how they'll proceed. During that time, the crisis is over and the motivation to solve the
problem is postponed until the next crisis. The couple drops out of therapy no wiser or
better off than they came. To avoid that tragic end, a counselor must focus on a
treatment plan immediately, while the couple is still motivated to do something about
If your counselor claims to need several sessions before arriving at a treatment
plan, resist it. Explain that even if the initial plan needs to be revised during treatment,
its better to begin with some plan than no plan at all. Not only do you want to get on
with it, but there's also a big risk that you or your spouse will lose motivation before
the plan is completed. Most couples that come for marriage counseling need plenty of
encouragement from the first session on, and its discouraging to wait for a treatment
At the end of the second session, you should not only know the treatment plan,
but you should also be given your first assignment. The value of marriage counseling
is in what you achieve between sessions, not necessarily what you achieve during the
One of your first assignments should be to document the prescribed hours you
spend giving each other undivided attention. Most of your other assignments will be
carried out during those hours. The time you set aside for each other must be carefully
guarded. Its easy to let the emergencies of life crowd out your time together, leaving
you without time to solve your marital problems.
You may be able to carry out the treatment plan on your own. Perhaps all you
want is professional advice regarding a strategy that will help you solve the problem.
If emotional minefields and motivational swamps are not a threat to your marriage,
you may find that the counselor's experience helped you think of a solution that you
would not have found by yourself. If that's the case, I would recommend you set one
more appointment in a week or two to guarantee that you are carrying out the plan
without any need for further help. But be sure to come back if you're not making
What to Expect During Treatment
From the third session on, you're guided by the treatment plan that you agreed
to follow. Each week you report your successes and failure to the counselor. He/she
guides you through the emotional minefields, motivational swamps and creative
wildernesses. If your counselor is right for you, you'll come to like and respect
him/her more and more as time goes by. You'll see your marriage improve in fits and
starts. Some weeks will be blissful while others will be unbearable.
Its common for couples to experience a crisis between appointments that
requires a counselor's mediation. I've usually been willing to have couples call me at
the office or at home for emergencies because I realize that I'm working with couples in
crisis. Sometimes a call is simply for clarification of an assignment. But I've also had
threats of suicide, violent arguments and irresponsible browbeatings that need to be
dealt with at the time they occur. If I get too many calls from a couple, I schedule their
appointments closer together.
Both you and your spouse should be the judge of your need for continued
treatment and when to terminate treatment. I usually use the success of the treatment
plan to determine how to phase clients out over time. I will see them once a week in
the beginning, twice a month after they are on a steady course, and once a month when
they are nearing the end. Its not uncommon for couples to return after six months or a
year just to check on their status.
Men generally want to get out of therapy as soon as possible, even when they
were the ones that wanted it the most in the beginning. They don't like the idea of
reporting to someone regarding their behavior, and my role as a counselor is to see to it
that they follow through on what they promised. They often agree to anything to get
their wives back, and then once she's home, they go back to their old habits.
With that type of problem in mind, don't abandon therapy unless you both
enthusiastically agree to do so. If one of you wants to keep the door open, reschedule
once a month or less often just in case problems arise.
In the end, you and your spouse will be very much in love with each other. I
have couples repeat my test for romantic love every few weeks so I can be certain we're
on the right track. You might want to do something similar to measure the success of
your program. But when you're in love, you don't really need a test to prove it!