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Choosing the Right Couples Therapist
by Steven M. Cohn, PhD
Dr. Steven Cohn

Choosing the right couples therapist can be a frustrating, confusing, and expensive process. Part of the confusion for some couples comes from not understanding the difference between a general practitioner and a Relationship Specialist.

Under any circumstances, it is advisable to see a therapist who has earned at least a master's degree, an MA or an MSW, in either psychology or social work. For more expertise, a therapist with a doctorate degree, a PhD or a PsyD, has received the highest level of training available in the field.

Most competent therapists with MA or PhD credentials practice as generalists. That is, they have a general, rather than a specialized, understanding of how to work with individuals, couples, and families. Relationship Specialists, on the other hand, have focused on becoming expert at working only with couples. Relationship Specialists devote their training, experience, and education to having a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of couples than would be expected of a generalist.

Many general practitioners advertise that they work with both individuals and couples. In practice, however, it is the rare professional who can competently treat both couples and individuals given the special skills, education, training, and experience required for each respective client population.

General practitioners who work with both couples and individuals tend to treat fewer couples than individuals. Does this make a difference? It might. For example, a general practitioner who spends eighty percent of their professional time working with individual clients and twenty percent of their professional time working with couples, ultimately builds eighty percent of their skills working with individuals and only twenty percent of their skills working with couples.

On the other hand, a therapist who works exclusively with either individuals or couples, but not both, builds one hundred percent of their skills within their respective specialization. This important issue has been addressed in the professional journals. For example, Dr. Pascoe, writing in the Journal of Couples Therapy, notes that "therapists are attempting to master the skills of becoming couples therapists which is no easy task.... This particular method of psychotherapy does not lend itself well to all therapists. ... It is this writer's firm conviction that not all individuals should attempt to practice couples therapy."

As you consider which therapist to trust with your relationship, remember that not all therapists who advertise couples treatment are Relationship Specialists. The only way to find out whether a therapist is a generalist or a Relationship Specialist is to ask questions. General rule of thumb: A Relationship Specialist treats only couples and does not work with individual clients.

If you are in a relationship where you are being either emotionally or physically abused, or if you are concerned that you might harm yourself or someone else, please phone the 24-hour-per-day Crisis Line at 215-7082. A trained counselor will help you through your crisis.

Dr. Steven Cohn is the Director of the Portland Couples Counseling Center. He specializes in treating couples from all backgrounds. If you would like to schedule an appointment with Dr. Cohn or if you would like to request a complimentary brochure, please phone 503-650-7230.