7 Questions to Ask to Vet Your Counselor

by | Nov 10, 2021 | gsr, Resolving Conflict | 23 comments

7 Questions to Vet a Counselor

How do you find a good counselor when you need to seek help for marriage issues? 

Sheila here!

I found Sarah Allman on Instagram, where we interacted about the vital importance of vetting counselors before you go to see one.

This is something I’d been talking about on the blog, and I asked her to write up some sample questions you can ask a counselor to see if they may be safe for you. I’m so glad she took up the challenge, and I hope you find these questions helpful!

A lot of Sarah’s questions have to do with abuse. Even if you are not in an abusive situation, I firmly believe these are important questions to ask when you vet a counselor. First, because many people are actually in an abusive marriages without realizing it. But second, if someone is safe when it comes to abuse, chances are they’re safe with other things as well. But if someone is not safe when it comes to abusive situations, chances are their counsel will not be wise in other situations either.

Abuse is a great litmus test.

So with that being said, here’s Sarah!

It’s unwise to assume that all counselors are safe and good.

There’s a wide range of training, experience, and perspectives of people doing marriage counseling, and before you invest money, time, and become very vulnerable with someone, you have to make sure they’re safe and a good fit.

Sometimes people believe something very different than what they say they believe. This makes it very difficult when trying to find a counselor you can trust. So, how can you find a counselor that is actually going to be good for you and good for your marriage? The questions below will help you to get the big picture of what a counselor believes before you entrust them with your healing journey.

Learning how to interview counselors in a way that gives you an understanding of their views is important.

Vetting for yourself is a necessary step in starting your healing journey with a counselor you trust.

We will discuss how to ask questions to get an idea of what the counselors actually believe. You will also get an example of what answers to look for and what answers are red flags. Many counselors offer free 10-15 minute phone consultations, and that’s a great time to ask these questions. Otherwise, you can tell the counselor that you have some questions you’d like to ask at the beginning of your first session.

Find a counselor by your location.

Sample Questions to Ask to Vet a Marriage Counselor

  1. Can you give me an example of a marital conflict that was caused by the husband and one that was caused by the wife?
  2. Can you give me an example of an inappropriate way for clients to behave in counseling?
  3. Is there a situation you would recommend individual counseling over marriage counseling?
  4. Can you sum up the marital issues you have seen in your practice?
  5. How would you know that counseling is working and not working?
  6. Do couples need to take responsibility for their actions and what if they don’t?
  7. Are you trauma-informed? What makes you trauma-informed?

Now let’s go through these in turn to see what you should look for!

1. Can you give me an example of a marital conflict that was caused by the husband and one that was caused by the wife?

Examples of marital conflict such as money, parenting, expectations, and other relationships outside of the marriage can show the counselors distinction between conflict and dysfunction. Conflict is a disagreement. Within a marriage, the conflict shows that both the husband and the wife have a strong and differing opinion, and it shows they both have autonomy. Dysfunction suggests that more is going on. Dysfunction can be a clue that there is unequal power in a marriage.

Good answer: An example that shows he/she believes husbands and wives should play an equal part in marriage. This could be a conflict around a wife wanting to save money and the husband wanting to spend. Or views on how weekends should be spent. If there is not a give and take, then over time one spouse may start to feel resentment towards the other.

Red Flag: Any answer that suggests big issues such as infidelity and abuse. The reason these are not the answer you’re looking for is because these are dysfunctions in a relationship and not conflict. Conflict takes two people to resolve. Dysfunction takes one person taking responsibility for their action and responsibility for their own growth. A good counselor will know the difference.

2. Can you give me an example of an inappropriate way for clients to behave in counseling and how would you deal with those behaviors?

What is being addressed in this question is boundaries. This question allows you to open dialogue in a way that shows you if the counselor will set good boundaries in therapy sessions. If any sessions will take place with your spouse then this one is a must. A hard line with abusive or belittling behavior needs to be drawn. There is a difference between being honest and direct and being a bully. A good counselor will NOT allow one person to be bullied. Good boundaries allow for therapy to be held in a place that feels safe for both the husband and the wife. A good counselor will enforce healthy boundaries.

Good answer: There is no name-calling, belittling, or aggressive behavior. The session will end or the offending person will be asked to leave.

Red Flag: Counseling is a place to get everything out in the open, so as long as no one is physically aggressive in sessions then it is productive to allow people to say what they need to say.

3. Is there a situation you would recommend individual counseling or marriage counseling?

This question is trying to find out if the counselor prioritizes safety over the marriage. Look for clues to see if the counselor is willing to advocate for the spouse that is in need of protection. An eagerness to bring the couple together for therapy sessions, without significant progress in individual counseling, is also something to watch out for.

Good answer: Anytime there has been abuse, individual counseling should be the first priority, even if the abuse was not related to the marriage. If a couple’s goal is to work towards marital counseling then individual counseling can help marital counseling be more successful. Counseling can be messy. Individual counseling before marital counseling can help sessions in marital counseling go smoother. Only after dedicating themselves to their own healing journey, should couples come together for marriage counseling.

Red Flag: To fix a marriage then the husband and the wife need to come together for progress to be made. So marriage counseling is where I would start with a couple I was counseling.

4. Can you sum up the marital issues you have seen in your practice and how they are remedied?

With this question, you are looking for responsibility to be placed rightly on the husband and the wife. You will also get insight into how the counselor recognizes that the husband and the wife may be responsible in different ways. Any answer that appears to blame an emotional spouse, or suggest submitting more, is a red flag that this counselor is going to be dismissive of one spouse. A good counselor will help a married couple get to the root cause of the marital issues.

Good answer: Couples who come in who are dealing with marital problems, typically both desire to work on their marriage together. They often are dealing with hurts, disappointments, and distrust that can be worked through if they both take responsibility for their actions.

Red Flag: Couples who come in usually have one person who is really sensitive and the other who allows things to roll off of their backs better. Emotions can be a stressor in relationships.

5. Do couples need to take responsibility for their actions–and what do we do if they don’t?

Each counselor will have their own way of doing things, but taking responsibility is important if progress is going to be made. You can only take responsibility for your own actions. Any counselor who asks you to take responsibility that you truly had no control over is not a healthy counselor. A wife cannot take responsibility for a husband’s actions, just as a husband cannot take responsibility for the wife’s actions. If certain steps are not being taken to improve, then healing is not going to happen.

Good answer: Yes, there should be responsibility taken. Without owning your actions, trust cannot be rebuilt and relationships cannot be healed. Working through one thing before moving on to the next is important for healing.

Red Flag: Well they should. I won’t dwell on it if they don’t, though. We will move on so we don’t waste time. Marital problems can be fixed with communication and understanding.

6. How would you know that counseling is working and not working?

It is good to know how close of attention a counselor will pay to their clients. Healing is tricky and can sometimes be messy too. So when asking a counselor this question, be sure to look for how attentive they are. This is also something to be aware of when you are meeting with a counselor.

Good answer: Everyone is different so signs that therapy is or isn’t working will be different for everyone. I would look for the things they report back on how their days between sessions are going. Asking lots of questions can help me to know how they’re doing. If someone is regressing or not corresponding to treatment then that might be a sign things are not going as planned. Hearing how the patient handles relationships, and whether perceptions are healthier than before would be a sign therapy is working.

Red flag: Everyone’s journey is different. So we will just continue the session until the client feels they’re not in need anymore.

7. Are you trauma-informed? What makes you trauma-informed?

Trauma-informed has almost become a buzzword. But what does it even mean? A counselor who is trauma-informed has taken extra training to better counsel people who have experienced traumatic life events. To be truly trauma-informed a counselor must complete this training that helps them to be more aware and careful when treating their patients with a history of trauma. A good counselor is always improving themselves and looking for new and more effective ways to serve their patients. If a counselor does not appear to be open to continuing to learn then this may be a clue that they are closed off in general. If you do have trauma, then going to a trauma-informed counselor is very important. Counseling has the potential to be damaging as much as it has the potential to be healing.

Good answer: I have taken training that specifically teaches counselors how to consider people’s trauma in therapy. My awareness and sensitivity ensure I will not re-traumatize people in therapy sessions.

Red Flag: I am familiar with trauma and how it affects people, but do not have extra training.

Choosing a counselor is not something to take lightly.

Asking these questions can help you to get a good feel about what that counselor believes and how they handle certain situations. Asking yes and no questions are not as helpful because they’re difficult to build dialogue around. Calling several counselors in your area can help you to get comfortable with interviewing counselors. This is a job interview, you are the one that gets to decide if they are a good fit.

Because you are the one hiring the counselor, you can also fire them at any time and start over. Don’t be discouraged if you choose a counselor that ends up not being a good fit. As you make phone calls and attend therapy sessions, you will learn to know what to look for.

What if therapy doesn’t work though? Questions around Christians and divorce may be something you wrestle with for a while. I wrote this post to help you if this is a part of your journey:

https://aplacenomancanfollow.com/godhatesdivorce/

Bonus Tip:

Seek God First

An important thing to remember when seeking any person for help or healing is to seek God first. Proverbs 16:9 says, “A man plans his ways but the Lord establishes his steps.”

Seek God first, He will guide you. Through Him, you will have the discernment you need to make decisions that can be tricky.

How to Vet a Marriage Counselor

What do you think? Are there questions you would add? I’m thinking of creating a downloadable bonus of questions to ask you can take with you to the counselor–so add any questions you think would be helpful!

Sarah Allman

Sarah Allman

Sarah Allman is a domestic violence survivor and advocate. Making it through many years of verbal, emotional, sexual, financial, and spiritual abuse, she learned that God was the only safe place to hide her heart. During her long journey, from an island in Hawaii back to the plains of Colorado, she realized that that was the easy part. Her blog serves women who have been in abusive relationships to support them and help them sift through the confusion and pain that comes along with healing. Now living a quieter and more peaceful life, she enjoys farming with her new husband and raising their children, cows, goats, and sheep together. Find her on her blog, where she talks about abuse in marriage, or on Instagram!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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23 Comments

  1. Abigail

    So a follow-up question: Sheila, you have a lot of single readers (I assume, as I am one of them). Could there be a version of this post for non-marriage related counseling? Or can you point me in the direction of resources like that? I’m looking into counseling right now and it would be great to have tools like this available to me. Thank you!

    Reply
      • Abigail

        Hi Sheila! So I searched your blog and I found this post: https://baremarriage.com/2019/03/question-your-biblical-counsellor/. I think this will be a great place to start (should’ve searched your blog first!). I keep getting recommended biblical counselors by people I know, but I’m attempting to find someone with more training.

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Yes, those questions are specifically for a biblical counselor who you know doesn’t have licensing. Those are good ones too! But even if they do have licensing, they can still not be a good fit, so these questions are helpful too!

          Reply
  2. Cynthia

    Important point that not all problems in a marriage can be addressed by marriage counselling. Issues related to abuse, and possibly to other serious issues such as personality disorders, substance abuse or other addictions, etc., need to be addressed FIRST because the relationship is not the main problem.

    Reply
    • Wild Honey

      Yes!

      I was going to say, feel free to substitute (or add) a different topic for “trauma.” Counseling caregivers for disabled family member. Experience working with clients with ADHD (or their spouses). Coaching clients with eating disorders. Experience working with clients from minority populations (if the counselor is from a majority population). Etc.

      I especially like questions 2 and 5 from this list. I think they will be useful regardless of the situation that is promoting one to seek counseling.

      Reply
    • EOF

      So much this! I would also add ASD/Aspergers and/or Narcissism to the list, if those apply. Thanks to the “Christian Patriarchy” message, a lot of Christian men are highly narcissistic because they believe they’re owed everything from obedience to sex from their wives.

      Reply
  3. Judy

    This is a great list – as someone who was harmed and re-traumatized by a “biblical counselor” whose help was sought for us through our church after my discovery of my husband’s multiple infidelities, I would also suggest finding someone who has proper training and accreditations (varies from place to place) for therapy. This person didn’t, they had some seminary counseling classes and that was all. I was new to the therapy world and had no idea the level of damage an ill-trained counselor/pastor can cause. They also don’t have the same ethical obligations as someone who is properly trained and certified. For example, this one person had us each doing individual sessions as well as couple’s therapy with him. I now know that crosses a serious ethical line and we should have had separate therapists for each of those.

    I could write a whole book on this, but I’ll stop here. Thank you for these very practical questions to ask and even more for helping to make people aware that not all therapists / counselors are equal or qualified to help in every circumstance. A good therapist can make all the difference, a bad one can do significant and lasting damage.

    Reply
  4. CMT

    Thanks for this! Prior attempt at counseling for relationship/sexual issues was not very successful, partly because the counselor took the approach of “you just need to communicate better and that will fix everything.” That’s great and all but sometimes you need more than that.

    Question about (3). Are you saying that people should never have couples counseling without doing individual counseling first, or is that whole section referring only to cases of abuse?

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      In cases of abuse, or where abuse may be present, couples counseling is contraindicated (meaning they shouldn’t counsel together, or the counseling can be used to further abuse).

      Reply
  5. Laura

    Very interesting information and a lot to think about. When I was married to my ex, we did some counseling through our church and outside our church. I preferred counseling outside the church because there wasn’t that religious bias that is often found in “Christian” counseling.

    Through this blog, I have learned that just because something is labeled as “Christian” such as books about marriage and sex and counseling does not mean it is healthy and/or biblical.

    Sadly, many Christians think advice like “submitting more” and “win your husband without words” is the right advice and godly. No, I tried to submit more and keep my mouth shut in order to improve my marriage because of hearing a few Bible verses that were often quoted out of context to their true meaning.

    Now, when I hear about marriage ministries in my local churches, I am more cautious. Even though I’m single, I have been invited to partake in these marriage ministries, but I refuse to go because I am more aware of what is being taught in these ministries. My home church plans to host an XO Marriage conference (simulcast) in February. A former church’s marriage ministry will be having a class on Shaunti and Jeff Feldhahn’s teachings. To those offers, I will simply pass and if I want to “prepare” myself for marriage someday, I prefer teachings that do not focus on gender stereotypes.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, dear, that’s too bad about your home church! Can you ask them why they are supporting Mark Driscoll? That’s so sad. I’m sorry!

      Reply
      • Laura

        I’m not even sure I want to know WHY they are supporting a ministry that platforms Driscoll. They may not even be aware of the politics behind XO Marriage ministry and just assume that because they are a ministry that they are biblically sound.

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Very likely. I wonder if you could email them with the link to Driscoll on their board? It’s right on their website under “About Us” or “Who We Are” or something.

          Reply
    • Lisa M

      I would definitely ask why they think a cult leader is a good person to teach their congregation.

      Reply
  6. EOF

    Thank you so much for this list! I bookmarked it to use later. I’ve thought about going to counseling for years but worry so much that I’ll either end up with “submit more to make him stop sinning” (like I was told for too many years in church) or that I’ll get unbiblical advice in the opposite direction from a secular counselor.

    I tried counseling about 20 years ago. (My husband was all for ME seeing one, because I really needed the help. The only problem in the marriage was that I refused to obey him. He always told me that I had no idea how much happier I would be if I just stopped fighting him and simply obeyed — it wasn’t hard or complicated. Just obey. He even at one point told me that I wasn’t allowed to think about anything without discussing it with him first because I couldn’t have opinions that diverted from his. …Clearly, I was the problem.) But since I had it drilled into my head that saying negative about my husband was sin, I was scared to tell the counselor anything about my marriage. It did nothing, obviously.

    Reply
  7. Lindsey

    I cannot image a *licensed* counselor giving the bad answers to questions 2-6. They have some serious ethical issues.

    The bad answers to questions 1 and 7 are possible from a new counselor who hasn’t got the experience yet to differentiate between disagreements and dysfunction, or hasn’t had the opportunity to pursue continuing education in Trauma. Informed consent would ethically require a counselor to let you know about the limitations in their skills and training without you asking. They do cover that pretty thoroughly in class.

    Again, with an unlicensed “counselor” all bets are off.

    Reply
    • Lisa M

      I had exactly one appointment with a licensed counselor who believed all of those lies. It became obvious why she was saying the things she was after I noticed what books she had on her shelves. She have the right answers on the exams but clearly believed in evangelical patriarchy.

      Reply
      • Jenni

        Yeah, looking at their bookshelf is probably a good clue.

        Reply
  8. Another Lisa

    Yes! Whatever issue your seeking counseling for, do not hesitate to ask if they’ve counseled patients facing those issues AND if counseling was successful. I wouldn’t be discouraged if a few weren’t (for many reasons, mainly that people DO just quit counseling or find another counselor) I would be worried by a perfect record (probably fictional).

    And most (if not all) therapy should have goals – it should be a red flag if you are not asked to set goals. Benchmarks that tell you when it’s time to try living without therapy for awhile.

    Reply
  9. Jenni

    I have mixed feelings about these questions. I am a licensed therapist, and if I was asked these questions, I don’t think I’d understand what the questions are getting at. Meaning, I agree with what’s said in the Good Answer examples (and disagree with the Red Flag examples), but I don’t think I’d come up with that answer based on the question.

    However, I don’t have a list of questions that would get at this better. There are many therapists that can make things worse, so I know it’s important. But I always have a tough time giving others advice on how to vet a therapist. My suggestion is usually to ask staff and other clients at a domestic violence shelter/program for recommended therapists.

    Reply

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