An article written by me for Marriage.com. Text is reproduced below for convenience.
Finding the right therapist is not just important, it is actually the most important contributor to having a successful therapy experience. All the research I have encountered states quite clearly that the single most significant trait about the right therapist is what we call the “therapeutic alliance”, also known as “rapport” or simply how you connect with your therapist. This connection far outweighs other factors such as the level of training of the therapist or the style of therapy employed.
Finding a therapist is a lot like finding a job. You should first have an initial session, which in some ways is like an interview. You talk with the therapist, share your issues, and see how you “click” with them. Sometimes it may take a few sessions to really settle in with a new therapist, and that’s okay, but if you have an initial off-putting experience or if you don’t feel comfortable or safe talking with them, then that is your signal to consider the interview a failure and continue to look for a therapist that fits you.
Your time in the therapist’s office should be comfortable, encouraging, and above all, feel safe. If you don’t feel safe and supported, you will have difficulty sharing your inner thoughts and feelings, which is of course absolutely mandatory for successful outcomes. It is this comfort and ability to freely communicate which makes those highly compatible therapeutic alliances so successful.
For couples, this situation can be more complicated. It may be that one person feels a strong connection with a therapist, but the other partner doesn’t. Or one partner may feel like the therapist favors one person over the other, or is “on the other’s side”. Except in cases of obvious abuse or other malicious actions, that is rarely the case. Competent therapists make a concerted effort to not have favorites or pick sides. Our objectivity is one of the most valuable things we bring to the therapy experience. However, those kinds of feelings, if not handled, are likely to be fatal to any chances at success. If you feel your therapist is siding unfairly with your partner, or if you feel “ganged up on”, that is something to immediately address with the therapist. Again, any competent therapist will be able to handle that concern and hopefully demonstrate their lack of bias to everyone’s satisfaction.
Therapists vary wildly in their style, their personality, and the type of therapy they employ. This is called their “theoretical orientation”, and it simply means what theories of human psychology and behavior they embrace and tend to use with their clients. It is less common in modern times to find people who are strict adherents of a particular theory. Most therapists now use a variety of theoretical frameworks, based upon the client, their needs, and what seems to work the best. And, in most cases, you as a layman will have very little interest in that theoretical framework, you just want to find what works for you!
If you go to a therapist a few times, and you still just aren’t clicking with them, you may want to consider looking for a new one. Competent therapists recognize they won’t click with everyone, and will not take offense at you looking for someone better suited. In many cases, you can even ask your therapist for a referral. If your therapist is upset or angry that you want to seek another therapist, then that is a good indicator that you are making the right choice in leaving. For example, I pride myself on creating a strong rapport with new clients very quickly. It is, in fact, one of the things I am most frequently complimented on. However, that doesn’t mean every new client loves me. Some people just don’t click with me, and I have to be willing to understand and accept that. I always ask at the end of an initial session if the
person is comfortable talking with me, and if they are interested in coming back for another visit. I conduct my sessions in a very informal, conversational, friendly and familiar way. If a potential client has a strong preference for a formal, instructional, and sterile type of interaction, then I will not be a good fit for them, and I would encourage them to find someone more suited to their needs.
To summarize, finding the right “fit” with a therapist is the most crucial aspect of your choice to go to therapy. It doesn’t matter if the therapist is female or male, younger or older, a Masters or a Ph.D. or an M.D., in private practice or in an agency or institution. It only matters that you are comfortable with them, and that you feel that necessary link with them to where you can confidently open up and share yourself fully. THAT is the pathway to success!