Some of the calls we get from people seeking the help of a counselor for their relationship ask some form of this question: What's the difference between sessions we might have with a male therapist verses a female therapist? Or someone will specifically request that their therapist be one gender or another. For a lot of people it might just be a gut feeling that tells them they would be more comfortable talking about their concerns with a person of a certain gender. But I thought I would look deeper into this question and provide an overview of the variables that may be involved so that you can pull together some ideas to inform your ultimate decision about whether gender of the therapist matters in choosing a marriage therapist.
The most important factor to consider before reading further is that this is only a snapshot of generalizations. Each therapist is highly unique and may not conform to the image you have of that gender, and is influenced by their own family socialization and choice of professional training.
Common Statements from Couples About Gender of the Therapist
Here are some of the factors that I have heard clients share about their choice of the gender
of the therapist:
- The couple wants one partner to be gender-matched with the therapist to make it easier to relate to (for example, if a female has a history of trauma, she may prefer talking with a female; or if a male has a pornography addiction, they may prefer talking to a male).
- There is a partner that has a history of not relating well to one sex; they may choose the opposite sex to feel more comfortable or intentionally pick a same-sex therapist to promote stretching and growth in this area.
- Some couples may make a decision about the gender of the therapist based on if one partner has tendency to be jealous of their partner forming an attachment to the therapist
- The female partner doesn't think her male partner will come to counseling with her and wants to select a male therapist, assuming that her partner will feel more welcome talking to a male.
- Where showing emotion is concerned, some men have said they feel more comfortable being emotional in front of a woman therapist.
Balancing the Baggage: How Does Professional Training Shape Your Therapist's "Maleness" or "Femaleness?"
Gender differences between therapists often shows up in how we as therapists respond to our clients, even though we might think our training has erased any of our bias. This does not necessarily create a problem. You may choose, or not choose, a male therapist because you may generalize that men are more direct, goal oriented or analytical. Or you may choose, or not choose, a female therapist because you assume she will be more empathetic, responsive to your needs, and that she is more interested in equality in marriage.
There is a long history of the field of psychology and psychiatry (the originating profession of psychotherapy) being exclusively male and biased toward the male worldview. Feminist influence in psychology and research has greatly changed how therapists were once taught to view their clients. Graduate psychological training is not all equal when it comes to helping therapists notice and unblend themselves from their own pre-programmed assumptions about others. In other words, the degree to which you find your therapist to be a good listener, for example, may not just be about the gender of the therapist but about whether their training program valued that sort of skill as a counselor.
Marriage therapists especially are trained to noticed their bias toward one partner or the other. As marriage therapists, we have undergone intensive supervision and training to help us notice how we can act unconsciously out of a narrow and rigid attitudes that are not constructive to de-escalating and reconnecting couples. If we are unaware of this, our own "therapist baggage" (also known as counter-transference, or feelings that the therapist has toward the client) can prevent a couple from pushing through the place where they are stuck because the therapist is also still stuck (operating unconsciously) with that issue.
A highly trained marriage therapist is willing to give more attention to cases that mimic their own areas of pain and growth, places where they need to monitor their own feelings and get case consultation. Because the dyad relationships (couple) represents some of our strongest memories in life, good or bad, the issues you have with your partner will inevitability stir up some emotional responses from your therapist that you may or may not be able to notice. This will affect the treatment you get. Ask your therapist how he or she has been trained to help you benefit from her his own biases toward you. Most will be familiar with this question, and the response you get may help you discern if that therapist is going to give you depth of attention you need in your situation.
Finding a Match: When Your Goals Align with the Skills of the Marriage Therapist, Gender of the Therapist May Not Matter
As you can see from some of the examples above, people often decide the gender of the therapist based on their biases and belief that they'll feel either more comfortable or less comfortable, depending on the main goal. For example, if you want to work through the reasons you are hostile toward women, including your wife, then perhaps having a competent female therapist is the right thing for you. At the end of the day, the deciding factor may be how skilled and trained the therapist is and how well you can communicate the specific nature of your goals. A good therapist, male or female, will be able to respond to your cues and offer a course of action before or during therapy.