Relationship Therapist vs. Relationship Coach: Clarifying the Differences
When faced with challenges in our personal relationships, many of us seek professional help. In the UK, one can turn to either a qualified relationship therapist or a relationship coach. Although their titles may sound similar, their roles, methodologies, professional standards, and foundational principles are distinct. Understanding these differences is crucial in making an informed decision about which service best aligns with your needs.
Relationship Therapists: A Closer Look at Professional Standards
Qualified relationship therapists are committed to providing a high standard of care, which is regulated through a framework of ongoing supervision, accountability to regulatory bodies, and possession of professional indemnity insurance. Relationship therapists are often initially qualified as individual therapists, psychotherapists, or psychologists who undergo therapeutic training averaging 4 years (longer for psychologists, with psychotherapists at a minimum of 4 years, while other modalities might offer 3 years of training). Diplomas in counselling can be a year-long, and I do not include them in this category.
Regular Supervision: One of the cornerstones of therapeutic practice in the UK is the requirement for regular supervision. Qualified relationship therapists meet with a more experienced practitioner to review their casework, ensure they are providing the best care, and safeguard against the risk of practice-related stress. This process is pivotal in maintaining the quality and safety of the therapeutic environment for both the client and the therapist.
Regulatory Body Registration: Qualified therapists are mandated to be registered with a regulator, such as the BACP, UKCP, or equivalent. These bodies enforce rigorous professional and ethical standards. Registration requires therapists to adhere to a code of ethics, which includes confidentiality, maintaining professional boundaries, and continuing professional development (a minimum number of CPD hours is required per year), ensuring that they remain competent and informed about current practices.
Professional Insurance: Additionally, relationship therapists are required to have professional indemnity insurance. This protects both the client and the therapist in the rare case of professional misconduct or negligence.
Training to Work with Trauma: Relationship therapists are often uniquely trained and supported by their supervisor to work with trauma within the context of relationships. Their training equips them to handle complex emotional and psychological issues that may stem from or impact an individual’s personal relationships. This aspect is a critical differentiator from coaching, as it enables experienced therapists to support clients through deeply distressing and potentially destabilising experiences.
Relationship Coaches: A Different Approach
While relationship coaches provide valuable guidance, their professional commitments differ significantly from those of therapists. Coaching is an unregulated industry in the UK, which means that coaches are not typically bound by the same stringent professional requirements. A relationship coach focuses on the present and the future. Coaching is not about treating psychological ailments; instead, it's about identifying goals and developing strategies to achieve them. A coach works with individuals or couples to help them realise their relationship potential.
Qualifications and Training: There are no formal regulatory bodies for relationship coaches in the UK, as there are for therapists. Training to become a certified life coach or relationship coach can start with a short 6-week course. Some coaches advance their training through personal development course experiences or training in different coaching modalities. However, many coaches undertake certification programs offered by various coaching institutions, such as the International Coach Federation (ICF). They come from diverse backgrounds, and their expertise is often informed by their own experiences and non-clinical training.
Supervision and Regulation: Relationship coaches are not required to undergo regular supervision or be registered with a regulatory body.
Insurance: Coaches may also hold professional indemnity insurance, but this is more at their discretion than a professional mandate.
Scope of Practice: The primary goal of a relationship coach is to help clients achieve specific outcomes or improve certain aspects of their relationship. Unlike therapists, they are less likely to explore the psychological underpinnings of relationship issues and more likely to focus on setting goals, creating action plans, and holding clients accountable to their commitments. They work on building skills, such as communication and conflict resolution, and on reaching agreed-upon objectives for relationship growth and fostering productive behaviours within the confines of a non-clinical setting.
Making the Right Choice for Your Relationship
Deciding between a relationship therapist and a relationship coach boils down to the nature of the issues at hand and what you hope to achieve. If you're struggling with psychological distress, trauma, recurrent patterns of harmful behaviour, or deep emotional issues, a qualified therapist’s clinical approach and regulated framework will likely provide the depth of care required.
If you're looking to enhance your relationship dynamics, set and achieve relationship goals, or need guidance on a particular aspect of your relationship without the need for clinical intervention, a relationship coach might be the way forward. Coaches can work with you to create strategies and action plans to improve your relationship based on performance and achievement metrics rather than therapeutic change.
In both cases—relationship therapists and relationship coaches—it would be advisable to ask about their experience working with couples, their training background and qualifications, attendance at regular supervision, and bonding in a regulated body and insurance.
Both relationship therapists and relationship coaches have vital roles to play in supporting relationships, but they cater to different needs and employ different methodologies. A therapist helps to heal, understand, and resolve deep issues, while a coach encourages, motivates, and strategies with you toward your relationship goals. When deciding between the two, consider the nature of your relationship challenges and the type of professional support that feels most appropriate for your situation.