Can't Afford a Therapist? Give Co-Counseling a Try

If therapy's too expensive, consider co-counseling -- it's free!

When Lanette Errante was stuck in a crappy relationship, she spent $2,000 over eight months to talk to a therapist about problems she was having with her boyfriend. Her therapist spent their sessions nodding his head and closing his eyes, says Errante. "I got absolutely zero satisfaction from that experience."

Two years later, Errante discovered co-counseling, a therapy-style practice where two people take turns talking and listening to each other's problems -- for free. Yup, free. Through it, she learned “how to listen to myself and how to strategize." Errante, 62, from Orange, Conn., has been a fan ever since.

What Is It?
Co-counseling began in the mid-1970s and has since spread internationally. It’s based on a theory that says you can find the answers to your problems within yourself. It’s geared toward fundamentally healthy people looking to work through common problems, like a breakup or a period of grief. (Co-counseling isn’t for those with serious mental health disorders, like schizophrenia or bipolar). Unlike a friend who may chime in or give unsolicited advice, Errante says co-counselors usually just listen or slightly guide the conversation.

In a co-counseling session, the "client" talks for a set amount of time and then switches his or her role to counselor when time's up. The point, says Fred Wallace, a co-counseling teacher, is to help empower participants to make their own decisions. "The work is centered on people becoming self-aware, self-directed and emotionally competent."

"We're not trying to fix each other," says Beth Barclay, 44, from Ann Arbor, Mich. "We're trying to support one another." Introduced to co-counseling through a college class in 1989, Barclay says she used co-counseling to cope with the death of her father who passed away three years ago. It helped her to appreciate him and celebrate his life. "There's a sense of I've just had a good cry and boy do I feel better."

How Do You Become a Co-counselor?
To get started, you need to take a 40-hour course in a group setting to learn specific skills and techniques, like how to listen attentively. The costs for being trained runs on a sliding scale up to $200.00. Most importantly, you must commit to keeping every session confidential and pay undivided attention to your co-counselor. "We ask people outright whether they can listen to someone actively for 20 to 40 minutes," Wallace says. Once training is complete, there is no fee for co-counseling sessions (you can opt to attend additional workshops at varying costs).

When Is Co-Counseling Not a Good Idea?
Diane Sanford, a psychologist in St. Louis, Missouri, says co-counseling can be helpful in sorting out typical adjustment issues. More serious problems, like sex abuse, clinical depression or addiction, need to be dealt with by a professional.

What Else Do I Need to Know?
Talking about intimate issues could stir up sexual feelings, says Nathaniel Wade, associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University. But it's not a good idea to act on them. A therapist-patient relationship has strict boundaries -- sexual relationships are absolutely forbidden. Co-counseling doesn't have those restrictions, but romantic relationships are seriously discouraged because they could ruin the whole partnership, says Dency Sargent, a founder of Co-Counseling International. "It's easier to find an interpersonal or sexual relationship than it is to find a good co-counselor," says Sargent.

"Co-counseling gives us a place to safely engage our emotions, whether it's sadness, anger or fear," says Wallace. All that without the high price tag that comes with traditional therapy.

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