Okay, let’s not pretend this is an important question in the grand scheme of things. It is not. But for anxious types (like me) who want to make sure we’re using the right terminology, how do we describe that service of providing relationship therapy for two people? Is it couple therapy, couple’s therapy, or couples therapy?
I’m proud to offer a definitive, authoritative answer.* Read on.
The evidence: AAMFT and state licensing boards
The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy seems content to not stake a flag in this debate. They manage to use all three variations in the most recent issue of Family Therapy Magazine. Heck, they’re all in the first seven pages. But we can draw some inferences from the organization’s title: While they don’t say “couple,” they do use the singular “marriage.” They could have gone with the plural “marriages,” like “couples,” or possessive “marriage’s,” like “couple’s,” and they didn’t. So that says something possibly?
Similarly, state licensing boards use the license title “Marriage and Family Therapist.”
The evidence: Universities and books
Graduate programs that teach therapists how to work with couples seem to be split. They don’t generally use the possessive “couple’s” in their program or degree titles. But you’ve got (just as examples) Drexel using “couple,” while Oregon goes with “couples.”
Leading textbooks in the field, however, generally prefer “couple:”
Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy
Clinical Casebook of Couple Therapy
The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy: Creating Connection
Acceptance and Change in Couple Therapy
Don’t take those examples to mean that the vote is unanimous in the book world, though. There are still plenty of books that use “couples” as well.
The evidence: The Internet
To my delight, there’s a fair amount of conversation about this very question online. The Grammarphobia blog has cast its vote in favor of “couples therapy.” The authors seem like very nice, kind, well-educated midwestern types (like me, I hope!). They provide some interesting historical perspective to the discussion. I think we’d get along well, sitting on their back porch and drinking tea while we debate pedantic questions of usage. But their respect for history over other considerations leads them, I’m afraid, to the wrong conclusion.
As for news sources related to mental health, articles on CNN, The Cut, and Psychology Today use “couples therapy.” That seems to be pretty much the norm in online discussion of the topic, though there are plenty of examples of the other variations. Even this very blog has been less than fully consistent.
The right answer, and an explanation
So which is it? The answer is pretty simple, and it relies on one thing: Consistency. Think about how we language other forms of therapy, or if you prefer, therapy for other units of treatment. It’s always the singular, never the possessive or the plural. (I didn’t even bother putting plural possessives on this list.)
– It’s individual therapy, not “individual’s therapy” or “individuals therapy.”
– It’s family therapy, not “family’s therapy” or “families therapy.”
– It’s child therapy, not “child’s therapy” or “children therapy.”
There is no meaningful argument in favor of making an exception for when the unit of treatment is a couple. For consistency’s sake, we should be using the singular, non-possessive when describing therapy for couples, as we do when describing therapy for all other units of treatment.
It’s couple therapy.
* If by “definitive and authoritative” you mean “spoken with confidence by someone with little actual authority”