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The hero saves the princess. He rescues her from the evil stepmother, eternal sleep or whatever danger she faces. With one kiss, they live happily ever after. That was the childhood goal, right? Happily ever after?

What the stories failed to tell us is that happily ever after doesn't just happen. My wife and I are approaching 17 years of marriage. I'd be lying if I told you it's all been rainbows and sunshine. Don't get me wrong; married life is great. Our relationship is stronger today because of the hurdles we've overcome.

A great marriage takes work. It's two people committed to seeing the best in each other and working daily to make their relationship the best it can possibly be. It means seeking out resources to learn and grow. It means surrounding yourself with people who want to see your marriage succeed.

Sometimes, it means seeking help from a professional. A counselor can do wonders for your relationship. Counseling isn't just for marriages in distress either. But where do you start? How do you find a counselor who will be beneficial to your marriage?

If you're considering counseling, ask yourself these questions:

* What's the main thing I think we need help with? Look at what's going on in your marriage. Identify areas where you could use some help to grow.

* What is your goal? Identify a goal for your marriage. Maybe you need to address some issues. Perhaps you are looking to enhance a specific area of your relationship.

* What do I hope happens as a result of going to counseling? Decide what you hope to accomplish.

Michele Weiner-Davis, marriage therapist and director of The Divorce Busting Center, offers this advice for selecting a counselor who will fight for your marriage:

First and foremost, ask friends and family for references. Find out if people you know and trust have had positive experiences with counseling. Ask who they worked with.

Find a therapist with specific training and experience in marital therapy. Marital therapy isn't the same as individual therapy, and it requires different skills. Seek out someone who has the training to help you achieve your goals.

Ensure that the therapist desires to help you find solutions to your marital problems rather than helping you leave your marriage. Some counselors may be more concerned about the individual as opposed to the relationship. Ask them when they see divorce as a reasonable alternative. The answer to that question can reveal a lot about their desire to see a relationship succeed.

Make sure you feel comfortable with your therapist. They should not side with either you or your spouse. Instead, their role is to help you achieve a goal you both set for your relationship. You should both have the freedom to speak up if you feel uncomfortable in any way.

Ask what their relationship values are. Knowing their values will help gauge their willingness to help your marriage succeed. Successful marriages don't look the same for every couple. Make sure your therapist is open to helping you explore different avenues to a successful marriage.

Set goals together. This process involves you, your spouse and your therapist. The only way to gauge progress is to have set goals.

Most marital problems are solvable. Find a therapist who wants to help you solve them. Everyone is capable of change. With set, agreed-upon goals, you can both work to achieve what you desire.

Trust your instincts. You know when someone is helping or willing to help. If you question whether a therapist has your marriage's best interests at heart, don't stay with them.

Your marriage is your most important relationship. Invest the time, energy and money to have the best relationship possible. No two marriages are the same, and someone else's success isn't your success. If you feel like counseling will help your relationship, find a counselor who will fight for your marriage to be the best it possibly can.

Mitchell Qualls is the operations director at family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email him at mitchell@firstthings.org.

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Mitchell Qualls
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