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Trying to decide between individual therapy or couples counseling?

If you’re experiencing problems in a relationship, you may have wondered whether it’s best to go to an individual therapist to talk about it, or to attend couples counseling together with your partner.

Sometimes partners are unwilling to go to therapy, so that answers the question for the time being…although sometimes a therapist can help you strategize about how you can try to motivate your partner to come to couples therapy, this is often worth a try at the very least.

But if you and your partner are both willing to attend couples counseling together, then you might be wondering what the best approach is for you as a couple.

As a starting point, I have found that it’s usually helpful to come into couples counseling together, as a couple, for a number of reasons. For one thing, this lets the therapist see firsthand what’s going on in the relationship and some of the dynamics between you and your partner. It also gives the therapist a chance to help you change some of those dynamics and communication styles within the actual therapy sessions and can show the therapist how each of you respond to interventions and to attempts to “do things differently”. For example, if I ask a couple discuss a particular issue without attacking each other, and I see that they cannot do this in the session, then I know that I need to teach these skills instead of simply asking them to practice communicating differently.

Another reason why it’s helpful for partners to come in together is that we all act differently in different contexts, and the therapist may get a very different version of you when you’re interacting with your partner from the version of you interacting with the therapist “one on one”. I have seen people who are extremely pleasant and sweet in individual sessions with me, but turn very aggressive when I meet them together with their partner! It also helps the therapist facilitate change within the couple relationship without getting drawn into the middle of the relationship, a risk that can happen when one or both partners form individual relationships with their own therapists. In situations of high conflict, there may be times when each of you will be seen separately, but the focus stays on treating the couple as opposed to working with each person on individual issues.

But when is it helpful and perhaps even necessary to have your own individual therapist? Therapists differ in their approach to this question, but here are some of my thoughts about when individual therapy offers something useful, in place of couples therapy or in addition to it.

If you were invalidated in childhood, you may be very sensitive to the need for validation. For example, if you feel hurt when your partner seems to spend time with everyone else over you, and your partner says “You’re just overreacting”, you may feel attacked if the therapist explores whether you are overreacting. For you, this means that your feelings are not being taken seriously or are being challenged. If you are sensitive to this, you may simply shut down or become too upset to think, rather than explore the issue further. Couples therapy may be “jumping the gun” if hearing about where your partner is coming from feels like it takes away your right to your own experience or makes it too hard for you to hold onto your own individual sense of sanity and being understood. In such cases, although it may be helpful to the relationship to be able to discuss your partner’s point of view in couple’s sessions, you may not yet be able to do this and may give up on therapy altogether. In such cases, it is often helpful to seek individual therapy to improve your self-esteem and help you feel validated enough to become less sensitive to hearing other people’s perspectives about issues that are charged for you. Couple’s therapy can then be a next step.

Individual therapy may also be necessary if one or both partners have individual issues that make couples counseling unsafe, such as anger management/intimate partner violence issues, or addictions. It is often helpful for both partners to be in couples counseling and for the individual therapy and couples counseling to be coordinated, but addiction and threats to safety have to be addressed first before the couple can resolve other issues in the relationship as a team.

There are also situations in which one partner may have difficulty with the ability to have insight into his own behaviors or the effect of his behaviors on others, and attempts to talk about this directly seem to go nowhere- he/she either becomes defensive and angry, or else the words go in one ear and out the other. For example, you say to your partner “I don’t like when you control me” and your partner says, “I’m not controlling at all.” You might then give examples of controlling behaviors, but your partner is unwilling or unable to admit that he/she is engaging in such behaviors or that they are being experienced as controlling by you. In such a case, an individual therapist can start treatment by addressing the issues a bit indirectly, for example, telling stories about other situations in which one partner is acting controlling, or talking with the person about times that he/she has felt controlled. This is harder to do in joint sessions.

Sometimes the decision about whether joint sessions or individual therapy makes the most sense can only be determined through trial and error, but I have tried to offer some general guidelines that I have found useful in my own practice.

I welcome your questions and thoughts!