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The question of whether you might need individual or marriage/couples counseling isn’t always straightforward.
Individual or couples counseling: Which treatment format is best for you?
There is a dynamic interplay between you and your marriage — you are both impacting and being impacted by your relationship. And because of this back-and-forth, mutual influence, individual therapy will indirectly impact your marriage/relationship; and, similarly, therapy that targets your marriage/relationship will also impact you.
For instance, let’s imagine that you’ve been depressed for about a month. You lack the motivation to get to work or take care of yourself. You’ve stopped exercising and have been binge-eating junk food in an effort to escape what you are feeling.
At first your spouse was very supportive. S/he frequently checked in with you, calling and texting from work whenever possible. There were words of support and encouragement (“You’ll get through this”; “Let me know how I can help”).
But as time passed, his/her support and encouragement slowly waned. Impatience replaced support; unsolicited, pat advice (like: “Just get to the gym, it will be good for you!”) replaced sympathy. In short, your spouse felt increasingly helpless and worried about what was happening to you. But s/he was unable to name these feelings.
And as his/her impatience intensified, you felt worse. In addition to being depressed, you now felt misunderstood and alone in your pain.
Two perspectives about what was happening and what was needed
If an outsider observed your relationship at this point in time, it would appear that an unsympathetic and callous husband or wife was responsible for your emotional state. It appears that you are trapped in a marriage where your voice isn’t heard. From this vantage point, marriage counseling would make the most sense.
But if this same observation took place a month prior, a very different picture would have emerged. A picture of someone who is feeling stuck in his/her life and struggling with depression despite being in a loving and supportive marriage. From this vantage point, individual counseling might be seen as the treatment of choice for your depression.
In this example, timing (when you seek help) is an important factor in determining whether individual or couples counseling is seen as the best treatment option.
So which counseling is best for your situation?
You don’t have to figure this out on your own
Don’t worry if you aren’t sure whether individual or couples counseling is the best option for you prior to seeing a psychologist or counselor.
Some of my clients initially started out in individual therapy and as we gained greater clarity about what was going on for them, it became apparent that marital/relationship issues were central to their struggles.
But of course, for marriage/couples counseling to be effective, both spouses/partners need to be on board. When one person feels pressured or coerced into treatment, the therapy process remains tenuous. The pressured partner may simply be going through the motions in order to placate the other.
At any moment, the partner who never wanted to be part of the counseling may be ready to say, “Hey I tried, this just isn’t working” before ending the treatment.
Can individual counseling help when marriage/couples counseling might be needed?
It’s not uncommon to have a meeting with a new client who identifies that their marriage needs help but that their husband (or wife) is refusing to participate in counseling. “He doesn’t think anything is wrong”; “He doesn’t think it will help”; or “She doesn’t trust therapists” are some common reasons given by the reluctant partner.
If you find yourself in this position, individual therapy can still be beneficial. But it’s important for you and your therapist to clarify what your goals are in the process.
Here are some individual therapy goals that can indirectly improve your marriage/relationship:
✓ You want to acquire some tools that you can bring into the relationship (such as more effective ways to communicate);
✓ You want insight into how you might be contributing to some of the martial/relationship patterns you’d like to see changed;
✓ You want help achieving greater self-compassion and acceptance;
✓ You want to work on forgiveness (self-forgiveness and/or forgiveness for something painful that has happened in your relationship);
✓ You need support and want more clarity about whether to stay in the marriage/relationship;
✓ You realize your marriage could benefit from counseling, but you are dealing with issues that you want to focus on without your spouse/partner present — in other words, you want the counseling “all to yourself.”
These, I believe, are individual therapy goals that can be beneficial to both you and your marriage/relationship.
There is, however, one caveat to consider:
What I haven’t found useful is when the individual therapy sessions turn into an analysis of the absent spouse/partner. In my opinion, sessions that focus primarily on a husband/wife or partner who is not part of the treatment offers little benefit for the client who is in therapy.
Remember, you don’t have to have any of this figured out prior to meeting with a psychologist/counselor. Therapy is a collaborative effort, and together you and your therapist will work to figure out the treatment goals and approach to reaching these goals.
Here’s to a life-time of self-growth!
Dr. Richard Nicastro
Richard Nicastro, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in Georgetown, Texas.