Should I come with my partner, or come alone if he or she doesn’t want to come? Can I come first for individual therapy and then bring my partner to couple therapy later? If my partner doesn’t want to come, is my relationship hopeless?
Following individual therapy with couple therapy
People often ask to come to therapy alone and bring their partner later. This is generally not a good idea and I avoid it for the following reasons. Marriage and couple therapy requires different skills and approaches than individual therapy. When I am conducting marriage counseling, I am treating your relationship, not either of you individually, with the hope that you will both benefit from the counseling and feel happier as your intimacy improves.
It is difficult to maintain a balanced perspective in marital work when a therapist has treated one of the partners in individual therapy prior to seeing the other partner. The partner who has not been treated individually is often uncomfortable and concerned that the therapist will be biased toward his/her partner. The therapist’s ability to maintain a balance and perspective from both partners’ is an important part of conducting couple therapy, and it is unwise to load the process in advance with so many negative potentials.
It may be possible, however, for each of you to have one or two individual sessions with the therapist to discuss private issues during the course of treatment.
When couple therapy is useful
Couple and marital therapy is indicated when there is a relationship problem and both partners are willing to participate in therapy. Generally, the research on couple therapy has shown that when couples attend separate individual therapy sessions, they are more likely to separate than if they attend couple therapy sessions together.
Even when one partner is reluctant to attend, couple therapy can often be helpful. Especially if, in the course of therapy, partners begin to feel more comfortable and that their needs, as well as their partner’s need, are being addressed. Sometimes only one partner is enough to make a change in a relationship, and therefore attending individually when your partner does not want to attend with the goal to work on helping to change your relationship and keep it together can benefit a relationship.
Even couples who are considering divorce and separation can benefit from couples therapy. It can help them to make important decisions, to achieve a less hostile and hurtful dissolution and to lessen negative impacts upon their children. Sometimes couples may decide to give their marriage another try once they have looked at the problems together in a safe environment.
Finding a couple therapist
Not every therapist is a therapist who works with couples and marriages. Many therapists may treat couples in their office, but are actually conducting an individual session with two people. Marriage therapy requires very different skills than individual therapy. Most couples in crisis want to have solutions to their problems and don’t have the patience to explore their childhood issues in therapy together. Whereas an individual therapist will focus primarily on feelings and history, and marriage therapist will focus on skills, patterns and goals. Marriage therapy requires a therapist to be able to see the relationship from both perspectives, challenge directly destructive processes, track verbal and nonverbal communication messages, and tolerate conflict while redirecting. Marital therapists are also hopeful about relationships and never decide when a relationship is no longer viable. If you are in marriage therapy and feel the therapist is siding with one person, is unable to direct you positively, or you do not have clear goals, you may want to discuss this with the therapist or find another therapist.
As a provider of couple therapy I am a member of The National Registry of Marriage Friendly Therapists, GoodTherapy and the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.