As a couple’s therapist, I often have people ask me if they should come individually or with their partner. Here is my response to that question:
If your purpose is to work on your relationship, then it is better to come together (an exception is when there is physical abuse – then couples therapy is contraindicated). A good couple’s therapist will have the ability to work within the relationship dynamic in ways that just aren’t there when a person is in therapy by themselves. Research has shown that individual therapy with the goal of working on the relationship isn’t effective. In fact, it can lead to separation.
This makes sense given the below scenario:
Let’s say that a woman has chosen to come to therapy because she is unhappy in the marriage because her husband won’t talk to her and will not come to therapy because “that is only for people about to divorce” or “I don’t want another person in our business” or “If it is a woman therapist, then she is going to side with you.” There are plenty of incorrect assumptions about therapy and the process, which is unfortunate. In any case, the woman comes by herself and complains that her husband walks away from her when she tries to talk to him about their relationship and in general, is spending more and more time away from her.
Because her husband isn’t here, I do not get to see or hear his version of events nor see his interaction with her – I am not privy to the emotion with which he reveals them. This is crucial information! If they came together, I would have them speak to each other about their relationship and I would be able to SEE how they communicate and SEE their relationship dynamic. I would be able to see and hear why he walks away from her and perhaps why he is spending time away from her.
In individual therapy, my job would be more about validating her experience, gently challenging assumptions and offering suggestions to change things. Keep in mind, this is all without any information from him – a crucial piece to the puzzle! Let’s just say that all of my guesses about why he is acting a certain way were correct and she tried speaking to him by using my suggestions…this would be the optimal scenario, but rarely happens! Why? Because my guesses have to be correct AND the suggestions I give to this woman have to be done just so AND he has to be ready and willing to receive them. That is a lot of moving parts that need to come together based on assumptions. This usually does not happen.
Here is what usually happens in this type of situation: typically, the individual just gets more and more upset about the situation at home, especially if the therapist is not skilled in couples therapy and continually validates, without gently challenging, this woman. Even if the therapist is competent and skilled in family dynamics and couples research, there still is a void in the therapeutic process by not having both partners there. It just makes sense and so much more effective work can be done when a couple comes together.
I often have male clients reveal that they were afraid they were going to be judged in therapy – that I was going to take sides. This isn’t about who is right and who is wrong or who is to blame for what. This is about changing the patterns of a relationship that BOTH of parties have created. This is about understanding how we all contribute to the ever-changing process of a relationship. This is much easier to do when all the parts are in attendance!
Shelly Hummel, LMFT