Many clients who come to me ask me whether individual therapy or couples therapy is right for them in a relationship crisis. This is an important question that depends on a number of factors and can be decided differently depending on the situation. Therefore, with this article I would like to give you some insight into possible questions you can ask yourself to find an answer for yourself to this question. I would also like to introduce you to Sonja, a client who is exploring this very question for herself.
Sonja is dissatisfied with her relationship. Lately she has been arguing a lot with her boyfriend, and the good moments when she feels connected to him have become more and more rare. She wants to change something, but her partner is still hesitant. Therefore, she first booked a discovery call with me to explore the options. During the conversation, Sonja tells me that the relationship is a big issue she wants to work on. She's also not quite satisfied with other areas of her life: she's let self-care slide a bit for herself, would like to learn to be more aware of her own boundaries and communicate her feelings directly and honestly. She is also not quite sure if she sees a future for the relationship and what is actually important to her in a relationship.
An important question to ask to find out if couples therapy or individual therapy is right for you:
1. What are your therapy goals?
When people like Sonja come to me, the first thing is to understand what they would like to change and how I can help.
Sonja defines as her main goals that she would like to have more clarity if the relationship can go on like this for her. She would also like to prioritize more self-care again and get to know and communicate her boundaries. She would also like to feel her feelings and needs better again.
In Sonja's case, it is clear that the concern for her is more focused on her, and therefore individual counseling may be right for her for now.
To get clarity for yourself, the following questions can help:
Your goals can give you an initial idea of whether it's more about goals for yourself or a process that needs to take place as a couple.
Five Good reasons for individual therapy
Let me tell you a little more about when individual therapy or counseling may be best for your situation.
1. You are unhappy in the relationship, and want to get clarity for yourself about whether you still want the relationship to continue.
If the issue is that you are unsure about the relationship and are considering whether your values and needs are still being met, then the concern is well served in individual counseling. There you get all the space for you to explore your values, your doubts and insecurities. In couples counseling you might feel intimidated by your partner's presence and not be able to talk so freely about your doubts.
2. You want to change and understand your behavior in the relationship.
Perhaps you have found that you would like to change or relearn something about yourself. As with Sonja, this could be your self-esteem, your communication, or the communication of your boundaries. It can also be about dealing better with your emotions, such as anger, jealousy or sadness. In these situations, individual counseling is a good idea, because you can work specifically on these issues.
3. You want to understand a cheating/affair for yourself and get clarity.
Some clients also come to me because they want to explore why they started an affair and how they want to deal with the situation. This includes exploring whether what happened is something they want to share with their partner, and what the consequences are.
4. You want to understand your past/childhood and change things for yourself.
Imagine that you realize that certain issues are occurring for you for the first time through the relationship. For example, you might notice for the first time how hard it is for you to pay attention to your own needs when you are with your partner. Often the relationship helps bring to light old wounds or issues that we haven't yet processed. Then you might want a space that is just for you. In individual counseling you are then in good hands to understand these hurts in depth and to process your past.
5. Your partner is not ready for couples therapy.
It is important for therapy to be voluntary - if your partner does not want to come to counseling or therapy, then you have to accept that at first. It may well be that you are sad about your partner's decision or try to persuade him again and again. However, I can assure you: Even if only you come to counseling, your relationship can change for the better!
Why individual therapy can also improve your relationship
Psychologist David Schnarch claims that it is important for each partner to develop individually. Only in this way can the relationship remain happy and fulfilled in the long term. For this, it is important that both partners learn some competencies. Among these competencies, the therapist counts a stable self-esteem. Specifically, this means being able to value yourself, knowing that you are a great person, and not just relying on your partner's appreciation and validation.
Next, according to the therapist, it's also important for a happy relationship that you can calm and work through your own fears and uncomfortable emotions, called "self-soothing," when you're upset. In practice, this means that when you're angry, sad, or hurt, you can manage and work through your emotions on your own without your partner. For example, take a walk, be there for yourself with self-compassion, or meditate.
The third competency is the ability to be empathic and meet your partner with understanding without being overwhelmed by your own fears. The last competency is the ability to endure uncomfortable feelings and difficult periods as a couple.
How individual counseling can help you strengthen your relationship
Individual counseling can help with all four of these competencies. This is because in individual counseling or therapy, you can learn how to strengthen your self-esteem, how to deal with your fears and difficult emotions. You can also work on your communication skills and counseling can support you when you are going through a difficult time.
In addition to learning a lot for your relationship, moreover, the change of a partner inevitably leads to something happening in the relationship. This is because the partner who is not in counseling will feel the change and may change as well. According to systemic psychotherapy, the couple relationship is seen as a system. The change of one partner in the system will then also cause the other to reposition or change.
When couples therapy is helpful
I would also like to introduce you to Anna and tell you a little more about why couples therapy is useful in some situations.
Anna is also dissatisfied with her relationship, because she argues a lot with her partner Max. In the last few months, one critical look from Max is enough for Anna to feel attacked and vent her anger on Max. Max has become more and more withdrawn and spends much more time with his friends. They are stuck in a vicious circle and are growing more and more distant from each other. Anna and Max are very worried about their relationship and don't know how to get closer again. They come to me for discovery call, and tell me that they would like to build more understanding and closeness. They also want to learn how to communicate with each other in a respectful way.
5 Good reasons for couples therapy
1. You want to work on relationship issues together, such as your communication/interaction cycles.
Like Anna and Max, many couples come to me stuck in their relationship. The concerns are often to work on changing their communication, building understanding for each other, and getting out of vicious cycles where both are reacting to each other. In order to work on mutual understanding, to experience more positive feelings together again, and to learn to deal with each other differently, couples therapy is useful. For example, you can understand why you are both stuck in your positions and learn how to talk to each other differently.
2. There has been an emotional injury (cheating, etc.) that you want to work through together.
For many couples, one reason to come into counseling is that one of them is having an affair that has come to light. This often throws couples into a crisis that they want to work through together. After all, both are affected by it and suffer from the discovery. It can also be a matter of exploring whether and how the relationship can continue.
3. Your needs are not compatible on an important issue and you cannot find a solution.
Perhaps one of you wants to move to another city, try a different type of relationship, or have a child, but the other does not. Different needs on fundamental matters can test a relationship. Couples therapy can help understand the needs behind the desires, show understanding, break an impasse, and find a creative solution.
4. You want to learn more about each other, and strengthen the relationship.
A reason for couples therapy can also be a desire to strengthen the relationship and learn more about each other as a team. Every couple has issues that can be worked on. Hurts happen in every relationship. Working through these with professional help can help you strengthen your relationship in the long run.
5. one of you has a mental/physical illness that is putting a strain on the relationship.
One reason why couples counseling can take place is also to understand what happens in the relationship when one of you has a physical or mental illness. This can involve counseling about how the illness affects the relationship and how mutual understanding can be built.
Advantages of both of you working together on your relationship
In couples therapy, experiences of insight often take place as you hear and understand your partner's emotions and needs on a deeper level for the first time. Often partners also feel understood and connected for the first time in a long time. Going through this process of change together can be incredibly enriching, moving and unifying for couples. Together you can broaden your horizons and participate in each other's development. You are there when you learn more about your emotions and behaviors, as well as those of your partner.
The combined solution: individual and couple therapy at the same time
Perhaps you would like to learn more about yourself and work on your own issues, but also desire a change in your relationship. If so, you might consider doing individual therapy and couples therapy at the same time. Some of my clients who come to me for couples counseling are also in individual therapy at the same time. This way you can combine the benefits of both types of therapy! Of course, this means extra time and money. Nevertheless, some of my clients choose this path. In my opinion, however, it is important that the individual and couples therapist are not the same person. This is because the therapeutic relationship that is established in the individual session would be out of balance with the other partner who comes only for the couple session. However, it is very important for the couple sessions that the relationship with both partners is balanced, and the time spent together is similar.
Conclusion about individual therapy or couples therapy
What is right for you and your relationship is very individual and depends on your specific concerns, as well as your financial and time resources. If you are unsure about which form of therapy is best for your situation, I always recommend asking your therapist or counselor for an assessment. I hope you've gotten a little more clarity on which form of therapy is appropriate for your situation!
Are you in a relationship crisis and want to change something? Then contact me!
Schnarch, D. M. (1997). Passionate marriage: Love, sex, and intimacy in emotionally committed relationships. WW Norton & Company.