I’ve noticed an increase in the number of people who call and ask, “Do I Need Individual Counseling AND Couples Counseling?” While there are times that this is needed, I’ll give the perspective that I have as a couples counselor on whether you should seek both individual counseling and couples counseling.
The Notion That You Need to Work On Yourself First Is Outdated and Blaming
One of the main reasons that people feel they may need individual counseling is that they think, or have been told by their partner, that they have “some issues” to work out. Sure, folks have issues. However, the majority of the time, unless we are talking about a serious mental health diagnosis or some other big stuff, it’s not a good idea to see your issues as something that you need to go off in private to work on.
Why is your relationship struggling? Is it because you have these issues that you can’t handle, and your partner is an innocent bystander being caught in the crossfire of your stuff? Or are you like most couples, where you both do things that result in the other person feeling hurt, unheard, angry, etc? The fact is that relationships can be a huge contributor to things like depression and anxiety, as well as anger and bad moods. Fights and distance can make depression and anxiety worse. Looking at these things outside of the relationship is like going to the doctor for knee pain and not bringing your knee. A LOT of things can successfully be addressed in the light of improving your most important relationship.
Plus, it makes it seem like you’re the reason your relationship is struggling. As a couples counselor, I know this is usually not true. And buying into blaming one person for what’s wrong in a relationship is, well, probably not helping the relationship.
The Notion That Your Partner’s Involvement Can’t Help You Heal Is Also Outdated
In the olden days, psychoanalysis was an individual pursuit. The field of relationship therapy came out of a response to seeing that our loved ones are the biggest source of both our pleasure and pain. Not including them really denies how powerful the bond with your loved ones is in helping you cope.
There are things that we bring into a relationship that are bigger than the relationship itself. Things like depression, anxiety, past trauma, these are all things that can feel like a huge barrier to us being able to be really present and show up in our relationship in a way that creates closeness instead of distance or fights. Being able to explore some of how this impacts your relationship, with your partner in the room, can really help them understand what’s going on, and how they play a role (positive or not) in the interactions between you.
There is some research being done that is pointing to the healing power of the relationship for things like addictions, depression, and trauma. There’s even evidence that we feel pain and fear more intensely when we don’t have the comfort of our partner (if the relationship is strong). Things that have traditionally warranted a solely individual approach can be folded in with the couples counseling in powerful ways. And working on improving the relationship has incredible benefits for your individual coping and resilience. Win-win. Many of these things do require individual counseling as well, but we prefer to suggest that you start with couples counseling before adding individual counseling.
Why We Suggest Starting With Couples Counseling First
Instead of jumping feet first into several types of counseling at once, we suggest starting with couples counseling for several reasons:
- It gives the therapist a chance to assess the situation and help you decide if it’s indeed true that you need extra individual support from another therapist doing individual therapy.
- Your couples therapist can help you find ways in which the individual therapy and couples counseling are going to compliment each other. You can choose an individual therapist that works from a relationship point of view. Some types of therapy can accidentally undermine your couples work by giving you contradictory advice, such as to deal with your emotions by yourself instead of learning how to respond to becoming upset with your partner in the moment, with them there. We really like to set individual therapy clients up with another practitioner who also does couples therapy right here in our practice. This way, you know you will be complimenting both your individual and couples therapy by addressing things in both types of therapy in ways that make sense together.
- It prevents you from starting too much counseling at once. This can be counterproductive and confusing.
- It gives you, as a couple, a good first glimpse into all the things that you’ll be able to accomplish with couples therapy. This helps get you off to a good start where you are both seeing your own role in the relationship issues, rather than one partner being pre-labeled as the “one who really needs the therapy.”
Do I Need Individual Counseling AND Couples Counseling?
Hopefully this has given you some glimpse into how we approach this, but this is a good question to ask any counselor that you are considering seeing. If someone absolutely says that you shouldn’t do couples therapy until all of your individual issues are resolved, you can run screaming for the hills. And if you ask a couples counselor this question, you can get a good glimpse into how they work and what their approach is.
There are some instances where couples counseling is absolutely not a good idea – such as when there is physical abuse in the relationship, or when someone has active addiction that is so strong that they are not yet capable of interacting in a meaningful way in therapy. (However, both of these situations also need assessment because they aren’t black and white, so it’s still best to contact a qualified couples therapist to get assessed).