Individual Therapy or Couple’s Therapy? ©
Carl H. Shubs, Ph.D.
Frequently someone calls wanting help with relationship issues. The question is: should the person come in alone or with their partner? The answer is it could be either.
This article presents my point of view, in which the therapist sees only one part of a family unit, either the couple together or only one of the partners. I recognize that some therapists have a different approach and see the couple while simultaneously possibly working with one or both people individually, but I find that keeping the two therapies separate works best and helps to preserve the confidentiality and focus of the therapy.
The easier choice is when one partner does not want couple’s therapy. This opens the door for the other person to deal with all of these issues in their own individual therapy. Relationship issues often are addressed in individual therapy, because no one is in a couple alone.
Here the therapy immerses itself in the person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, openly and freely, uncensored by fears of what might happen if the person were actually to express those things to their partner. It sorts out what’s honest, true, and authentic, from the patient’s point of view. It examines what triggers difficulties in their relationship and what stops them from expressing themselves directly with their partner. It examines what is based on their experience of their partner and what may come from past relationships and childhood experience.
This is not an intellectual exercise but rather a foundation for them to take those thoughts and feelings back into their relationship. It may reveal things that they had previously been struggling with and were afraid to confront or address within themselves or with their partner. With the support of their individual therapy, they may then be able to do what they had been too afraid to face or accept. It lets them test out their assumptions, experiment with new behaviors, increase their self awareness and knowledge about their partner, open up new and previously inconceivable growth within themselves, and enhance personal intimacy with their partner.
Some people use individual therapy in this way to address their part of the relationship, building their capacity to deal with issues from their past that lessen their self esteem and negatively influence their current behaviors and relationships. They then re-engage with their partner in new and different ways.
Often, this may lead to beginning couple’s therapy, with another therapist, to improve their communication and address relationship dynamics and other problems more closely. The focus is then on the couple together, not on either person individually. It is a couple’s therapy, meaning it is focused on the couple, and it is a couples therapy meaning it is a therapy for couples. The individual therapy and couple’s therapy may then go on concurrently.
If they already are in couple’s therapy, the individual therapy helps to focus and support them in dealing with their partner in that couple’s therapy. If they do not have a couple’s therapist, they are offered some referrals, while they continue with their individual therapy.
Couple’s Therapy – Two “I’s” and a “we”
Alternatively, some people are clear about wanting couple’s therapy. Here, as I approach the task, the focus is on the couple, their goals, communication, and how they relate together. The therapist sees and hears how they communicate, deal with emotions, manage conflicts, and solve problems. Together, the couple and the therapist track more closely what gets in the way in their relationship and what makes it better, by the couple’s own criteria.
The two “I’s” refer to each person as an individual, from their own point of view and participation in the couple. Each person brings their own background and baggage into the relationship.
The “we” refers to what happens when each of those people interacts with the other. In couple’s therapy, the focus is how one person’s actions may serve to be triggers to their partner, leading to misunderstandings, conflicts, and hurt feelings.
This spotlight on the interaction between the partners may bring up things that one person needs help dealing with in greater depth, and those issues are important to recognize and address as they impact the relationship. However, couple’s therapy is not another form of individual therapy.
If someone is in individual therapy, the therapist encourages them to take that piece of work back to that therapy, while together they continue focusing on the couple’s issues. If they do not have an individual therapist, referrals are offered to other professionals for the individual work.
It may wind up where each partner has their own individual therapy, in conjunction with their couple’s therapy. Then, each therapy helps the other move along faster and more smoothly than would usually be the case alone. While this may sound more costly, and may be so in the short term, over the long term it is much less expensive, less drawn out, and less emotionally costly for everyone. These are the issues to be discussed in a first phone call, as you consider which therapy you will be starting.
Copyright 2017 by Carl H. Shubs, Ph. D., a psychologist in independent practice in Beverly Hills, CA. This column is meant to be informational and educational. It should not be understood to be offering any diagnosis or making any specific recommendations about you or the people in your lives. You can contact Dr. Shubs at (310) 772-0520 or DrShubs@DrCarlShubs.com. His website is www.DrCarlShubs.com.
 I have adopted the convention of using “they,” “their,” and related terms to refer to a person or people when their gender has not yet been previously indicated.