Individual therapy can be an incredibly powerful tool on its own. Combined with couple therapy can provide even more mental health and relational benefits. I frequently recommend that couples I work with each seek individual therapy in addition to the couples work. If you have personal mental health challenges, individual therapy is typically the best space in which to address them. However, individual therapy can also become problematic for couples who are struggling.
Isn't More Therapy Better?
Therapy works best with clear goals and treatments that are tailored to those particular goals. If your concerns are individual (like symptoms of depression, posttraumatic stress, anxiety, or substance use), individual therapy can provide targeted treatment for those individual concerns. When your individual concerns intersect with your relationship, treatment becomes a bit more complicated.
Relational issues are relational - they involve both parties. If you go alone to therapy and describe your perspective, your therapist only has half the story. In focusing on your narrative without your partner’s perspective, you can inadvertently reinforce your belief that “your truth” is “the truth.” Too often, individual therapy can become a space to troubleshoot your relationship without your partner present. This poses problems in a few different ways.
1. Your context is not the only context
As humans, we are much better at contextualizing our own behavior than we are at contextualizing others’ behavior. This is natural, as we have access to our own internal experience. But by extensively exploring and validating your nuanced reasons for your actions in the relationship without hearing your partners’ context, you risk developing a rigid perspective that may ultimately hurt more than it helps.
2. You may lose your partner's trust
Unfortunately, I have heard many partners come back from individual therapy and share incomplete insights they developed with their therapists about the relationship and even their partner. "My therapist thinks we should try splitting up the housework more evenly" or "I talked to my therapist about how your parents were neglectful, and that explains why you struggle to share your feelings" can leave your partner feeling scrutinized and judged. Their perspective has not been integrated into the therapist's perspective. More troubling, your partner may even feel as though you and the therapist (someone they likely don't even know) are ganging up against them.
3. Your therapist only sees one side of you
One of the advantages of couple therapy is the opportunity for the therapist to see both partners' behavior happen live. Rather than listening to one person describe how they perceive themselves to behave ("I was totally calm and just asked for him to listen"), the therapist can witness actual behavior in the room happening dynamically between partners. This adds an additional source of information for your therapist to input into their plan to help you. Although some people show up to individual therapy with their rougher edges out, a good individual therapy relationship will hopefully bring out the best in you. Without your partner in the room to trigger, annoy, or otherwise rev you up, your therapist is unlikely to see some of your less ideal behavior, and you may not have the insight to verbalize your own stumbling blocks.
Signs Your Individual Therapy Is Too Focused On Your Partner
1. You talk a lot about why your partner is the way they are (their childhood, their tendencies, their need for therapy). Although this can come from a place of trying to better understand them, talking about them without them will always produce an incomplete picture - and sometimes a grossly inaccurate one.
2. Speculating what their diagnosis might be or assigning them labels like codependent or narcissistic. It is not possible to “diagnose” someone who isn’t present. Even perspectives that might sound empathetic can cause problems. Your partner may not appreciate that your therapist wonders if they are struggling with sexual desire because of depression, for example.
3. You brainstorm relationship solutions without your partner's input. Individual therapy is a great place to work through how YOU can show up differently in your relationship, but as soon as you start considering ways your partner could behave differently, you risk missing crucial components of their perspective. Your partner is an adult human being whose perspective and experience is needed in order to make progress together.
4. You vilify your partner or emphasizing their nasty behavior without context. If you tell your therapist something horrible your partner said but don’t fully and honestly own up to your own unpleasant or hurtful actions, any conversation that follows serves only to pacify your ego without deepening your self-awareness.
Shouldn’t My Therapist Prevent This From Happening?
Yes, hopefully your therapist challenges you, asks thought provoking questions, reads between the lines, and goes deeper than the surface. But therapists can’t see behind closed doors into your home. Your individual therapist does not have magical access to what really happens in your relationship. If you tell them “my partner screamed at me, it was completely unprovoked,” they will probably believe you. They will provide validation and support. And if you have neglected to mention that prior to the screaming you threw your partner’s phone across the room and called them a name, your therapist has a very incomplete picture. If you offer incomplete facts, you will receive incomplete support.
How To Use Your Individual Therapy To Improve Your Relationship
1. Explore YOUR role in the dynamic. Work with your therapist to better understand your part in the struggles you are having.
2. Cultivate flexible thinking about your partner. Work on letting go of rigid stories you tell yourself about them.
3. Be honest about your dicey behavior. Describe your contributions to the problems as openly and completely as you can.
4. Address your own underlying wounds and patterns that follow you from relationship to relationship.
Once again, individual therapy is an incredible resource - I hope you have all the individual support you need from a licensed mental health professional! Use these tips to get the most out of your individual work, and leave the relationship work for one on one conversations with your partner or couple therapy sessions.
If you need more relational solutions that are uniquely tailored to your relationship, reach out today.