Relationship issues – on your own or with your partner?
In this article, I will first ask you to reflect on the reason why you are seeking counselling to resolve current relationship issues. Next I will explain a few points why individual sessions could be beneficial for relationship issues. Then I will move on to describe why couples therapy could be helpful to address relationship issues. Lastly, I will add some thoughts on what forms of therapy to combine when dealing with relationship issues.
This is a question which many psychotherapists would ask you. If your issue involves your current relationship, please reflect on the following question; in whom or in what do you want to see changes as desired outcome of your sessions? Change in yourself? Change in your partner? Change in your relationship?
Regardless of whether you attend an individual session or a couples session, the areas you can directly and effectively work on is yourself and your part within the relationship. Your partner and her/his part within the relationship may also change but to make these as the only target for change is a tall order for any psychotherapist. I am yet to encounter clients who have achieved mutually satisfactory relationship by successfully changing their partners and the partners’ side of the relationship without achieving any changes in themselves through therapy.
This is understandable when you consider the well-researched fact that, apart from how you relate with your own psychotherapist and your network of support outside the sessions, the level of clients’ motivation is a strong predictor of therapy outcome.
Benefits of individual sessions
With individual sessions you will obviously have the entire session just for yourself. You can tell the difference of occupying the space just for yourself, particularly if you have experience of attending couples therapy, family therapy or group therapy. The pace of the session will be much calmer; your therapist claims a half of the role of steadying the pace with the remaining half in your hands. This will open up breathing space for reflection which you might not have had during tension due to relationship anxiety or during the heat of an argument.
You can use this reflective space to expand and deepen your self-awareness. A skilled practitioner will gently nudge you to look into yourself, when the talk excessively focuses on the partner who is not present and is therefore beyond direct reach. With length, the work can reach significant depth.
You may ask why individual sessions help you with your current relationship issues. System (or systemic) theory offers explanation. A couple is seen as a system with three components; two people and their relationship. All the components are inter-related. Therefore, if one of them changes, the rest will inevitably change. Out of the three components, you are in direct charge of one and a half; your own self as one plus half of the relationship.
As a system, the relational dynamic has its own independent momentum with unique characteristics. In other words, the relationship has its own ways and speed of inter-locking and running which is familiar to the members of the system. Occasionally when one member starts to change, the established dynamics attempt to pull that member back into status quo, whatever the price of maintaining it. I hope that the person who is changing will not feel discouraged by this natural pull; hopefully by this time she/he has attained new perspective on oneself and on the relationship that allows her/him to see new options for authentic individual change. In an ideal setting, the system itself will embrace the change as all the participants invest in change.
Benefits of couples sessions
The reverse of the above applies as benefits of couples sessions. It will be a space where your relationship will become the target of your therapeutic work. You might present a typical argument with your partner during your session and this will give the therapist a timely opportunity for intervention. Your relationship dynamics are carried by two people, namely you and your partner, whereas your therapist also has to take ownership of pacing the session on her/his own; therefore the manner with which your therapist asks you to stop and start talking can be very direct.
When a psychotherapist attempts to regulate your communication, it is like a traffic warden who keeps orderly flows of vehicles. Some couples do not realise that a high-pitch argument is like a complex highway accident where sheer survival of each of the drivers becomes the only goal; the importance of safely transporting messages from one place to another gets completely lost. As far as the facilitation of the communication is concerned, I already described one small example of what you could do. Please read ‘Relationship issues – he/she does not understand’, if you are interested.
A practitioner with professional awareness would not persistently take sides with either of you but navigate fairly and sensibly between you two. Except for very rare occasions, your therapist will not become a judge; it is not our job to decide who is right and who is wrong.
Conclusion – what formats?
I hope that I have managed to give you some idea of how individual and couples works are different. From time to time people enquire if they can attend individual and couples therapies concurrently. My response is often yes, on condition that you see a therapist for your individual work and see another therapist for your couples work and that you tell both of them that you are seeing another therapist to address your personal/relational difficulties. Sometimes group therapy can replace individual therapy. In whatever combination of therapies you intend to commit yourself, it is worth the while asking the therapist(s) of professional opinion.
Perhaps a rule of thumb is, if personal components have persistent and damaging nature which unfolds as relationship difficulties, it is more recommendable to attend individual therapy together with other formats of – including couples – therapy.
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About Mari Yamamoto
I have been offering psychotherapy and counselling over eleven years. I am a psychotherapist registered with the UKCP and I practice in Ealing W5. I hold a masters degree in integrative psychotherapy and the emphasis of my work are relationships. Away from my private practice in Ealing, I also work at King's College Hospital in London.