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Couple counselling when only one partner has a 'problem'

Often a couple will come to relationship therapy but then explain that it isn’t a couple problem they are bringing but an individual issue for one of the partners.

This may be that one of the partners is depressed, has a sexual problem, gets angry or some other issue.

The partner without the problem may explain that they have come in order to support their mate. In effect, the therapist is being asked to ‘sort out’ one of the partners so the other one can feel better.

What usually emerges, if the couple continue to attend, is that the issue the couple is bringing is more complicated than it first seemed. 

For example, Bill may be depressed but it turns out that his depression is made worse by the fact that Rachel judges him for it and tells him to ‘get a grip’. Or Carol’s lack of interest in sex may be exacerbated by the fact that , deep down, she feels angry with Pete who is always away on business.

When we start to look a bit less at the actual ‘problem’ and more at how the couple actually relate to each other, different issues begin to emerge.

In fact, the ‘problem’ the couple originally brings often turns out to be a symptom of other underlying issues in the relationship. This could be that Bill feels unsupported by Rachel, or that Carol feels abandoned.

There may also be a repetition of historical relationship patterns. For example, with Rachel’s frustration at Bill’s depression it may turn out that her mother suffered from depression and her father found it difficult to cope with. Or in the case of Carol’s lack of interest in sex it may turn out that her mother also withdrew from sex with her father.

It is also often the case that one member of the couple experiences a problem almost on behalf of the couple. This happens when one partner has disowned a part of themselves, such as their angry or sad parts, perhaps because they grew up in a family where it was not acceptable to be angry or sad.

In these cases the ‘angry’ partner or the ‘depressed’ partner becomes even more angry or depressed in the relationship because the other person is unwilling to acknowledge their own anger or depression.

The challenge, therefore, with the couple in which only one partner is seen as having a problem, is to address the problem they are bringing while also going deeper. 

This means encouraging them to look at how the ‘problem’ is affected by their patterns of relating to each other. It also means exploring what their judgments are about particular issues or feelings, such as anger, anxiety or depression, and how their families of origin judged such emotions.

In a nutshell, it is about taking a relational perspective to what first seems an individual problem. This means looking at how the problem is manifesting something about deeper issues in the relationship and how the way the couple relate affects the individual problem.

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Written by Patrick McCurry - psychotherapist working with individuals and couples

Are you experiencing relationship, intimacy or family problems? If so, I can help. I am still accepting new clients and am offering phone and video sessions during the Coronavirus restrictions.
I work with individuals and couples. I also specialise in helping people who are struggling with anger, anxiety, depression, sexual problems or a lack of meaning.
I don't offer a quick fix bu… Read more

Written by Patrick McCurry - psychotherapist working with individuals and couples

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