Individual vs couple counselling

There is a big overlap between individual and couples counselling, and it is sometimes hard to determine clear guidelines on their differences. Nevertheless, when we move from working only with individuals towards working with couples, we need to think of adapting our own therapeutic approach.

In individual therapy, the focus is on the development of a one-to-one relationship with the client. The relationship can take on many facets depending on what clients bring, but on all occasions, there is a creation of a therapeutic alliance which is described by Greenberg and Horvath as;

"(…) Conscious, collaborative relationship between a patient and a therapist. A successful therapeutic alliance, includes an emotional bond based on mutual trust and positive regard, shared goals, and clearly defined tasks, all of which elaborate the participants’ respective roles and responsibilities toward successfully accomplishing their purpose."

Within the sessions, individuals become engaged in a self-reflective process on their emotions, behaviours, and personal development. Regardless of their approach to counselling, most counsellors use the relationship that they have with their clients and feelings which emerge during sessions as the basis of their work together. The counselling space belongs to clients, and counsellors try to understand their client’s situation from their own perspective, not the perspective of other people who might be a part of their narrative.

On the other hand, in couples work, a counsellor works with two clients, and each of them has his/her own understanding of their situation and his/her own perception of what needs to be changed. Establishing the therapeutic alliance seems more difficult than compared to doing it with an individual, as working with two people in the therapeutic process introduces complexity into the relationship between alliance and outcome. For example, one client might want to separate, and the other may want to save the relationship.

In couples work it is very important to keep balance and frequently assess levels of empathy given to both individuals, and the impact of this on them (for example to 'give' both clients equal time to share their thoughts). Working with couples asks a counsellor to take a more active stance and be more directive, shifting focus from an individual and his/her needs to the couple’s relationship. The focus is on the relationship, which is what the counsellor and clients work on. It involves an intense focus on improving the communication pattern between the partners by reflecting on the communication and interactions the partners have. It also involves making suggestions about ways to improve their relationship. It is more intensive work because both clients are invited to co-create the process of change.

One of the major challenges in couples counselling is the fact that some of the couples might be in conflict, even violent with each other, and that the counsellor needs to know how to deal with this. It is also necessary to assess risk, determine when to intervene, and when to allow the process to flow between the partners and be aware of responses and reactions of one client while working with the other.

Sometimes, the work will require seeing clients separately, and it is crucial to be clear about confidentiality and say to both clients that it is not beneficial for their relationship to reveal any secrets. If something gets revealed during the individual sessions, the clients will most probably need to share this with their partners in the upcoming sessions if they want to proceed with the couples work. Honesty and building trust are crucial in overcoming relationship difficulties.

In order to work with couples, it is crucial to acknowledge that counsellors need to gain additional skills which are usually not covered within programs meant for individual counsellors. Nevertheless, every therapeutic orientation is about being-in-relation with another person. The therapist’s personal qualities, in particular, the capacity to manage difficult emotions (both the therapist’s and the clients’), combined with the elements of theory and practice, are crucial in therapy. In order to become competent counsellors, we have to learn the way of thinking and the way of being, something which goes on changing and hopefully deepening throughout our profession.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Edinburgh EH1 & Haddington EH41

Written by Maja Tomse

Edinburgh EH1 & Haddington EH41

Maya Tomse is an accredited psychologist and individual and couples counsellor with over 10 years experience of working with people in a variety of settings. She has worked and trained in four different countries which has given her a wealth of insights which she integrates into her practice.

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