Spot the Difference (Couple Counselling vs Individual Counselling)

When people who have experienced individual counselling come for couple counselling, they are often surprised at the difference. 

As an individual in counselling, you receive the full attention of your counsellor.  Your problems and difficulties are viewed from your perspective, indeed one of the aims of the counsellor is to see the situation as you do (called empathy).  It’s your space, and the counsellor’s approach and intervention is tuned in to match your requirements.  For example, if you have come to talk about relationship breakdown, how you see the situation or how you think other people see the situation is what your counsellor will respond to, helping you to voice your feelings, understand your reactions, and help you find the place of resolution or acceptance that you have determined you want.  Your counsellor will use skills and techniques that will match your temperament, personality, or the way you make sense of things.  There’s one to one communication, which is paced and structured.

It is vastly different in couple counselling.  Now there are three people in the room, two of whom have their own understanding of the situation, and have their own perception of what needs to happen to change things.

Couple counsellors have a particular training and set of skills to help them manage this, so that each person can feel they have been heard and understood.  They are skilled in keeping a balance – a very angry or talkative person can easily dominate the session and prevent a calmer or quieter person from being heard.  In couple counselling, the time is managed expertly so that each person has a chance to speak.  A couple counsellor will shift focus from an individual and their needs and problems, to the couple relationship.  The focus is on the difficulty between the two that is causing them to seek help. The problems couples bring to counselling are rich in meaning and provide an opportunity for them to understand more about their relationship and find a deeper connection

Couple counsellors have been trained in understanding the dynamics of a relationship, are able to help couples begin to hear each other again and, in the safety of the counselling room, become less defensive of their own (hurting) position.  There are complex influences from the past which affect the way people act within a couple relationship, and strong feelings often indicate a past unmet need that a person is trying to get their partner to satisfy – couple counsellors are aware of these influences and can help people understand them.

Time after time, what is revealed is that the underlying need of each person is virtually the same, but it is the attempts to meet the need that cause the difficulties and contribute to the downward spiral of hurt and discord.  For example, each person may feel that they are not valued by their partner, however, for one it is that they feel they are not listened to that leads to them feeling unvalued, whereas for the other it is that they feel they are nagged that leads to the same feeling.

When a relationship hits difficulties and counselling is sought, a couple has lost the ability to communicate in a way that leads to solutions – part of a couple counsellor’s role is to help the couple communicate with each other by teaching techniques that help them do this.  If each person feels their counsellor understands them, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they will be able to understand and communicate with their partner in a better way.

Interestingly, when an individual has a strong reaction against couple counselling, it can indicate that they are unwilling to tolerate any other view than their own.  People who have been bullying in their relationship, or where there are power and control issues, can find a balanced session very intimidating because suddenly their partner has a right to his/her own opinions.  It feels, to the one who has been behaving in a bullying way, very threatening, and feels as if the session has been biased against them. 

There is a big difference, then, between individual counselling and couple counselling.  Couples seeking help for their relationship would do well to check that their counsellor is experienced and qualified in couple work.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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