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  • Writer's pictureEric Strang. PsyD

Individual Psychotherapy as a Prelude to Couples Work

Far too often I see couples wait until their relationship is on fire before they seek assistance. And when they do, they often come to their first couples session looking for someone to adjudicate their “rightness” and their partner’s “wrongness”; the therapist serving as judge / umpire. My days of sitting, trying not to dissociate, as a couple takes turns shouting about the injustices they have experienced at the hands of the other, have taught me something: if you are at the point where you believe couples work is required, you would be best served by getting into individual therapy. My opinion on this is based on multiple levels of experience and observation. While it is not strictly scientific, if you think about what I am recommending you might see the merit. One benefit of this approach is that it will not do any harm and at minimum will allow you to mentalize / contextualize your emotional reactions to your partner and clarify your needs into bite size morsels that can be effectively communicated with the help of a couples therapist. Regarding the latter, DO NOT USE YOUR INDIVIDUAL THERAPIST AS YOUR COUPLES THERAPIST.  While this might on the surface seem like a good idea, it inevitably creates a problem with the perceived objectivity / impartiality of the therapist for the member of the couple entering into the established dyad. On a related topic, it is not uncommon for me to hear that the only way a potential couples patient is going to get their partner into anything like therapy is for it to be couples work. This is unfortunately a necessary strategy in some relationships. However, the same caveat / recommendation applies, do your individual work first (and don’t let your therapist do the couples work).

While we are talking about couples work I would like to share a few observations. The biggest issues that occur within a couple are usually based on ideas about what is supposed to be happening. That thing that “everyone knows” about what is normal in a relationship. To be fair there are some established norms of what is more or less acceptable and not. But there is a wide range of idiosyncratic permutations of relatedness that can be quite functional. Most of what seems to piss people in couples off is based on faulty assumptions and expectations. This circles us back to my original point about individual psychotherapy being a prelude to couples work. It will be far more likely that any couples work you are able to do will be much much more productive if you have sorted through your assumptions and expectations first. Even if your partner is unwilling to do their own individual psychotherapy, it will still make any couples work you are able to engage in significantly more productive.

Another reason individual work is good preparation for couples therapy is that we often are operating with some ideas about relationships based on what we saw growing up. While these may be positive things we are looking to repeat (which can cause their own problems), they are often things we are looking to avoid and dread seeing even the smallest hint of in our relationships. Sorting through our memories and associations regarding relationships can be very helpful in calming our reactivity to our partners. This can help us have the psychological bandwidth to be reflective with, and respond thoughtfully to, our partners. This alone can go a long way toward improving the quality of interactions within a couple. It can also lead to a moment when our partner becomes curious about how we are staying so calm and thoughtful such that we are able to show them how our individual therapy has benefited us. The hope here being, if they aren’t already, our partners find some motivation to do their own work.


The bottom line is that getting into individual therapy as a first step toward improving your relationship will do no harm and is very likely to potentiate any couples work that might ensue.


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