Individual VS. Couples Counseling: A guide to determining which type of counseling to start with
You've been unhappy in your relationship for a while now and you're ready to seek some outside help to feel better. It's taken you a while to realize you could use the extra support and accountability and you finally are ready to set aside time to prioritize your relationship and personal needs by seeking counseling. Deciding you are ready to start or re-start the counseling journey is already a great first step. For those who are seeking counseling due to relationship stress that is impacting their mental health, that step is often followed by a very important question: What type of counseling is going to best meet my needs?
For many people, the decision whether to seek individual versus couples counseling can be difficult. In a perfect world with unlimited resources you would tackle both individual counseling and couples counseling at the same time and really get the momentum going on bringing positive changes to your life and relationship satisfaction. Any times you notice yourself struggling to show up to couples counseling in a healthy way, you can process the difficulty with an individual counselor and often be back on track to engaging in couples sessions in no time. This can be a great option for people who are ready to maximize results by tackling their individual need for support at the same time they seek couples counseling. However, time constraints, budgeting constraints and the sometimes reluctance of your partner to join you on the journey of seeking counseling can leave you in a place where you need to prioritize which service to seek out first. Use this guide to assist you in evaluating what type of counseling might be best for you if you need to start with just one service.
A great place to start is to determine what your partner is willing to commit to. A lot of people delay starting the counseling process simply because they want their partner to join them enthusiastically on the journey. My advice would be to not let the reluctance of your partner stop you from making the changes you want to see in your life. I worked in family therapy for a long time and would often talk to teenagers or parents about their frustrations with other members of their family not being ready to make changes. I would often hear things like "Why do I have to be the one to always lead the way?" or "I feel like I'm always the one being forced to do things differently when others get to continue to do things the way they always have." I get it. There can be a feeling of unfairness at times when you are working to be healthier and the family, relationship or system you are in seems to have no interest in changing. The thing is, we can't control other people, but we can influence them by setting boundaries and changing the way we interact with them. Just by one person in a family committing to doing things in a different, healthier way, the whole family is forced to change the way that they function and do things. The best part is more times than not the family or relationship does take note and ends up changing in a positive way. In that sense, you might just be the change, sometimes even the generational change, you want to see in the world just by letting go of the expectation you need your partner present to benefit from counseling and moving forward in a different way.
Another consideration is your comfort level with sharing your needs for the relationship with a therapist and your partner. A lot of time conflict avoidant partners seek me out for couples therapy and that's great because I get to provide them with skills to allow them to understand that conflict is a normal, natural part of life and then they can develop ways to have conversations that feel safe and productive for both parties. I would also say that if you tend to be conflict avoidant and you are finding a barrier to seeking couples therapy at this time, individual counseling can be a great place to start your journey of improving your relationship. Often times, early life experiences or past hurts in our relationship have taught our brain that it's not always safe or helpful to move toward conflict. A child who saw their parents engage in explosive conflict may have felt powerless, overwhelmed and anxious and understandably does not want to willingly seek conflict with those they love most in their adult life. If you have noticed that you have a difficult time showing up in your important relationships with needs or have difficulty believing that conflict can be helpful and productive in relationships, individual counseling can be a helpful first step that will allow you to examine your beliefs around your ability to have needs and express them in relationships. Another great benefit is that is can equip you with assertiveness skills that will allow you to feel confident expressing yourself in your relationships.
Finally, if you or your partner has an extensive trauma history, it is often recommended and helpful to seek individual counseling before or during couples therapy. Trauma can re-wire our nervous systems to scan for and identify danger even when there is very little danger present. Our past trauma history can also cause us to tell stories about what is happening in the relationship that may not be true, accurate or helpful. This is where I see individual counseling being so helpful to the couples I work with. When partners have been able to spend time working through their earlier life experiences they are much better equipped to recognize the times when the past comes seeping into the present and is telling them inaccurate stories about what is happening in the present. They can recognize that when they are triggered by their spouse, for example, who is sharing information about the relationship with their extended family members that could actually be a reminder of all the times their Mother would get on the phone and trivially share intimate details about their life with extended family and being dismissive of them sharing that it bothered them. By having a cohesive narrative of your own story, the great moments and the more difficult ones, you are better equipped to notice when you are being triggered in the present.
In contrast, there are also a few times when it's ideal to prioritize couples counseling. If your main source of stress is your relationship and you feel confident expressing your needs to your partner and others in a healthy way, initiating couples counseling might be a great first step. It will help you gain skills to see relational patterns that are impacting each partner and the relationship in a negative way. It will also provide you with space to have difficult conversations while gaining new skills or ways of interacting that can create more ease in your communications. If you find your stress continually going back to needing your spouses support, something that is especially true of new parents who seek couples counseling due to renegotiating their roles in the relationship, it may also be beneficial to have both parties attend counseling to facilitate conversations about recent stressors due to life transitions. Also, when a betrayal has occurred in the relationship and both parties are ready and willing to take accountability for repairing past hurts, you may be ready to seek couples counseling to facilitate healing from the incident. In current society, partners often also serve in the role of best friend and emotional support. Often times it makes sense to enlist them in your services to work towards maximizing the amount of benefit you receive in the relationship and to allow yourself to better support them as well.
Ashton Fisher Jimenez, M.S., LPC-S
Therapist at Becoming Counseling & Clinical Supervision, PLLC