6 Ways Individual Therapy Saved my Marriage

When my husband and I separated two years ago, we decided to seek individual therapy during the separation instead of couples therapy. We knew our relationship felt like it had reached the point of no return, but we were both willing to keep the door to reconciliation open. Maybe, with time and space to heal without constantly ripping each other’s scabs off, we might feel differently.

We agreed that couples therapy didn’t feel like the right choice for us. Our communication had eroded so significantly, and there were such deep and personal wounds, that it just didn’t seem like we’d be able to get very far navigating our issues in each other’s presence. I think we both recognized that we just weren’t in a place to be able to hear each other, even with the help of an “impartial” therapist (more on that later). It seemed best that we both go to individual therapy to work on some things on our own before we made any decisions about couples therapy. That way, if we were unable to reconcile our marriage, at least we had spent the separation investing in our individual development and well-being instead of striving to save a marriage that was beyond repair.

Six months into our separation, we decided to reconcile. That was two years ago. Looking back, I absolutely believe we made the right choice by going to individual therapy. In case you and your partner are trying to make the decision between individual and couples therapy, here are the reasons why I believe individual therapy saved our marriage.

#1. It prioritized healing over reconciling.

First comes healing, then comes reconciling. Sadly, I think couples therapy can sometimes do things in the reverse order. This is, of course, not always the case. But it was my experience, and the experience of many couples I’ve spoken to on the subject. I think the very act of attending a couples therapy session puts couples in a mindset of saving the relationship instead of healing the wounds. Even in the presence of an excellent therapist who prioritizes healing, it’s understandable that the couple might find themselves thinking mostly of the relationship instead of their own needs. Individual therapy gave us space and grace to deal with our own healing first before we began addressing the relationship.

#2. It was biased.

If you were in legal trouble, would you want an “impartial” attorney? Or would you rather have one who was unambiguously on your side? In the years since I began healing through therapy, my therapist has developed enough rapport with me to be impartial—to challenge my beliefs and perceptions of things and push me toward personal growth and development. But back then? When I was angry, resentful, and in the pit of despair, all I really wanted was someone who was on my side. Individual therapy gave me my own ally and confidant. Someone who was invested solely in my individual healing and no one else’s. That was huge.

#3. There was no picking sides.

Although I don’t believe that this is common, I had one pretty negative experience that really shaped my outlook on couples therapy. Part of the draw of couples therapy is to have an “impartial” person in the room to guide the conversation, keeping it safe and productive. In my case, my then partner and I had a couples therapist who was absolutely not impartial. He was older and seemingly governed by his beliefs about gender roles in marriage. His council to us always centered around me (the woman) doing the emotional labor and being a “helpmate” to my partner. There was no room for me to be honest about my feelings because, according to our therapist, the women’s role is to submit and obey. This was enormously damaging—not just to my relationship, but to my own mental health. The fact is, therapists are human. Although they are trained to ignore their own biases and value systems, some of them fall short of that very high calling. It was important to me that my husband and I didn’t experience that frustration while we made hard decisions about our future. Having individual therapists protected us from this unnecessary added strain.

#4. It created a safe space for honesty.

There were things I didn’t feel safe sharing with my husband. He had a similar feeling about me. When a couple has spent years invalidating each other’s feelings, it becomes the norm to just not talk about them. Or to talk about them purely at the surface, never daring to go deeper where the vulnerabilities lie. Being in individual therapy allowed us to say what was really on our hearts and minds without each other’s defensive interruptions and projections. Sometimes, there is healing purely in speaking the truth.

#5. Honestly paved the way for correcting faulty perceptions.

When we are honest about what we think and feel—when we feel safe to say those things out loud—we allow them to be scrutinized. We allow someone else to point out where we might be misinterpreting things, where we could use a different perspective. One of the best things that happened for me in individual therapy was to have it pointed out that I was still punishing my husband for things he said or did in the past as though he had just done them. I don’t want to be that kind of partner. I want to be the kind who is honest about my feelings, who communicates when I believe I am owed an apology, who is quick to give apologies when I owe them, and who is about to heal and move forward without holding past events over my spouse’s head. Learning this helped me finally let go of things from our past so that we could stop rehashing them every time we argued.

#6. We got diagnosed and treated.

It was in individual therapy that I was told for the first time that I might have chronic anxiety and sensory processing disorder. It was also there that my husband was told it seemed like he had ADHD. Our therapists got us in touch with the right people who could get us diagnosed and on the right medications. I would estimate that about 50% of our troubles disappeared when we got our brains what they needed in order to function their very best. Anxiety makes me overly sensitive, uptight, and sometimes inflexible. ADHD makes my husband scattered, flighty, and sometimes messy. Getting those things better regulated with medication made a huge difference in our daily functioning. Understanding each other’s diagnoses helped us to be more compassionate and patient. Although I think it’s possible for these things to be recognized in couple’s therapy, I think it’s probably easier for them to be identified in the intimate setting of individual therapy.

I’ll never know for certain if it really was individual therapy that saved our marriage, or if couples therapy could have provided the same outcome. What I do know is that I am enormously happy with our decision. I think couples’ first impulse is to seek couples therapy when their relationship is in trouble. It’s easy to think that it is the only logical choice. But individual therapy can be just as valid and useful—indeed, perhaps even more so—for some couples. To have the best change at reaching your desired outcome, whether that is marriage reconciliation or an amicable divorce, it’s important to choose the one that’s best for you. Both as a couple and as individuals.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

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