It’s always been interesting to me that many couples choose to go to couples therapy when their relationship is in trouble. It’s not that I have anything against couples therapy. I just happen to think that, if a relationship has broken down to the point where a third party is needed to help them navigate their problems, maybe there are some deeper issues that both partners should explore in individual therapy first.
I think some couples fear going to individual therapy because they think it might lead them further apart. One or both partners worries that being in therapy alone will convince them even further that the relationship isn’t working and what they really need is to move on. I don’t wish to minimize that. It’s a valid concern. But I think what’s more important is the feeling that underpins that concern, which is one or both partner’s desire to keep the relationship together. Which, I’d say, is an objectively good thing.
My husband and I found that individual therapy did not lead us away from each other. In fact, individual therapy enabled us both to get to a healthier place mentally and emotionally so that we could actually do the work of healing our marriage productively. So, for anyone out there who is contemplating couples therapy versus individual therapy, please allow me to make the case for individual therapy first:
#1. Sometimes the relationship has broken down so much that one or both partners don’t feel safe to be honest about their feelings.
If things between you and your partner have become so tense or volatile that you don’t think you can speak your truth without one of you flying off the handle, individual therapy can be a good place to start. Of course, it is the job of a couples therapist to help mediate these conversations in a safe and healthy way. But I also think that sometimes the hurt and sense of danger is just too deep to be effectively navigated when both parties are in the same room. It can be useful to talk about your feelings privately, with a therapist who is concerned only with your perspective, before trying to talk about them together.
#2. Individual therapy can help you work out your distortions before trying to communicate together.
A good therapist will be able to pick up on things you share about your relationship that might be a distortion of your own. Meaning, they can help you sort out what things are real issues between you and your partner, and what things might be misdirected, triggered from past trauma, or simply an unhealthy way to approach the problem.
#3. You might be more receptive to hearing about your shortcomings if it’s not happening in front of your partner.
Ego is a very real thing; it’s something we all have, and it’s not necessarily bad. When a relationship has become so corroded that therapy is needed or else it will fail, it can be really challenging to receive criticism or correction in front of your partner. It stings. It occasionally proves them right about something you’ve insisted they’re wrong about. It triggers defensiveness. Hearing about things you need to do to improve the way you show up to the relationship can be more readily received when you first hear them in private. The goal being that once you’ve addressed those issues in individual therapy, you are open to talking about them in a more productive way as a couple.
#4. Therapy gives you better tools for navigating all of your relationships.
One of the best things about going to therapy is that what you learn there is applicable to all areas of your life. And, if you’ve dedicated yourself to the work, the results can last a lifetime. Therapy gives you better tools for communication, for bridge building, and for conflict resolution. These are things that will benefit your relationship in the long run if you decide to stay together, or it will benefit you in your next relationship if you choose to part ways.
#5. Sometimes, one or both of you have things you’re bringing to your relationship that you haven’t been able to tell each other about.
This is a big one. One of the things my husband and I discovered through individual therapy was that my husband was carrying around a very big father wound. He felt a lot of shame about being middle-aged and still carrying around hurt and pain from his childhood. So, he never spoke to me about it. Neither of us understood the impact his father wound was having on our marriage because it wasn’t something he felt comfortable sharing with me. His time in individual therapy helped him to not only heal from some of that pain, but also to let go of the shame around it so that we could start speaking about it productively in our relationship.
#6. Individual therapy is where you are more likely to have your own mental health issues addressed.
Couples therapy, in my experience, is usually focused exclusively on creating peace and happiness within the relationship. Individual therapy, on the other hand, focuses exclusively on your own inner world. It was in individual therapy that I learned I have sensory processing disorder and severe anxiety. My therapist referred me to specialists so that I could get the medications I needed to help me be more comfortable and at peace. Individual therapy is where my husband learned that he likely had ADHD, and from there he saw a specialist to get the meds and support he needed. There are many issues within a relationship that can be caused or exacerbated by our unchecked mental health issues or neurodivergence. Getting those things diagnosed and treated can bring considerable relief to the relationship and make getting along so much easier.
#7. Individual therapy allows you to rehearse what you want to say to your partner and receive guidance and feedback before the conversation happens.
It can be really useful to rehearse the things you would like to express to your partner to an objective observer who can give you guidance. These rehearsals allow you to work out the kinks, so to speak. They also help you release any anxiety or trepidation you may have around the subject, and help give you the language to express yourself in the most productive and healthy way. When the time comes to have the conversation, you feel confident and ready.
Choosing individual therapy versus couples therapy is really up to what you think is best for your relationship. And whichever you decide, you should be applauded just for making an intentional step toward a better relationship. I just happen to think that going to individual therapy first can help pave the way toward reconciliation and health much faster and in a more satisfying way for both partners.
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.