When a couple are having relationship difficulties, both partners often get very tired and unsure of how to solve the problems, perhaps having tried many different ways already. One partner might see the other as being the ‘cause’ of their problems and suggest that this partner try some individual counselling sessions to improve things. Alternatively, a partner may take it upon themselves to try individual counselling in a bid to save or improve a failing relationship. Whilst it might seem like a way forward at the time, there are many reasons why individual counselling is less likely to be helpful for the relationship, and may in some cases make the situation worse.
When a couple come along for a consultation for relationship counselling, one of the first tasks in that session is establishing what the goals are, what the couple want to be doing differently, and what changes need to be made.
If only one partner comes along to see me with the aim of improving things in the relationship, the goals for the counselling have a vital ingredient missing, that is how their partner wants things to be different. The absent partner may think they have been clear enough about this with their partner for them to relay this information to the counsellor, but there are a few drawbacks to this. The first is that if a couple are having difficulty in communicating and understanding each other clearly, then this message may get ‘lost’ in translation. Secondly, the problems that are brought to counselling are often symptomatic of underlying issues that are only discovered through supported communication of both partners in the counselling room. A further potential issue is that the partner having counselling sessions may start to make changes that the absent partner perhaps does not expect. By missing out on being part of the experience of change for their partner, they may not be adequately supported themselves to manage any unexpected changes, and this could lead to more distance between the couple, the opposite of what had perhaps been hoped for.
Finally, a crucial part of the work in relationship counselling is learning to understand each other better, and learning to support each other better, both processes that get missed when only one partner attends counselling sessions.
Problems in relationships rarely lie with one partner only, but rather in the interactions between the couple, something that is unlikely to be fully understood by the counsellor when only one partner attends for counselling. When I am working with a couple I am observing how they communicate in the counselling room, and offering supportive and constructive feedback as part of the process of moving towards more successful ways of communicating.
There are occasions when individual counselling is recommended, but one of the most common misconceptions I hear about is where clients have been advised to ‘work on themselves’ in counselling before having couple’s therapy. When relationship counselling is successful we often see conditions such as depression and anxiety improve as stress levels reduce, partners become happier and more fulfilled in their relationship, and feel more supported to pursue their individual goals. Added to this are newly learned skills in communication and better understanding of each other supporting long lasting change. If the couple have children, they benefit greatly from this too as parents are often the first role models for communication in relationships.
As a fully trained relationship counsellor I am able to support both partners when they come together for counselling, however different their viewpoints may be. I do not privilege one partner’s story over the other’s, but rather pay attention to each partner without judgement to find new ways of understanding each other and communicating.
To enquire about an initial consultation for relationship counselling please use the contact page. Counselling sessions are available online via Zoom, and also in person at the counselling venues in Central London and Beverley, East Yorkshire. More details can be found here Relationships