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Individual or Couples Therapy - How to Decide Which One is Right for You?

Updated: Jul 1


Hands of a therapist taking notes and a client speaking

When a prospective client reaches out to me, it is not uncommon for them to be uncertain about whether to start with individual or couples therapy. Often, the initial message to me says something like this: “My spouse and I have been having problems, and I am interested in couples therapy, but I want to see about doing individual therapy first and then maybe couples therapy down the line.” This is common and understandable. When I meet with the prospective client(s) for an initial consultation, however, the first thing I’ll explain is that if I begin working with someone for individual therapy, from that point on I would no longer be able to engage in couples therapy with them and their spouse down the line, because it would be considered unethical to do so. The reason is, by that point, the individual client and I will have presumably developed a therapeutic relationship, and it would not be fair to the spouse to come into an already established therapeutic relationship. At that point, the therapist - even without meaning to - may be biased in favor of the established client, whereas the premise of couples therapy is that the therapist is a completely neutral, objective third party. 


But what about the other way around? Could you go from couples therapy to individual therapy? In some cases, yes. If both partners are in agreement that one of them can continue on to individual therapy with the same therapist once couples therapy is terminated, then there is no problem. In this scenario, there may even be an added bonus that the therapist has been able to see the client “in action” - that is, the therapist will have been able to see the way this particular client interacts with a significant other, which is important data that helps the therapist understand the client better and approach individual therapy in a more nuanced manner. 


So now that we’ve established that we can sometimes go from couples therapy to individual therapy, but not the other way around, which path you decide on depends on your unique situation. Some questions you may ask yourself are: Do you feel that you have any unresolved issues or traumas that predate your relationship that you feel are hindering you in your personal or professional life? How important is it for you that you spend a lot of time delving deep into these personal issues, or do you feel that the conflict in your relationship with your significant other is more urgent and more pressing? Do you feel that your biggest stressor right now is the conflict in your relationship? Or perhaps you feel that there are other more urgent stressors - finances, child-rearing, caretaking of aging or ailing family members, key life transitions, for example - but you feel you are unable to adequately face these stressors because you feel alienated from your partner. 


How you answer these questions and where you put emphasis on will inform whether you want to prioritize individual or couples therapy. And in some cases, you may decide to do both simultaneously, though with different therapists. This is often the case with individuals who have traumas in their background - they engage in couples therapy, while also undergoing individual therapy for their own traumas.


If at the end of asking yourself a series of questions like the above, you still feel uncertain about which way to go, not to worry - that would be an excellent question to ask during an initial consultation, which many therapists offer for free before beginning to work together. If you’re looking to start therapy but are unsure about where to start, you can email me at contact@welltherapypllc.com and we can discuss which might be a better fit for you.

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