Couples Counselling or Individual Therapy or Both?

In this article Sebastian sheds some light on the decision making between couples counselling and individual therapy. Each service has specific advantages and is in some cases more suitable than the other.

How does Couples Therapy work?

In the couples counselling setting both partners participate at the same time and are oftentimes in the same room – either in-person or remotely via video-conference. As couples therapist I typically combine speech therapy and experiential approaches.

Experiential approaches highlight the experience in the present moment. For example the verbal and non-verbal behaviour of partners when they speak and when they listen to each other. This increased awareness is key to emotional regulation. When we are calm and open, we can connect in the loving way we once knew.

Individual sessions can be part of the couples process. In my practice these are restricted to a few sessions and with the clearly delineated purpose of serving the couples process. For example by fostering my working alliance with each partner, by tuning in to specific needs and by understanding the motivation and commitment to the process in more depth.

Identifying the “signature moves”

My goal is to identify and delineate the dynamic in a couple and the “signature moves” of each partner. We define a stress cycle with disappointing and hurtful interactions already early in the process. Behaviour often indicates that partners feel stuck, distant or unfulfilled.

In session, we flesh out the “infinity loop” of negative (and also positive) moves. The couple then becomes aware of many possibilities to introduce improvements and of opportunities to abandon the loop altogether. In short, partners learn to detect and stop the way they trigger each other.

Advantages of couples counselling

An advantage of the couples process is, that relationship issues are being addressed openly amongst partners. My presence offers a neutral and balanced arena where each voice counts the same. I also offer guidance in leading difficult conversations and often model the way of finding the right language to express needs and experiences.

How does Individual Counselling work?

In the individual counselling setting my guiding principle is to identify and delineate the main pressure points of the person in front of me. This can happen online or in-person. Most of the benefit of therapy stems from the caring and understanding attunement between the client and myself.

I frequently apply mindfulness to help increase awareness of the impact and meaning triggers have. I trust that problem-solving and finding solutions is hardly the problem for the people I work with. Instead, we need to better address stress and dysregulation.

The regulation of emotion, behaviour and body is key to our well-being and to form and maintain relationships. I typically assess for and guide through three inner strength:

  • Self-Awareness – ability to step out of auto-pilot, be present and open
  • Self-Acceptance – ability to be compassionate and to lead one-self
  • and Self-Regulation – ability to be ventral vagal more often

One-off couples sessions can be part of the individual process. In my practice these are used to hear the partner’s concerns and getting to know “the significant other” in the relationship.

Advantages of Individual Therapy

An advantage of individual counselling is, that each partner deals with their own process of personal and emotional growth at their own pace and in full control of the process. It allows to work through family background, personality and trauma in a safe space. This in order to grow a “teflon skin” and reduce your internal reactivity.

Which one is best for you?

Individual counselling helps to address old baggage that you bring into the relationship. That could be childhood trauma, unfinished business with an ex, unhealthy lifestyle and addiction, mood disorders or drama in the family of origin.

Couples therapy helps to address recurring cycles of arguments, unhelpful patterns of emotional reactivity, couples skill building (i.e. love-languages, non-violent communication, speaking from the heart, 5 losing strategies, …) and to stay tuned after an attachment injury has been processed.

Please note that the division above is simplifying and showcasing typical applications of therapy. All of the above can be worked with in either setting.

The outcome strongly depends on a safe and respectful relationship with the therapist as much as your motivation and understanding that you bring to the process.

Interview Sebastian – How to decide between Couples and Individual Counselling?
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