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?

Is a “healing separation” the same as a “relationship detox”?

In this article I will draw parallels between variations of fasting and this exceptional approach to healing relationships. How can strict attachment fasting safe your marriage? Much like with food, when things seem too complicated, painful and hopelessly constipated there is the radical option of stopping everything you have tried so far -entirely.

Many couples are facing challenges in their long-term committed relationships. For some partners issues grow bigger over time, hibernated for years of marriage or vegetated under a blanket of complacency and the distractions of life. Others find themselves having to deal with crises, infidelity or unprecedented emotional episodes of their other halves, which manifest suddenly as outbursts or realisations of something broken.

In my practice I typically witness three pathways: A few couples sadly default back into their familiar and suboptimal patterns soon after having started the work. Then there are couples who come to the mutual or one-sided conclusion to end their relationship. This often turns out to be a deeply transformative and insightful process for both if properly supported by an experienced marriage counsellor.

And then there is a majority of suffering partners who want to work on staying together. In my opinion this can only mean to leave a good part of the relationship as we knew it behind and to start writing a new book – not just a chapter.

I do sometimes come across couples who are genuinely invested in their love-attachment and long-term commitment, but find themselves pulled into mutual suffocation, disappointment and poisonous energy that often also bleeds into family and friends. Like a nuclear power plant without regulating control rods, their reacting comes dangerously close to overheating and disaster.

A relationship detox can help to (re-)install emotional control rods for a safe and loving attachment. In order to rebuild their power plant of love some couples decide for a healing separation. Much as in any detox fasting, the primary goal here is to decouple the feed – of food or love – and internal processes of body and mind. Giving the individual time to adjust and to awaken self-healing forces that each living being carries.

Couples counselling helps to buffer the imbalance between a driving partner and a typically more reluctant one. The safety of a long-term relationship is fragile when emotions are faced with honesty. Individual counselling and therapy are crucial for both partners to maximise personal growth during the time apart.

In the same way detox fasting is an extreme and temporary way of cleansing, a healing separation is limited in time and targets to activate transformative processes of personal growth and development in each partner. For some couples it is the last resort and can be promising if mutually understood, agreed upon and with professional support.

Relationships that can benefit from an attachment detox typically experience several of the following symptoms:

  • The relationship dynamic feels like wearing a heavy cloak denying you the air to breath
  • Feeling emotionally constrained, often sensing a connection with childhood trauma
  • Not having been alone or lived in a way of self-reliance and independence
  • You actually want to divorce the old relationship but not your partner

Again, in the same way it is important to prepare for a detox fasting – mentally, physically and practically – it is essential to be clear of the what, when and how of the temporary decoupling. Expect the beginning to be difficult and even painful – you need to make it through a first phase of adjustment with “hunger-pangs”, cravings and emotional lows. After that, it gradually becomes easier, but with no certainty about how body, heart and mind will react.

The more you focus on what you want to detox from, the harder it will become. Or: The less you obsess with change, the better you enable it. One pitfall of each fasting diet is for the mind to find substitutes – “if I can’t eat, I now binge-watch Netflix”. In the same way the relationship detox can be misunderstood as a free zone for sexual and dating experiments. However understandable some motivations here might be, replacing one partner with another is defeating the purpose.

Relationship Trauma. Reliving your parents’ issues.

Witnessing a parent being unfaithful can be deeply traumatic for a child. There can be feelings of betrayal and guilt, and often these feelings can be carried into adulthood, regardless of whether or not the parents reconcile their relationship or go onto divorce. It is likely that issues with trust and trusting manifest and take a toll on long-term committed relationships.
The trauma of witnessing infidelity in your parent’s marriage may have left you with the tendency to project your feelings of blame onto your own spouse or partner. Perhaps you see many of their actions as selfish, perhaps you are suspicious of them without good reason, or perhaps the whole idea of forming a deep attachment fills you with anxiety.  You might even recognise that your behaviour is unreasonable and has no foundation in reality, but still feel powerless to stop it. 
One catch with these behaviours is, that they may generate emotional damage in themselves: The great trouble with the kinds of behaviour associated with trust issues and anxiety around attachments is that they’re self fulfilling. These issues can often cause you to be jealous and untrusting of your spouse or partner and lead to controlling behaviour, or even punishing behaviour. Actions like withholding affection and shutting down communication are common. As a result of this, you alienate your partner and might even push them further away. 

Like so many things, the first step to recreate a secure bond in the marriage is to recognise that a problem is there. Reading this blog is a great indication that you are enquiring into the sources of your dissatisfaction. Once you are aware and acknowledge the underlying feelings, you can begin to move towards healing. Ultimately, you can take ownership of the trauma you faced in your past, and accept that it’s truly in your past. From there, you can allow yourself to experience whatever strong emotions may show up, like jealousy, anxiety, insecurity. They are reflecting on your partner and on your relationship, but they can be dealt with in many more helpful ways.
It’s easy enough to see it written down in a neat paragraph, but making these changes in your own life and your own relationship is often easier said than done. Consider the support of a counsellor to guide you and your partner through the process of rediscovering the trust and happiness in your relationship. We speak with lots of couples struggling with issues surrounding trust, communication and overcoming traumas. Our approach is to help you identify where troubles arise, and overcome challenges together. 

Borderline-Narcissistic Couples – why so much drama and attraction?

Personality disorders occur along psychological dimensions. A person can rank higher or lower along various dimensions. For example, on the dimension of SPONTANEITY one can rank from boringly / routine-like sticking to plans to being overly impulsive and unpredictable in their next actions.

There is no clear cut to decide if someone is spontaneous or not. We can merely measure if someone shows more or less of a typical characteristic or symptom. This happens on a continuum, i.e. from “little spontaneous” to “sometimes” to “very much” or “very often spontaneous” to “always”.

In my work with individuals and couples I work along those cognitive-behavioural and emotional dimensions, which means that I don’t use diagnoses. It is more helpful to bring awareness to beliefs, patterns of behaviour and emotional as well as physical experience. Having said that, please understand the classifications below as shades of grey rather than black and white.

The dimension “Sense of Self”

People diagnosed with NPD generally have a stable but false image of themselves and often believe they are of primary importance in everybody’s life or to anyone they meet. They are often arrogant, display snobbish, disdainful, or patronising attitudes and are needy specifically for the admiration and envy of others. They hold persistent fantasies about attaining success and power and exploit other people for personal gain with a lack of empathy for others.

Whereas people with BPD often demonstrate and present with: Overpowering emotion with rapid changes in mood and trouble regulating the intensity and onset, intense unstable interpersonal relationships, fragmented sense of self, need to be attached with abandonment anxiety (actual or perceived) with tendency to feel shunned and abused and engaging in impulsive behavior. They can be Chameleons who adopt an “identity” that suits the moment to make others accept them. They can exhibit empathy, feel remorse and guilt.

One of the challenges for narcissistic and borderline behaviours in a lacking or confused sense of self. This often combines with a struggle to build and maintain secure and enduring relationships and sexuality. Both probably were facing adversities in early childhood when an injured sense of self occurred. Each with a tendency to lie, manipulate, act out destructively and to feel offended easily. Both frequently experiencing internalised or externalised anger.

What is the attraction and why is it so strong?

People desire partners who have traits which they lack and which can meet their own needs. A narcissistic person presents as very confident and charismatic thereby very appealing and attractive to the borderline’s lack of self-esteem. The colourful exaggerated successes attract a person with a fragmented sense of self who idealises a strong sense of self.

The narcissistic manipulative controlling nature will be attracted by the borderline’s fear of being abandoned. The NPD’s embellishments of power are attractive to the BPD’s need of stability and strength. A person with BPD is emotionally energised and can radiate this energy – often feminine erotic energy – which matches the NPD level of energetic grandiose ambition.

Unfortunately the mutual attraction can play out as a trauma bond. Based on traumatic experiences with an underlying readiness for abuse and to be abused. In addition based on the borderline’s dependency which matches with the narcissistic need to feel important.

What can be done to ease the pain?

While the attraction is based on reciprocal and complementary patterns, it often turns into resentment and even repulsion over time. When stress is high in the relationship, each partner evokes the unfinished business within the other. Since both types are similarly self-centred they struggle to regulate inter-personally by supporting each other.

Best chances for change and long-term success:

  1. Both are willing to work on their own trauma
  2. Both stand up for the relationship
  3. Both can see through the attraction and understand the trauma of the other

Couples Skill Building with Alain De Botton

Here is a nice read . For 200 Hong Kong Dollar I bought Alain De Botton’s latest Novel and found it entertaining, therapeutic and insightful. Well worth a read for anyone in a committed relationship with many references to marital counselling, relationship skill building and couples therapy.

De Botton describes a marriage over the course of 16 years with typical ups and downs and how the individuals who form the couple are dealing with the challenges of married life. Developmentally speaking we are following the couple through symbiosis, differentiation of self and other, practicing and (maybe) rapprochement. At the end of the book Rabih has solidified his being ready for marriage and thereby able to move closer to Kirsten without losing his ability to move apart, to give even when it is inconvenient and to deepen their bond with emotional sustenance.

We don’t have to be constantly reasonable in order to have good relationships; all we need to have mastered is the occasional capacity to acknowledge with good grace that we may, in one or two areas, be somewhat insane. De Botton

The author explores possibilities of mindsets and behaviours when the couple faces a crisis of infidelity. “…, she might have revealed the vulnerability that has lain all the while behind her annoyed demeanour: ‘I wish I could be everything to you. I wish you did not have those needs outside of me. I don’t really think your fantasies about Antonella are repulsive; I just wish there didn’t have to be – always – that imagined someone else. I know it’s madness, but what I want most is to be able to satisfy you all by myself’.”

Every couple in a long-term relationship will pursue one of three possible pathways. Two lovers can intensify and prolong their symbiosis, they can move forward into differentiation and beyond or facing a separation of some shape or form.

Learning how to be more curious, open minded and able to identify and deal with one’s own emotional reactions – not independent from the partner, but separate from the other – is the only skilful way forward. When Kirsten is labeled “materialistic” she could have reacted with a sense of ease and the willingness to find out more about what drove Rabih to such statement. She did not – for reasons that lie in between attachment figures.
“(Rabih”s) chosen technique is distinctive: to call Kirsten materialistic, shout at her and then, later, to slam two doors. … Had Rabih picked up some better teaching habits, his lesson might have unfolded very differently. For a start, he would have made sure both of them went straight to bed and were well rested before anything was tackled. The next morning, he might have suggested a walk, perhaps King George V Park after they’d picked up a coffee and a pastry to have on a bench. …
… Then, rather than accuse her, he would have implicated himself in the behaviour he wished to focus on. ‘Teckle, I find myself jealous of some of those types we know”, he would have started. “If I hadn’t gone into architecture, we could have had a summer villa, and I would have loved it in a lot of ways. I am the first one to adore the sun and the Mediterranean. I’m so sorry for letting us both down.” … “What I also want to say, though, and it is probably a lesson for both of us, is that we’re very lucky in a host of other ways that we should at least try not to forget. … and that we know how to have a lot of fun on our rain-sodden summer holidays in the Outer Hebrides in a crofter’s cottage that smells a little of sheep dung’.”
The challenges arise between the partners when they communicate and produce infinity loops of unhelpful and unfortunate mutual triggering of disappointments and trauma:
“… Throughout their relationship the two of them fail comprehensively at both tasks, teaching and learning. At the first sign that either one of them is adopting a pedagogical tone, the other assumes that they are under attack, which in turn causes them to close their ears to instruction and to react with sarcasm and aggression to suggestions, thereby generating further irritation and weariness in the mind of the fragile ‘instructing’ party.”
Quotes from De Botton, Alain. The Course of Love (2016). Penguin Random House. UK.

COUPLEMENTARY episode three

Previously on couplementary: HE wanted to bring up his dissatisfaction with her and expected some sort of an acknowledgement. HE yielded HER anger and the situation escalated.

Usually when we achieve the opposite of what we intended, we get annoyed. Very annoyed. From the outside and with a little distance these are often situations that comedies are based on. You attempt one thing and what you get is exactly the opposite. Only worse.

My client can’t see the funny side to this emotional episode of his married life. They both have now reached a point where their brains and bodies fill with anger, hurt and annoyance. Amygdalae gone wild. It is clear to HIM that she is now about to throw a tantrum. HE has been at this point many times. It leads down a path of escalation and damage – verbal destruction at least. What are HIS options right now? Two strategical streams open up: calming things down or engaging in an argument. From which several tactical versions of action arise in his mind (here in order of escalation and potential for disaster):

  1. He can apologise immediately and hope to calm her down (caution! can backfire badly)
  2. He can freeze and – try to – sit it out until she calms down (alright, worth a trial)
  3. He can tell her that he does not want to talk this through at this heated stage (and hope her rational brain can still process – good luck amateur!)
  4. He can leave or at least be quiet until both have calmed down
  5. He can engage in a full blown fight in order to make clear that he is right and she is wrong

He “decides” for option E). He tells her with an angry face that he will not continue with this argument right there right then. This now prompts her to storm off, which helps both to settle for option D) as a joint effort. They now have time to calm down and he feels much calmer already after a few minutes. HIS rumination about what just happened however only just started. He thinks “I feel more stuck than before. Why can we not just say sorry and acknowledge what we do to each other? Why is it so difficult …”. 
They will both reconcile a few hours later. They will hug and kiss and maybe hold each other. Without words. He will not bring the subject up ever again. He tried that before – for many years – and the only outcome it ever had, was going back to square one, restarting the fight, leading to more hurt and more escalation. Very destructive. It was never possible to just talk about one issue separately. Every attempt to do so always lead to a tornado of emotion on his partner’s side that sucked in all kinds of issues and brought up bad things from the past.
Their arguments got never resolved, the underlying triggers never discussed. Until the next big fight.
Other questions you might ask just for your own amusement: 
Why does it seem that he is always ordering and then gets the blame when something goes wrong? If the roles were reversed, would he do the same? Hypothetically: Would it be a big deal if he had made a mistake and ordered coffee instead of tea or white rice instead of red? Or maybe ask the question the other way around, what is going on for her to have some sort of a heightened reaction?


Previously on couplementary: In episode one we started to follow HIM into a scene in which HE feels repeatedly falsely accused by HER within a short time span.

What now unfolds is the signature version of their infinity loop of unhelpful emotional interaction. It is really unfortunate for the two that HIS coffee arrived first – minutes before HER tea is brought – because here is where their unhelpful emotional dance begins …

Noticing the waiter bringing coffee instead of tea, she reacts in an uneasy way. In this moment she seemingly does not believe him to have ordered HER favourite tea and apparently accuses HIM of having ordered coffee instead. HER tone of voice, facial expression and posture signal that SHE is upset and angry with him. HE has it that she accuses HIM to have either screwed up or bluntly manipulated the order to HER disadvantage and to HIS advantage. It confuses him at first. Then it starts to annoy him, because HE must take this personal.
He strongly wants to talk to her about what just happened and how he feels about it. So he says to her “I feel hurt and annoyed by the way you just addressed me. You did a similar thing just yesterday asking me repeatedly if I really had ordered brown rice and I wonder why you keep doing this.”. She says: “You do the same thing to me all the time. You never listen!”
HE says “I want to talk to you about what just happened. Just stay with this situation right here.” He is aiming for an apology from her, since he finds himself to be in the right. Deep down he feels that she does not trust him to have ordered correctly and on her behalf. That hurts strongly, because it would mean that he can’t be the man for her, which he very much wants to be. The meaning thing goes deeper even: If she does not trust, that he carries out simple tasks with her best interest in mind and heart, then she might not rely on him in more important topics and tasks. Ultimately this would mean that she can’t surrender to him, with him and in him.
SHE says “That’s typical you only want to talk about this one thing. You never want to talk about all the other things that you do to me.” He is now puzzled and wants to know what other things. He says “What other things?” She says “Of course you don’t remember.” At other times she would say “You always want details, this is not about details.” Or she would say “What you do wrong does not count, you only want to bring up my faults. Everything is always my fault.”
At any of these points he realises – time and again – that he will not be able to discuss the one thing he wanted to bring up. He also realises that she will not acknowledge having hurt him with her way of questioning him repeatedly, her pitched voice and her angry face. Instead, it seems like he has now opened a can of worms and that her emotion now spirals out of control. This was not his intend. He did not want her to feel bad. What he actually wanted was any version of “You are right. Of course you acted in my best interest. I am your wife, we love each other and I can fully rely on you. You are my man. That is the reason why I am with you, because you know what makes me happy.”
He gets none of that. At all. By bringing up his dissatisfaction with her – it gets worse.


My target as an emotion-focused therapist for couples is to find out and define the signature “dance” of each couple I am working with. With regard to relationship issues it does not matter if I am working with both partners or if I am seeing an individual. The approach in Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT) remains the same.
In this and some of my following blogs I want to highlight some of the typical dynamics seen from the perspective of one of my individual male clients. He has been married for a few years and since the beginning felt strongly affected by their quarrels. Each time they fight he suffers greatly from an overwhelming sense of being stuck and trapped. He realised that they seldom moved forward from these fights. They reconcile as a couple in their daily lives, but the underlying triggers remain unresolved and unspoken about.

Most men in committed long-term relationships really only have one mission: to make their spouses happy. It hurts to feel accused to have done something that the other would not approve of or without consent.

This client of mine had a recent couple experience in a restaurant that went like this: Coming back from the ladies’ she asks him if he had ordered while she was away. She wanted him to order her favourite beverage – let’s say a certain kind of tea that she admires. He smiles at her and tells her in a loving way that he did exactly that. A few minutes pass and she asks again. He looks at her and re-assures her that he did order exactly what she likes. They have been to the same restaurant many times and the chances of him getting the order wrong are very slim. Frail actually.When the waiter arrives with a pot of coffee, she turns to him in an uneasy way and asks in a harsh tone if he really ordered her favourite tea. He clarifies that he ordered coffee for himself plus her usual pot of tea. Internally however, he registers that he feels annoyed and a bit accused and mistrusted. His wife’s questioning and her tone of voice seem unfair to him.
In a very similar situation the day before, she questioned him several times if he had actually ordered brown rice to their dishes, because one dish is being delivered with white rice. They always order brown rice when there is a possibility. In this restaurant patrons have to write down their orders on small pieces of paper. This is how he can later proof to her, that he had written “BROWN RICE” to each dish. Unmistakably.
Showing her evidence of his right-doing is of utmost importance to him, when he feels wrongly accused. And that is exactly how he feels right now. His previous attempts to reassure her that he DID order on her behalf and in her best interest went unheard. It is so hurtful for my client because deep down he feels not trusted and part of him feels trapped in a relationship with a partner who at times loses her sense of ease – at times so suddenly that he then feels helpless and soon after hopeless.

Sebastian on Brexit

Relationship breakups are never happy, easy and seldom quick. Most breakups instill emotional pain in both partners – no matter who triggered it and who was struck. The process of separation follows a wave-lines of emotional, physical and communicational intensity – oscillating between distancing and closeness.
In breakups where one partner decides to move on and pursue a separate life on his or her own, the other is often more or less taken aback and hence more or less in shock. The phase of shock can manifest in emotional numbness, paralisation or denial – pretending that nothing happened and trying to continue life as usual – thereby not accepting the change in reality.

However, more often than not have we seen the passive partner of the breakup going faster through the motions of anger, protest, sadness and despair than expected. And what’s more, faster than the active partner who was driving the breakup.

The active partner probably fantasised about the time after the breakup and thereby idealised the regained freedom of single-life and all the things that he or she would not have to deal with anymore – the flaws and annoyances of the couple. But then he or she realises that there are many things that suck about being alone and many of the fantasies where just that – idealised castles in the air.
The mood and confidence of the active partner (the one who wanted the breakup in the first place), can be challenged when the passive partner, who suddenly found her/himself without a partner, now becomes more and more active. These partners can be observed as flourishing and transforming often out of reflection and opportunity.
In order to handle and manage the emotional and technical process of separation, it can be very helpful to seek the guidance and support of a couples counsellor who understands the grief and painful experiences both partners go through and who can help to find an accepting and appreciative way of communicating. A smoother transition helps to appreciate and preserve what was good between two people in a respectful way.

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