How Couples Counseling Differs From Individual

Couple counseling.

There is an obvious difference between couple and individual counseling in that another person is in the room. What may not be obvious here is that 1 + 1 doesn’t necessarily equal 2 when it comes to the dynamics of the session. There is also a relationship in the room, which can be contentious.

I am not in the business of evaluating which types of counseling are more difficult (I see individuals for relationship issues, too), nor do I care :). What is important is that there can be a fair amount of differences for those who have tried individual counseling.

  1. The counselor’s use of interruptions is often necessary — Many people in a romantic relationship want to get their counselor “on their side.” Many are concerned with how the counselor perceives them. Many want to talk about the last fight (without concerning oneself with how to make it better the next time). The reality is the content of conversations is often irrelevant if left unchecked. It’s probably not about who forgot to put the milk away or who made the best points during the last heated discussion. It’s about understanding the patterns and cycles that occur. Understanding the patterns may require counselor interruptions to keep things on track. Some experts recommend counselors who have permission to video record their sessions watch them back without sound. Body language and expressions can say more than words.
  2. It may not seem this way, but validating one perspective doesn’t mean invalidating another — What people feel is what they feel. As long as it’s honest (I assume honesty), what a person feels is accurate for them. Perhaps a partner thinks the other “should” feel differently or have a different way of processing an issue, but that doesn’t make either person wrong.
  3. More direction is usually necessary. I work with highly intelligent clients who have often accomplished amazing things. Situations like a potential divorce can cause otherwise successful people to lose control (for reasons that make sense). Individual counseling often asks the client what they want to work on and lets the client take the lead. Couples counseling often requires more direction from the counselor. I generally still start sessions by asking a couple if there is anything they want to “accomplish” (accomplish is a very key word), but I am prepared to provide direction as well.
  4. Your therapist likely needs to lead and control more of the session. With two people in a room with likely mixed agendas, a marriage counselor needs to be mindful of giving people enough time to speak and jumping in when the topic turns into high conflict without a likely resolution.
  5. Someone may walk away upset, even after tried and true therapy approaches — One example is discernment counseling. This type of counseling often occurs when at least one person has at least one foot out the door. The purpose is to help the couple clarify whether they want to work on the marriage, keep the status quo, separate, or divorce. Without being pushed either way, if one person decides they are done and can stand up to challenges about that decision, discernment counseling has succeeded by its definition. The other person may be heartbroken, but the process has helped make a well-thought-out decision (ideally, it’s mutual, but not always). Most discernment counseling sessions involve the couple choosing to work on the marriage, but not always.

There are many more differences, but above is a quick top five.