Relationship Therapy vs. Individual Therapy: Which One is Right for You?

If you're here, I'm guessing your relationship is in trouble. In fact, it probably has been for months (or maybe years). Your life feels pretty miserable right now, and it's hard to tell whether it's because the relationship isn't working or because something's "wrong" with you. Is it your shit, or their shit? How do you choose what to work on? 

In general, I recommend investing in both couples therapy and individual therapy if possible. And get your partner(s) their own therapist(s), too. In other words, it's their shit AND your shit. (Such is the nature of relationships.) You’ll probably discover that you can make better use of relationship therapy sessions when you’re also in individual therapy, and vice versa.

Some of our shit comes out only in the context of relationships, and it can be valuable to have a relationship therapist who's seeing the whole dynamic rather than just hearing one person's side of it. At the same time, our personal stuff can get activated in relationship therapy and it could be really helpful to get some dedicated time to sort through what's coming up, via individual therapy.

If you need to choose between one or the other, here are some tips.

If you think your relationship is the main problem:

Trust your gut and see a relationship therapist. The fact that you see the relationship as the site of the problem reflects what is likely a healthy balance of personal accountability and realism about your situation. Plus, a good relationship therapist will refer you to an individual therapist if it becomes apparent that some of your relationship issues are stemming from personal stuff that would be better worked on in individual therapy. And they'll be able to give you some referrals to individual therapists so you don't have to go hunting for one yourself. Easy.

If you think you're the main problem in the relationship:

Then individual therapy will be the obvious choice for you--which does not mean it's actually true that you're the sole reason the relationship is on the rocks! You might be the kind of person who takes responsibility for everything, even stuff that should not be your responsibility. Hypercompetent "fixer" types can fall into the trap of believing it's their job alone to save a relationship from failing. That faulty belief is a super important thing to address in individual therapy. 

If your partner is the one telling you that you're the problem--as in, when you bring up relationship therapy, they say, "I don't need to go to therapy. You're the one who needs therapy," that's a red flag for an unhealthy and possibly abusive relationship dynamic. Get yourself some individual therapy to help you get clear about what's really happening. (Your partner probably isn't going to agree to come anyway.) And if you're at all afraid of physical violence or material harm to yourself or your kids, get a safety plan in place ASAP. 

If you think your partner is the main problem:

If your partner has been suggesting that you go to relationship therapy together, and you've been telling them "I don't have a problem. You're the one who needs therapy," that suggests to me that you're not taking enough responsibility for what's going on. If you're assigning all the blame to your partner, then already it's clear that part of the responsibility lies within you. Because even if it's true that your partner has managed to cause all the problems, why are you still with them? You should seriously consider relationship therapy, and also find an individual therapist to help you figure out why you're staying with someone who seems to be the cause of your misery. 

If you know something's wrong but you can't quite get yourself to commit to relationship therapy:

Start with individual therapy. It will give you a chance to begin figuring out exactly what doesn't feel right to you, and help you develop the clarity and courage to make some changes to your relationship (which might also mean getting the courage to finally call that relationship therapist). Plus, your individual therapist will be able to refer you to some good relationship therapists, which might help reduce at least one barrier to making that phone call. 

Why I Work with Individuals

I hope it's clear that even though I don't personally work with couples or other relationship configurations in my practice, I believe relationship therapy is great. I've got lots of fantastic colleagues who work with couples and other relationship configurations, and I'm grateful for the important work they do.

That said, while couples or relationship therapy is an awesome resource for addressing the difficult dynamics in an existing relationship, I find that adding individual therapy for each partner can be a game changer. 

Besides this, most of the people I work with are already too good at attending to their partner(s) at the expense of their own individual needs, and sometimes this dynamic gets played out in relationship therapy too. That’s why I believe it’s so important to attend extra closely to the individual. If you're already in relationship therapy and don't feel like you're being understood or having your needs taken seriously, you might need some extra support believing your voice deserves to be heard in your relationship. 

The other reason I love working with individuals is that the relationship doesn't need to continue in order for our work to continue. I find that there's so much potential for healing and transformation in seeing people through dating experiences, partnerships, separations, and other relationship transitions.

"Relationship work" happens in individual therapy too--it just looks a little different. My focus is on helping you be the kind of person you want to be in all the roles you occupy (partner, friend, parent, child, coworker, roommate), rather than focusing exclusively on the health of one specific relationship. 

Intrigued? Learn more about how I work with relationships in individual therapy.