I used to believe effective couples therapy required both partners to be in the room, but my clients have proven me wrong.
By Mary Kay Cocharo — Last updated on Jun 22, 2023
Photo: Infusorian / shutterstock
I occasionally get calls from one partner in a marriage wanting to know if it would help for them to come into couples therapy without their partners. There are many reasons why one person is unwilling or unable to start therapy:
Perhaps the missing spouse is not interested, is wary, or had a bad experience with therapy in the past.They don’t believe that there’s a need.They don’t want to spend the money or can’t get away from work.
Sometimes, the solo caller is the wife, but more and more, the caller is the husband. I used to think that effective couples therapy always required both people in the room, but today I say to the lone potential client, “Sure, come on in!”
Why the change of heart? Frankly, I have seen troubled marriage rehabilitated by the efforts of one person doing solo couples therapy.
Yes, it’s possible to save a marriage this way — though it is far from preferable. Sometimes you simply need to make efforts in the ways that are possible, and if starting therapy without your partner is the only possible effort, it’s still worth a try.
Couples therapy vs. solo therapy
Let’s say that you and your partner find yourselves in a vicious power struggle — arguing all the time, failing to behave kindly, growing resentful, and withholding sexual interaction. It would be tempting to go into therapy to gain an ally, someone who would side with you and agree that your partner is being an awful pain in the you-know-what.
If you sought out individual therapy, it would be the therapist’s job to help you to explore your family history and discover your internal psychological patterns.
The therapist would hope that your life would improve as you gain powerful insights into your thoughts and feelings. She might even agree with you that your current spouse is thwarting your psychological growth and you’d be better off without him.
Couples therapy carries a different theoretical orientation. The belief is not so much in insight creating change, but rather in the individual examining and changing patterns of relating with their partners. The relationship, rather than the individual, is the client.
In this kind of therapy, the therapist should guide the client to view his or her approach in interactions with the other spouse. What are you saying and doing? How are you saying or doing it? How can you improve that in order to get your needs met?
An example of ‘solo couples therapy’
Let’s take the example of a husband who recently contacted me.
Ted told me that he loved his wife and was afraid that she was going to leave him. He admitted that he had been behaving badly for the past few years — working too late, going out for drinks, never including her in his plans, and not approaching her, sexually.
He wanted help but let me know that his wife, Lynn, was too angry and hopeless to join him in couples therapy.
So, I assured him that I could help him turn their dynamic around and start the process of rehabilitating a marriage, and he came to couples therapy by himself.
Is communication open and free?
At first, we explored what he was trying to communicate with his wife. He said he loved her but had definitely not been communicating that.
He had been hurt and felt emotionally abandoned when she turned her attention toward mothering. He had pulled away in order to protect himself from these feelings.
I asked him what it would be like to talk to her about his hurt. He assured me that she wouldn’t listen. Again and again, I helped him to practice that talk until he found the courage to have it with Lynn. He came in one week pleasantly surprised that she had been receptive and even a bit empathetic.
How should you behave?
Next, I got to work coaching him on how to behave more lovingly. Little by little, he started including her, giving her hugs, coming home earlier, and doing loving things for her.
I worked with him to keep him consistent with these reverse behaviors in order to build Lynn’s trust in him. He told me that it seemed harder for her to believe him than it was for him to make the necessary changes!
It took some time but eventually, Ted reported that they were enjoying the marriage again. As he put positive energy into their relationship, she relaxed and started doing nice things for him, as well. The energy that we use to protect ourselves gets freed into the spirit of connection and passion.
So, if you have a partner who does not want to work on your relationship, seek the help of a trained marriage therapist and go alone. One person can change an entire system.
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Mary Kay Cocharo is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in West Los Angeles, California.
This article was originally published at Mary Kay Cocharo’s website. Reprinted with permission from the author.