Marriage Therapy or Individual Therapy

Marriage therapy or individual therapy or both: 5 tips to knowing which will be most helpful to you

People are often uncertain as to whether marriage or individual therapy will be most helpful to them. Many couples who call me ask, “do I need marriage therapy or couples therapy or both”?

If you are reading this, odds are that you want to improve your marriage. You think that your relationship could be closer, more intimate. Perhaps you feel that your marriage is in deep trouble. Or, maybe, you are somewhere in the middle. You’d like to improve things but the next steps are not obvious to you.

That is, you wonder if you, or your partner, should seek couple’s therapy or whether individual psychodynamic therapy would  better serve you. Or, maybe you are considering doing both!

Here are 5 things things that you should consider in making this decision.

1. Are your relationship difficulties familiar to you?

Do you recognize the difficulties that you’re having with your partner? For example, let’s say that your partner just can not seem to fully commit to you.  At first blush, it seems like she has a problem. However, as you reflect you realize that your last three girlfriends wrestled with the same demons. And you recall that your mother bailed on your father in a similar fashion. Therefore, you find yourself wondering, why do I keep ending up here?

Since this seems to be a recurrent pattern for you, consider seeking individual psychodynamic psychotherapy or psychoanalysis. Likely, you need help becoming aware of how and why you are repeating these painful patterns.

Recognizing a pattern doesn’t mean that you are, solely, responsible for these difficulties, likely your partner has a pattern too!

This isn’t to say that the difficulties are all attributable to you. You know the old saying, “it takes one to tango”. 🙂 No. There’s a reason why that’s NOT the saying. You have your difficulties. Of course, your partner has their contribution. In fact, if your partner’s commitment difficulties are familiar, this could be a sign that you may, unconsciously, seek out a partners who have a fear of intimacy.

However, it’s important for you understand your role so that you can be available for a healthy relationship, with this partner – or someone in the future. That isn’t to say that couple’s therapy wouldn’t be a useful adjuvant to your individual therapy because, often, the mix is the magic elixer.

Sometimes entering both individual and couple’s therapy is the most efficacious path

In fact, I’ve found that, for the people who I see, obtaining individual and couple’s therapy, simultaneously, can have a synergistic effect. Just make sure that both psychologists, or therapists, are reading from the same page of the hymn book. I encourage people start individual psychotherapy, first. Then, after you’ve gotten a bit of traction ask your psychologist for a referral to a like-minded, person.

Here in Washington, DC, there are many skilled clinicians. So, your therapist should be able to help.

2. You’ve been married for years. However, you’ve just hit a bump in the road.

For example, maybe you and your partner were happily ensconced in Washington DC. You have jobs that you love. The kids are happy in their schools. You’ve got a gaggle of friends and family are nearby (or, if you prefer, far away :)). Suddenly, your partner is offered a once in a life time job situated in the middle of nowhere. Career-wise, it could be a game changer. However, it’s unlikely that you will be able to find anything comparable to what you have now. Plus, you’d have to start all over getting the kids situated, making new friends and finding a place to live.

In the past, you’ve been able to amicably resolve disputes but not this time. A short-term, couples therapy, might be just the ticket.

3. Do you have the same difficulties at work that you do with husband.

In deciding between marriage therapy and individual therapy, ask yourself, “are my difficulties with my husband, showing up in other settings”?

With your partner

For example, you feel that your husband is taking advantage of you. Both of you work full-time, but you take responsibility for all child care and household chores. Worse, he never says, “thank you”.  You find yourself full of resentment. As you contemplate how to rekindle your intimacy, you consider couple’s therapy with the hope that the marriage counselor will set him on the straight and narrow.

At work

However, on reflecting, you realize that you have the same difficulties a work. You are an excellent worker, yet somehow your boss gets all the credit. And he relies on you. So, you are routinely passed over for promotion.

With neighbors and friends

Similarly, with your kids and their friends, somehow, you muse that you must be the only parent who knows how to drive – because you are doing ALL of the driving.

If you decide to enter marriage counseling you can address these difficulties as they occur in your marriage. However, given that your struggle with self-assertion across settings, individual psychodynamic psychotherapy or psychoanalysis offers a more thorough going approach.

Again, one can always do both

Of course, in this situation, it is not an either or. You can, indeed, seek out both. However, my advice would be to start with individual psychodynamic therapy. In this way, you can get some self-understanding; this self-awareness will catalyze your marital work, making it more effective.

As you read this, you may be thinking, “what about my husband? He’s taking advantage of me, or at least taking me for granted. Shouldn’t he get individual psychotherapy”? Probably. However, doing your own work may well lead him to recognize that he has a thing or two to address. And if it doesn’t, the good news — you get to take your new insights …. along with the concomitant increase in self-awareness everywhere you go! In short, doing your own “work” can open doors for you both inside your mind and in your life!

4. You love your partner but you are afraid of being too far or too close.

Sometimes you worry about being rejected, dumped, abandoned. At other times, you worry about being taken over. Maybe you find yourself provoking a fight for little rational reason or distancing yourself. While these difficulties can be addressed in couple’s therapy, ideally, you are better served in an intensive psychodynamic therapy or psychoanalysis where you can focus on understanding the origins of these fears. Once you have some understanding as to why you are struggling with these difficulties, couple’s work could be an ideal adjuvant to your individual work.

5. The two of you have been great together but then you had a surprising and disruptive life event.

For example, with your first two kids, you felt like rock starts. But, number 3 had special difficulties that rocked you to the core. Or, your child developed a serious or life-threatening illness. Similarly, perhaps one of your parents developed serious difficulties or a terminal illness. Maybe you or your partner have been have serious health difficulties.

Marriage counseling is often the most useful treatment in these situations. In this way, couples can work together to support each other.

In Sum

Generally, I recommend marriage therapy when couples encounter a disruptive life event. In contrast, when one or both individuals recognize that longstanding, entrenched difficulties are interfering with intimacy in the marriage or couple’s relationship, I recommend starting with individual therapy.  Of course, there is no “one size fits all”. If you are uncertain as to how to proceed, you should feel free to reach out to your prospective therapist for guidance as to how to proceed.

8 tips to finding a marriage counselor in Washington, DC

Benefits of couple’s therapy

Warning signs of marital trouble

At Johns Hopkins: Freud lives (article about faculty member Dr. Lynn Friedman

Beyond couple’s therapy, as a Training and Supervising Psychoanalyst, a Clinical Psychologist and Clinical Supervisor, I devote much of my time to psychodynamic psychotherapy, psychoanalysis and clinical supervision.

If you are interested in a consultation with me feel free to call: 240.483.3530. 

This article does NOT constitute advice for any specific person. Rather, it is provided for informational purposes, only. For personalized evaluation and recommendations, those who are wrestling with the issues explored are encouraged to seek consultation from a psychologist or other mental health professional within their locale. Here’s a list of psychoanalytic institutes through out the United States.









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Dr. Lynn Friedman

Dr. Lynn Friedman, Ph.D., FABP, is a Clinical Psychologist, a Supervising and Training Analyst, and a Clinical Supervisor in full-time, private practice. She provides evaluation, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as supervision to psychoanalysts-in-training and other mental health professionals. Beyond this, she is a board certified, psychoanalyst who teaches at Johns Hopkins University and the Washington Baltimore Center for Psychoanalysis.

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I provide psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, clinical consultation, supervision & executive coaching. If you are seeking consultation from a psychologist, psychoanalyst, in DC, feel free to call me: 240.483.3530.