Couples Therapy for One: To Fix a Marriage, Some Go Alone

In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Bernstein explains how some partners are seeking individual therapy to better their couple’s relationship.

Many couples in troubled marriages wait too long to get help. By the time both spouses agree to counseling, the relationship has often been strained to the breaking point. A common scenario is one partner wants to go and the other does not. As a result, some couples therapists are adapting traditional couples-counseling techniques for use with one spouse only.

Colleen Orme, 48, a marketing consultant living in Great Falls, Va., did this several years ago, after her marriage hit a rough patch. She and her husband sought counseling, but after Mr. Orme decided to discontinue couples therapy, she completed the sessions without him. “We spend a lot of time in marriages trying to fix the other person,” she says. “I changed my approach and decided to focus on how I can become happy.”

At the University of Denver, unpublished results from a five-year longitudinal study of 300 long-term couples suggest that a month or so after receiving relationship-skills training, those who got it as individuals saw as much improvement in their relationships as those who got the training as a couple. A year and a half after the training, the Denver researchers found that couples where the women attended sessions alone reported being happier than couples where the men attended alone.

Howard Markman, a psychologist and the study’s lead researcher, says the women learned relationship skills more easily and were better at teaching them to their partners. Women also are more comfortable talking about feelings and the strong emotions that arise in couples therapy.

The process works best if both partners participate, experts say. But if just one partner is willing, a couples-based approach can be substantially more effective for the marriage than traditional individual psychotherapy, Dr. Markman says. This is because couples therapy teaches practical skills for improving the relationship; individual therapy often focuses on uncovering patterns from childhood and other experiences.

For a more in depth look at Elizabeth Bernstein’s article, including a specific “how to” toolbox, click here

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