5 Times Individual Therapy Is A Better Choice Than Couples Counseling

Sometimes you have to heal yourself before you can heal your relationship.

Couple in therapy not seeing eye to eye, better choice is individual therapy Zamrznuti tonovi | Shutterstock

When couples experience severe or recurring conflict, or partners feel disconnected or unfulfilled, couples counseling seems like an obvious choice. Certainly, couples counseling can be very useful, and I have seen significant and lasting positive change in many couples I work with. However, there are some cases where one or both parties would be better off seeking individual counseling instead of, or before, couples work. 


Couples counseling requires a lot of commitment and motivation, not to mention time and money. Before going down that road, here are some instances where I believe that individual work is likely a better choice.

Here are 5 times individual therapy is a better choice than couples counseling:

1. When you are unable to acknowledge your contributions to your relationship issues

For a couple to be good candidates for couples work, partners need to be able to examine their contributions to the issues. For many people, this is difficult, and individual therapy can help them understand how their backgrounds, expectations, and behaviors are contributing to marital issues. If you are used to seeing your spouse as the “problem” and you as the “victim” (or enabler), individual therapy is a good choice before couples work. It takes two to tango in any dysfunctional situation.

@rachelcruze Two individuals make up a marriage. Make sure you’re doing the work for you and your marriage ❤️ #marriagecounseling #marriagetherapy #marriageadvice #takecareofyou #relationshipgrowth ♬ original sound - Rachel Cruze

2. When you have your mental health issues that you ignore or sweep under the rug in favor of focusing on how bad the marriage is

In this case, you need individual therapy before couples work. Productive work is less likely to happen in a couples session when one partner is struggling with untreated anxiety, depression, ADHD, PTSD, or anything else. Of course, a bad marriage can make people’s mental health issues worse. However, they do not often create mental health issues wholly from scratch, and this is essential to recognize.

RELATED: 7 Tiny Signs Your Marriage Is Wreaking Havoc On Your Health

3. When time and money are limited 

This is the case for 99% of couples. Your couples counseling will proceed much more effectively and efficiently if you have both worked on your issues at least to some degree. 


It is so hard to coordinate two people’s schedules nowadays, which is why I offer video sessions in which many working couples join from separate places. But even with the advances in technology, it is hard to get both people into session at the same time. As an estimate I am just making up right now, I would bet that if each person did three months of individual therapy before starting couples work, you could cut down the number of couples sessions you’d need from let’s say 50 to let’s say 20. Again, this is an estimate but I’m working from 10-plus years of experience with couples here.

Couple in counseling Nomad_Soul / Shutterstock

4. When sex is an issue

Sex is often an issue if one partner has a history of sexual abuse or assault, and this is important to work on in individual counseling. Couples work can certainly help partners understand how to empathize with this history, but the person who experienced abuse or assault has work to do around this issue. 


And if you know you have issues with sex, e.g. you feel repressed or closed off, or you have zero desire even hypothetically with people aside from your partner, then you will also benefit from your work.

RELATED: 6 Things To Know About Dating Someone Who Was In An Abusive Relationship Before You

5. When a partner struggles with addiction

In this case, couples counseling should be deferred until this partner is in their therapy, and possibly in a group program as well. Couples counseling can proceed in parallel with individual treatment, but there is no way for addiction to be treated solely within the context of couples work.

If any of these apply to you, I encourage you to seek individual counseling before, or at least in tandem with, couples work. There is no case in which I believe that individual counseling could hurt the progress of couples work, but many situations in which a lack of individual therapy in one or both partners undercuts how effective a couples counselor can be. Share this with your partner if you are in or are considering couples therapy.


RELATED: 8 Sad Reasons Couples Therapy Failed (According To A Licensed Therapist)

Dr. Samantha Rodman Whiten, aka Dr. Psych Mom, is a clinical psychologist in private practice and the founder of Dr. Psych Mom. She works with adults and couples in her group practice Best Life Behavioral Health.