Can Couples Therapy Work with Only One Partner?

Action-Oriented Strategies for the Couples Therapist

Michele Weiner-Davis • 3/17/2015 • 1 Comment

In our first session, Lynn, a sullen looking 27-year-old, had plenty to complain about. Her husband, Jeff, had been extremely critical of late and seemed emotionally distant from both Lynn and their 18-month-old son, Jason. Lynn felt that Jeff spent too much time with friends after work and on the weekends, and when he was home, he constantly picked on her. With little help around the house, no assistance on the parenting front and virtually no affection from Jeff, Lynn felt desperately unhappy, Lynn longed “for things to be the way they had once been.”

Lynn admitted that, because she was so unhappy, she was “crabbier” than she had been in the past. “I guess I used to be a lot nicer to him.” She offered a long list of endearing acts of kindness, like putting love notes in Jeff's lunches or calling him at work just to let him know that she was thinking of him.

As Lynn described the problems in her marriage, the circular nature of her interactions with Jeff became apparent. Were Lynn's crabbiness and standoffishness a result of Jeff's long absences from home and/or his criticisms of her, or were Jeff's absences and critical tone a result of Lynn's moodiness and withdrawal from him? Knowing that the correct answer was probably “both,” I suggested an escape route out of their marital merry-go-round. “Starting tonight, no matter what you're thinking or feeling about Jeff, act like the old Lynn. Do the things you used to do when you liked yourself more, and watch Jeff very closely to see how he responds.”

When she returned for our next appointment two weeks later, Lynn was eager to tell me about her experiment with Jeff. Right after our session, he had come home in a grouchy mood and made a critical comment during dinner. But instead of getting angry and defensive, Lynn simply agreed. She said that Jeff actually looked up at her in amazement and that the rest of the meal went without incident. In fact, Jeff discussed a situation at work that had been troubling him, something he hadn't done in months. When Lynn offered her opinion, he seemed unusually receptive. Lynn felt encouraged.

Two weeks later a very happy Lynn greeted me at the door. "Well, it happened. We made love and right after we were done, he turned to me and said, 'Lynn, I really love you.' It felt great because he hasn't said that in a long time. I can't believe he's changed so much so quickly." That was the last I saw of her.

Many therapists question whether Lynn's reports of change were real. Some worry whether, since Jeff hadn't participated in therapy, the changes will stick. Others argue that the burden for relationship change should not have been left solely on Lynn's shoulders. But the most burning question turns out to be the most basic: “How is it possible to do couples therapy with just one partner?”

This question stems from the fact that many therapists define the type of therapy they practice by taking a head count: if one person is present, they're practicing individual therapy; if two or more people are present, it's couples or family therapy. I believe this is misguided. The key to determining which brand of therapy is in use at any given point lies in the therapist's orientation and focus, not the number of people occupying space in the room.

Individual therapy and couples therapy are based on very different premises and require completely different clinical skills. Individual therapists delve into intrapsychic processes. They help clients gain insight into themselves, their family of origin and how these childhood experiences have impacted on their present behavior, attitudes, and feelings. It is the individual therapist's belief that insight is the vehicle for change; that is, once clients understand why they do what they do, they will then be able to change.

Couples/family therapists, on the other hand, are focused on the observable connections between people in the here and now. They're interested in patterns of interaction---what people say and do with one another. According to this theoretical orientation, change is brought about not by going inward, but by changing observable interactions among people.

Since women are much more likely to come in to therapy solo, teaching action-oriented techniques should be tops on therapists' lists of things to do. Change is like a chain reaction. She tips over the first domino, then he changes. When a woman who is dissatisfied in her relationship decides to change her method of getting through to her partner, she isn't doing "all the work." Assuming responsibility for creating positive change in life isn't working harder, it's working smarter.

Working with only one partner allows me to both join with and confront that person in ways that wouldn't be possible if the other partner were present. For example, I can let my client know how well I understand what he or she is feeling about the relationship or about the other partner. It allows me to connect with the person without alienating the partner. On the other hand, because I'm perceived as an ally, I am at liberty to be bolder, more challenging and, at times, less balanced than would be the case if the other partner were present.

The next time you hear, "My partner won't come in," try viewing the situation as an opportunity rather than a relationship death-sentence. Act as if you expect your work with your client to be successful. The results might be surprising! A change in you might just be a powerful catalyst for change in your clients.

This blog is excerpted from “It Takes One to Tango." Read the full article here. >>

Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!

Topic: Couples | Parenting

Tags: ED | EFT | emotion | family | family therapist | family therapists | family therapy | individual therapy | success | TED | therapist | therapists | therapy | marriage | clients

Comments - (existing users please login first)
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Name *
E-mail Address *
Website URL
Message *
1 Comment

Sunday, March 22, 2015 12:38:32 PM | posted by Ronna
This is the way I prefer to do couples therapy. I find my clients are empowered and success is faster.