Q: I find it difficult to address one partner’s emotional issues in the context of couples therapy without derailing work on the present relationship. What can you suggest?
A: It’s common for one person in a couple to believe that the lion’s share of the problems in the relationship arises from the other’s emotional difficulties. As a firm believer that “it takes two to tango,” I try to resist joining with that point of view. But sometimes it’s just too big a stretch to see both partners’ contributions as anywhere near equal. For many years, I felt that individual therapy for the person whose reactivity and sensitivities seemed to be disproportionately adding to the couple’s problems was the only way forward. But unsurprisingly, no matter how tactful and empathic I thought I was being, that person often bristled at the recommendation, saying, “Why me? Shouldn’t she get therapy too?” Or “I react the way I do because he’s so provocative.”
Even when the person did follow through on my suggestion, individual therapy often didn’t prove to be as helpful to the couple’s interactions as I’d hoped. In part, this is because therapy can be slow going, and it’s unrealistic to expect it to have an immediate positive effect on a relationship. But sometimes individual therapy actually seemed to have a negative impact on the couple’s relationship.
Even the most systemically oriented of individual therapists is…