Relationship Therapy- Alone or Together?
I often hear from people who are in relationships and feeling disconnected or dissatisfied, who ask me if they need to get their partners to come in for relationship therapy and counseling—or should they just come in alone? Sometimes people want to know if they can come in and explain to me what is wrong with their mate, so that I can offer advice about how to change him or her. Or they think that once they present their case to me, I will proclaim that they are clearly the saner of the two and therefore they can go armed back to the spouse with an expert recommendation that he or she must rush in for an appointment to be fixed. Occasionally someone may just also want to come in to process how they are feeling about a relationship. They don’t feel comfortable being open or honest enough yet with the partner to say what they need to say. Or they aren’t clear about how to proceed. This is often the case when people have become so distant or disconnected that there is little emotional intimacy or when things have been so charged, and tense that there is no emotional safety.
Of course, to make the relationship better, it is generally better to bring in the other person if you can. It is easier to change the dynamics of a relationship by working with both people who participate in and are a part of that relationship.
In many instances, coming in alone is truly the only option when partners are reluctant to participate. No, you can’t change anyone except yourself. You can certainly affect and influence people to be sure. And you can change a relationship by changing the way you are in that relationship.
To be really clear again, this does not mean that if come alone, you will be able to learn some tricks to make your partner change into a new person. Simply that you can learn in individual work how to change what you contribute and therefore things might change between you.
So along those lines, there is this saying that goes something like this: “In order to love someone else, you first must love yourself.” I have been contemplating this a bit. I think the essence of this idea is perhaps not so much about loving yourself in the “I think I am the most awesome person ever” way, but more in the” I know myself and accept myself and am therefore able to recognize my needs – and therefore will be able to articulate those needs to someone else” way. This is one of the most important elements in being able to connect with someone else. In order to be close to someone and truly be connected in an intimate way, you have to be able to access who you are. You have to be able to show up.
There is a safety and security that comes from being comfortable with and accepting of yourself. It allows you to be more open to learning about and “visiting with” someone else’s experience and perspective, without being unsettled by it. For example if you discover that the person you are relating to has a different value or perspective than you do, you can be curious and empathic rather than defensive, or guarded, or challenged, or scared. You can connect, show up, and be “ok.”
So, in summary, if your relationship isn’t working well for you, invite your partner to work on it with you. If you can’t invite them because you aren’t sure how they will respond and it unsettles you to do so, come on in alone. Or if you ask, and the answer is a definite no, come on in alone. Or if you aren’t sure yet if you want to work on it or let it go, come on in alone. We can work on your growth and self-love and acceptance, and help you to love better as a result. Claire Zimmerman, LCSW