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Couple's counseling: party of one?

It's very painful to be in a difficult marriage. Criticism, defensiveness, disrespect, control, distrust, emotional distance, and disengagement wear a marriage down to where change feels hopeless. If you’re in a difficult marriage it may be time to do something about it, even it means going to couples counseling alone.

Research indicates that most couples suffer marital problems for an average of six years before seeking counseling.  Some of the reasons include: 1) couples just give up; 2) one partner thinks the the other person is or has the problem and expects them to change; or 3) one thinks they can change the other and keeps trying far too long.

If you’re in an unhappy marriage it’s likely time to do something about it before it worsens or dies.  A Minnesota Family Institute study found that 66% of currently divorced couples wish they had tried harder to work though their differences.

But, sadly, your partner may refuse to go to counseling, saying, “I wanted to get help a long time ago, but it’s too late now!” or “You’re the one who needs therapy, not me.”  The real reason may be that he doesn’t believe there is a problem; or that she’s scared of what she will find out; or that he just doesn’t care.

Whatever the reason, it’s still possible to effect a positive change in your marriage by going to couples counseling by yourself.  Research has shown that troubled marriages can benefit even if just one spouse seeks help.

University of Denver psychologist Howard Markman led a longitudinal study of 300 couples that found that after a month or so of receiving relationship counseling, those who got it as individuals saw as much improvement in their relationships as those who got the training as a couple.

So if your partner will not go with you, consider going on your own.  Here’s how you can make the most out of going alone:

  • Clarify the goal. It isn't to change your partner because you won't be able to change hime or her, only yourself.  The goal is to understand the negative interaction pattern and your role in it. You both bear some responsibility for the problem.

  • Invite your spouse to go with you to therapy. Don’t coerce with threats of divorce. Just say you’re still going to the appointment time. You could say that the focus of the therapy sessions will be about him and your marriage, so it would be better if he came and spoke for himself.  Most of the time both partners go together at least one time, which gives the therapist a better perspective when working with just one partner.

  • Keep your focus on the present, not the past.  Identify the negative interactional patterns as they currently exist so you can identify your role in them and what you can do to change them. Don't stay stuck in past resentments.

  • Be ready and open to learn and grow. You will likely face some difficult things about the relationship, yourself, and what you need to do. Be open to learning skills you can use to improve the relationship.

  • Share what you’re learning with your partner. Let your partner know what you’re working on and ask for his or her help. The positive things involved may yet encourage him to join you in therapy.