Marital Counseling vs. Individual Psychotherapy
(Provided by How to Stop Your Divorce)

I explain to new client couples how marital counseling differs from individual psychotherapy. While it may seem obvious, individual psychotherapy focuses on the individual. In other words, the individual is the client. There is one person who has a problem and, as a result, is experiencing some level of distress. The individual alone is the “symptom bearer.” The goal of individual psychotherapy is to find symptom relief by exploring the individual’s unconscious to discover whatever it is that keeps them stuck in their problematic situation. In order to find solutions. it is often helpful to explore the individual’s past to better understand the origin of their problem.

In marital counseling, the couple’s relationship is the client. While one or the other individual may be experiencing specific problems, the focus is on how the relationship functions or how the two people relate to one another. The goal of marital counseling is to resolve relationship problems. An individual’s problems are relevant to the marital counseling process only to the degree that the problem negatively impacts the relationship dynamics. In order to find solutions it is often helpful to explore the history of the couple’s relationship to better understand the origin of their problem.

Further complicating matters, a marriage is really two relationships. One is the relationship between a wife and her spouse. The other is the relationship between a husband and his spouse. Each individual has his or her own needs that may or may not be met at any given time. If it were possible to have a perfect marriage, each individual would have 100% of their needs met 100% of the time. In the worst, neither ever has their needs met. Numerous levels of individual satisfaction lie in between. It is easily understandable that one person may be perfectly satisfied in a marriage while the other is not. By definition, a good marriage is one in which both partners have most of their needs met most of the time.

While Michael and Nancy were both frustrated with the other, she seemed more satisfied with their marriage than he did. It is likely that more of Nancy’s needs were being met than was true for Michael. She wanted to stay and he wanted to go. Still, neither had a handle on “the problem.”

I find that identifying “the problem” in an unsatisfactory marriage relationship is something of a myth. Relationships are exquisitely complicated. To believe that only one problem exists is a gross oversimplification. For the most part, people are basically intelligent and relatively competent problem solvers. If resolving marital conflict merely involved identifying “the problem,” most marriages would be problem free! In reality, conflicted marital relationships have many layers. The difficulty in understanding conflicts lies in our inability to see and/or understand problematic relationship dynamics.

In spite of their combined intelligence and problem solving abilities, neither Michael nor Nancy was able to understand the complexity of their problematic dynamics of their relationship. Question – Why couldn’t they see what was wrong? Answer – Neither could be objective about their marriage. When we feel hurt or frightened, it is our natural tendency to look outside of ourselves to identify the threat. Michael and Nancy were not exceptions. Each focused on the other as the source of “the problem.” Neither ever considered that they too played a part in what was wrong. As a result, both were miserable and Michael wanted out.


I typically see client couples one time each week for one hour. Given that there are 168 hours in a week, it is clear that we are not spending a lot of time together. For that reason, I like to end each of my counseling sessions by giving my clients homework assignments. These assignments help couples focus on some aspect of our last session’s discussion for the time between visits. I believe that the real work of marital counseling takes place outside of the counselor’s office.

Throughout this text I will use this section in each chapter to provide you with homework assignments that I encourage you to complete. Sometimes I will offer specific suggestions for new behaviors that you may want to try. At other times I will pose questions for you to think about and answer for yourself. All of these assignments are designed to help you to develop a clearer understanding of your relationship dynamics and how to handle specific situations.

Information provided by:
How to Stop Your Divorce

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