Seeking Counseling For Marital
By Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW
If your relationship isn’t working, one or other partner may suggest counseling.
The counseling of choice is couple or marital counseling.
However, some persons hold the view that they want to be seen first, so as
to inform the counselor of the issues at hand. In other circumstances, a partner
may not wish to attend. That partner may believe all the issues originates with
the other person and hence believes that person should get help for him or herself
first. When a person believes they or the other should be seen first, they also
hold the opinion that the other person can be invited into the counseling sometime
down the road.
Typically a person seen on an individual basis for a couple or marital issue
will inform the counselor how the matters at hand originate with the behavior
of the other person. If the one in counseling admits to any issues, it is more
often presented that he or she is the victim of the other’s behavior and
they may not be handling their upset well. Thus and over the course of a few
counseling sessions, the counselor can be influenced by this client inadvertently,
then aligned with the client and thus hold a view that posits culpability for
the issues at hand to the other person.
Invariably when the other person enters counseling, they then feel in a one-down
position given the pre-existing relationship between their partner and the counselor
and they will likely also feel their alignment. In view of these dynamics, attending
or starting with individual therapy for a couple problem can create it’s
own set of problems and undermine the intended benefit of counseling.
There is one important exception to couple counseling. In the presence of dangerous
behavior, where a person may not be at liberty to fully disclose issues, couple
counseling can actually increase the risk of harm to that person. Hence it is
important for the counselor to speak with clients separately first, often by
phone, to screen for matters concerning domestic violence and power imbalances.
Accepting referrals prior to such screening may also not only undermine the
intention of counseling, but may put people at risk of harm.
So as a general rule, if you are having couple or marital difficulties and
you are seeking to address those difficulties though counseling, both partner
should attend assuming it is safe for both to be forthright in the counseling
Seeing a counselor on an individual basis may only exacerbate your problems
if the counselor becomes aligned with the person seen first or even if the person
seen second suspects an alignment.
Your intended counselor or agency should ask questions at the time of referral
to help determine or at least screen for safety issues owing to concerns of
abuse. In view of abuse issues, several options remain. You may be asked to
have a safety plan in place and/or you may be asked to arrive separately. It
may be appropriate to withhold couple counseling until abuse issues are addressed
first. The counselor at the time of referral should be able to direct you and
devise a plan in view of abuse issues.