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Seeking Counseling For Marital Issues
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 process.

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.





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