Your Health

Is couples counseling possible if only one partner participates?

Romantic relationships nearly always begin well but often end badly. For example, the divorce rate in the U.S. is roughly 40 percent. Even the best of relationships can have serious rough patches.

There comes a point when one if not both partners in a troubled relationship begin to think they may need help. They start having thoughts like, “This is just not working.” “She is always complaining.” “He doesn’t want to spend time with me.” “I don’t know how to fix this.”

It’s OK to acknowledge that we are having problems and seek help from a professional couples counselor. But what do you do if your partner rejects the idea of seeking help? Is it pointless for just one of the partners to work with a therapist?

The focus of this column is when to seek help and why it can still be beneficial if only one of the partners talks with a couples counselor. Make no mistake – it’s better if both partners are present, just not always possible.

Only you can say when it’s the right time to seek professional help, but here’s a baseline research result from psychologist John Gottman, who reports that people are unhappy for approximately six years before seeking help. You wouldn’t drive your car with the engine light on for six years, would you? Oh, but your marriage? In other words, the earlier you can acknowledge and act when things are getting off-track between the two of you, the better.

Flying solo in therapy

Should you talk with a professional couples counselor by yourself if your partner refuses to participate? Yes, it can still make good sense. Things are connected. A relationship can be thought of as a system, and if you change some components of a system, the entire system changes. So it’s not unreasonable to expect that if you change behavior and perspective in some ways, it may really improve the health of the relationship. That’s not a guarantee, and that in no way says, “It’s your fault!”

What might you work on with a therapist? You will work on understanding specific behaviors that contribute to relationship difficulties, as well as responses that follow – both yours and your partner’s, but especially your own. You will identify patterns, especially ones representing a negative cycle, and learn how you may positively change its course. You will tease understanding out of behaviors and explore good alternatives. Something new happens. And you have a real chance of changing your relationship.

For the person seeking change through professional help, it can benefit his or her well-being in other ways, too. It may provide needed support and understanding, or a feeling of empowerment for someone who might otherwise feel stuck or resentful when his or her partner refuses to join. Just an opportunity to better understand oneself can be of great value.

What’s different from this situation and that of having both partners in the room? With both partners there, both experiences are present with their two points of view, so you have a more complete representation of what’s happening in the relationship and more readily can uncover, understand and change behaviors and patterns. Furthermore, there are opportunities in counseling sessions to reach new experiences, understandings and repair as a couple.

If you decide to seek help for your relationship and only you are ready to act, please consider the benefits that may be in reach.

Nancy Andersen, licensed marriage and family therapist, provides emotionally focused therapy for couples and individuals in her Loyola Corners office. For more information, call 833-9574 or visit

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