Is Individual Therapy during Couples Therapy a good idea?

The primary goal of EFT Couple Therapy is to help partners safely turn to one another in times of distress, and to work through their problems from the past and present for the rest of their relationship together, rather than turning to an individual or couple therapist when things go wrong.

Sometimes, challenges can occurs when partners do concurrent individual therapy while also doing ongoing EFT couple therapy, and each or both partners are still turning to their individual therapists for support rather than risking, with the EFT therapist’s help, to turn to their partners.  What can happen instead is each partner may have attached to their individual therapist.  This means, when a couple hits a hard spot, their respective ‘go to’ for support is someone outside their relationship, not each other.  This basically leaves the couple in the same place when they started seeking couple therapy and is counterproductive to the EFT process where we are working to have the couple safely attach to one another.

There are some instances where it is recommended one or both partners see an individual therapist during ongoing EFT couple therapy such as when there are substance abuse/dependence problems, also known as process addictions, that are not managed.  Also, major depression with suicidal ideation, difficulty functioning with severe anxiety and highly triggering PTSD symptoms.  Moderate to severe dissociation, as well as delusions and hallucinations.   In these instances, both the individual and couple therapists would need to communicate with one another frequently, with the client’s consent, of course, to ensure all parties are ‘on the same page’ and working towards ‘similar goals’.

Beyond these exceptions, there are several other concerns one needs to be aware of when continuing individual therapy or pursing individual therapy during ongoing EFT couple therapy.  There may be serious implications and complications, such as when the individual therapist and the couple therapist are working towards two opposite goals. An example of this conflict occurs is when the individual therapist believes it is in the client’s best interest to leave the marriage or the relationship and this is being implicitly shared with the partner in individual therapy.  This is usually based on a desire to help the individual partner, who complains of the partner to the therapist, but can lead to an inaccurate perception of the relationship, as they have not worked with the partner.

At the same time the individual therapist is working with one partner on the fence about leaving, the EFT couple therapist is working to deepen the relationship.  This can be extremely confusing for the client and may lead to the client acting out by continuing an affair, medicating with substances or other process addictions, as a way to cope, or not being fully engaged with the EFT process.  This  may also harken back to an earlier time, such as when the client’s parents were arguing or disconnected  and the client fell through the cracks as a kid or teen while being given confusing messages from authority figures. It also makes the couple therapy very arduous and unproductive, causing the process to stall, if not fail.

I have known some couples who started with a particular couple therapist, and then that couple therapist became an individual therapist to one of the partners, because one of the partners didn’t feel comfortable and the therapist. This can go on for years, ten years in one case that I am aware of.  The now, individual client, may believe that they are working on the relationship without the partner present, which is not really individual therapy, it is relationship therapy, without the partner, and is ineffective. The rare exception to this dynamic working is when there is an EFT Individual Therapist (EFIT) helping from an attachment framework.  Otherwise, most individual therapists hear one side of the relationship, the one with the partner complaining about their non-present partner, and arrive at negatively, biased conclusions that drive the marriage further apart, causing the relationship to end in separation or divorce.

Now, let’s say that the withdrawing partner has left the therapy and the remaining partner then decides to work with the couple therapist, who has now become an individual therapist. It turns out, there may not be any legal implications here, but there may be some ethical contraindications, because the therapist has allowed a couple to go from the client as a relationship, to the client as an individual, which changes the therapeutic relationship between the client and the therapist.  Again, this is where Emotionally Focused Therapy is different.  When a couple comes to see me, a certified EFT Therapist, their relationship is my client.  If one of the partners is uncomfortable, I will work with that partner to determine what is getting in the way and do what I can to creating comfort.  If a partner decides therapy isn’t what they want, the therapy is terminated and referrals are made to individual therapists, if that is what is requested.  Why?  Because, should the couple decide to return to therapy at CHC at a later time, the couple is the client once again and no significant alliance that has developed between one of the partners which could cause bias and create a rupture in the therapeutic alliance.  As a couple therapist, it is not advisable to go from seeing a couple, to seeing one of the partners for an extended period of time.  I do however, provide one or two individual sessions to learn more about the relationship from each side of the bridge.

What else can happen when a couple therapist goes from individual therapy to couple therapy with the same partner? The client, who is supposed to be doing ‘individual work’ is actually doing ‘couples therapy’ without the partner present which is baised.   When the therapist hears how miserable their client is as they complain and vent about their partner in the individual therapy,  the individual therapist becomes supportive toward the client rather than the relationship and this can result in the therapist inadvertently persuading the client to leave the partner or block attachment to their partner.  The biggest problem here, and there are many, is the therapist is getting a skewed view of the situation from the individual client who used to be seen as a couple and is not working from an attachment frame, which can negatively affect the couple therapy.

Also, and this is the big one, rather than helping the partner attach to their relationship parter through EFT therapy, the partner attaches, or is attached to the individual therapist and the partner and the relationship is left on the sidelines to continue on the path of disconnection and failure.  When you inadvertently choose between connecting with your individual therapist or your partner, this is a major warning sign.  This is where Emotionally Focused Therapy is more effective, because by creating a safe, compassionate environment for both partners to work towards connection.  Now the couple can work through their differences by understanding their negative cycle and work towards building their bridge of safe connection and secure attachment.

If an individual therapist is working with one of the partners of a couple who is in ongoing couple therapy, it is so important that all parties not collude with the individual client against the relationship or other partner by creating ‘secrets’ or biases.  One way to ensure all parties are on this same page is for the couple to sign a ‘release of information form’ and to sign a ‘no secrets agreement’ in order for the therapists to communicate with the individual therapist to further the relationship and all be on the same page.

If however, access to the individual therapist by the couple therapist for one or both partners is not possible during ongoing couple therapy, the couple therapy may need to be terminated or delayed until all therapists are on the same page and or the individual client has worked to detached from their individual therapist in order to safely attaching to their partner, which is the primary goal of EFT.

Working together, collaboratively, with an EFT Certified therapist for couples work, while seeing an individual therapist, when warranted,  is imperative for the success of the relationship.  Signed releases with all parties allow for open collaboration.