Individual versus couple counselling

There is a big overlap between the individual and couples counselling and it is sometimes hard to determine clear guidelines on their differences. Nevertheless, when we move from working only with individuals towards working with couples we need to think of adapting our own therapeutic approach.


As an individual counsellor I integrate and work in a dialogue between Person Centred and Psychodynamic theories. I believe that unconscious processes and communication take place virtually everywhere, meaning that I understand difficult situations and communication problems through the psychodynamic stance. In doing so I try to value Person Centered core conditions (empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regards) which are necessary for clients to improve. Carl Rogers, the founder of Person Centered therapy said, if these conditions are not present the client’s improvement will be minimal.


In individual therapy, the focus is on the development of a one-to-one relationship with the client. The relationship can take on many facets depending on what clients bring but in all occasions involves the creation of a therapeutic alliance which is described by Greenberg and Horvath as:

‘(…) Conscious, collaborative relationship between a patient and a therapist. A successful therapeutic alliance, includes an emotional bond based on mutual trust and positive regard, shared goals, and clearly defined tasks, all of which elaborate the participants’ respective roles and responsibilities toward successfully accomplishing their purpose.’


Within the sessions individuals become engaged in a self-reflective process on their emotions, behaviors and personal development. In my work I usually use the relationship which I have with my clients and feelings which emerge during sessions as the basis of our work together. The counselling space belongs to clients and counsellors try to understand their client’s situation from their own perspective, not the perspective of other people who might be a part of their narrative.


On the other hand, in couples therapy, a counsellor works with two clients and each of them has his/her own understanding of their situation and has his/her own perception of what needs to be changed. Establishing the therapeutic alliance seems more difficult than compared to doing it with an individual, as working with two people in the therapeutic process introduces complexity into the relation between alliance and outcome. For example, one client might want to separate and the other may want to save the relationship.


In couples counselling it is very important to keep balance and frequently assess levels of empathy given to both individuals and the impact of this on them (for example to ‘give’ both clients equal time to share their thoughts). Working with couples asks of a counsellor to take a more active gate and be more directive, with shifting focus from an individual and his/her need to the couple’s relationship. The focus is on the relationship which is what the counsellor and clients work on. It involves an intense focus on improving the communication pattern between the partners by reflecting on the communication and interactions the couple have. It also involves making suggestions about the ways to improve their relationship. It is more intensive work because both clients are invited to co-create the process of change.


One of the major challenges in couples counselling is the fact that some of the couples might be in conflict and even violent with each other and that the counsellor needs to know how to deal with this. It is also necessary to asses risk and determine when to intervene and when to allow process to flow between the partners and be aware of responses and reactions of one client while working with the other.


Sometimes, the work will require seeing clients separately and it is crucial to be clear about the confidentiality and say to both clients that it is not beneficial for their relationship to reveal any secrets. If something gets revealed during the individual sessions, the clients will most probably need to share this with their partners in the upcoming sessions if they want to proceed with the couples work. Honesty and building trust are crucial in overcoming relationship difficulties.

In order to work with couples, it is crucial to acknowledge that counellors need to gain additional skills which are usually not covered within programs meant for individual counsellors, The techniques that are used make a difference as well as the way of training counsellors gained. Nevertheless, every therapeutic orientation is about being-in-relation with another person. The therapist’s personal qualities, in particular the capacity to manage difficult emotions (both the therapist’s and the clients’), combined with the elements of theory and practice are crucial in therapy. In order to become a competent counsellor we have to learn the way of thinking and the way of being, something which goes on changing and hopefully deepening throughout our profession.