Often, when folks come to me for marriage counseling, I will request a couple sessions with both partners individually. This is a good time for me to get to know each member of the marriage on their own terms. Sometimes, a spouse feels that they cannot be completely honest about something in front of their partner. Sexual intimacy, finances, and old hurts are often difficult to discuss honestly with a spouse, so we talk about those issues in individual sessions before bringing them to the marital sessions. Many couples that I work with understand this and gladly do these few initial sessions. Anything to help their marriage, yes? The obstacle often comes when I recommend individual counseling for both partners.
The idea of individual counseling
For some reason, folks are less enthused about the idea of individual counseling. I often hear “We came in for couples counseling. Fix our marriage.” or often “There’s nothing wrong with me. It’s them that needs counseling.”
Sometimes in a troubled relationship, it’s easy to fixate on everything the partner is doing wrong. If only they would change. If only they would quit doing that super annoying thing, then everything would be fine. Or it’s easy to focus just on the relationship being broken. If only we can communicate better. If only we had some strategies to spice things up in the bedroom. Yes, improved communication always helps and yes a rocking sex life can help many a marital problem. But at the end of the day, a marriage is the sum of two individuals navigating each other. And that often gets overlooked.
When we marry, we join together in a union
A legally binding, often religious promise is made that we will now join as one. We go through life with our partner, our “better half,” our “significant other.” When there are problems with money or with family, our partner is often our go-to crisis help. When making plans we have to double check with our partner to make sure “we have no plans.” It is often easy to lose ourselves in this dynamic. To forget that even with this joining of two into one unit, we are still the individuals we were before we married. We still have our individual hopes and desires that may or may not align with those of our spouse. We have weird quirks and hobbies that do not need to line up with theirs. You are still you, even if you’re married. And even more distressing, your spouse is still their own person as well.
Importance of individuality in couples counseling
So what does it mean to be two individuals and why is this important for couples counseling? Well, speaking in mechanical terms, the unit (the married pair that you are) isn’t going to work well unless both individual parts (you and spouse) are working well. What does it mean to work well as an individual? This culture doesn’t really celebrate self-care. We do not focus on individual well-being as much as we should. But ideally, you should feel confident in you. You should have things that you like to do, that make you feel better for doing them (exercise, hobbies, goals, a fulfilling vocation). Things that do not require the approval of others because your own approval of it is enough.
Proper self-care also means getting to a point where you feel complete on your own. Yes, it’s a romantic notion to “find your other half” and ride off into the sunset, living happily ever after, but if you’re familiar with the need for couples counseling than you are aware that this belief is bologna. I would even argue that this belief in needing someone to come along and make us whole is detrimental. How many toxic marriages have been made or stayed in as a result of someone fearing being alone? As though being alone is the worst thing that can happen to someone. Not only should we be whole individuals in our own right, but more than likely we already are. And furthermore, if we are fine being on our own and we are complete individuals without needing to have someone as our “other half,” then that frees us to be in a marriage of our free will.
If we believe we have to stay in our marriage, to make something broken work, because otherwise we are incomplete humans, then we are essentially holding ourselves hostage. When we can choose to have our lives enriched by our spouse because we want them there is when we have a happy marriage.
How to have a happy marriage?
So how do we do this? How do we become whole individuals for a better marriage? I’m going to say individual counseling and self-care and it’s going to sound easy to do, but in actuality it’s one of the more challenging things a person can do. It requires self-reflection. It requires letting go of having other people be responsible for our happiness. It requires being okay with rejection. And that is often a whole emotional mess for someone to work though. To feel whole and complete on your own is hard work, but necessary if you wish to be a good partner to someone else. For if you can be free from holding yourself emotionally hostage, if you can choose your spouse for their own sake and not for some need to have them complete you, then how freeing would that be for your spouse? How much happier would you both be without this weird emotional baggage of being incomplete?
Are you complete on your own? Are you having your spouse make you whole? Talk to your partner. Ask them if they feel whole. Or if they feel that you are necessary to complete them. Is this something you both want? This subject is one that is difficult to wrap up in an article, but there are resources to help you on your journey and an individual counselor can help you start on the path. The key is in remembering that you are already whole, we sometimes just forget this fact.