Dr. Bonnie Explains How to Save a Relationship with Only One Person in Couples/Relationship Therapy and Why It Cannot Be "Individual" Therapy

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An article in the Wall Street Journal asks - can a relationship be saved if only one partner participates in therapy? http://on.wsj.com/xnSORw Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil believes that the answer to this question is "yes,"

Things will change even if only one person changes, the other person will have to change - they'll hear my voice whispering in their ear, even when they're not in therapy

An article in the Wall Street Journal asks - can a relationship be saved if only one partner participates in therapy? http://on.wsj.com/xnSORw Dr. Bonnie Eaker Weil believes that the answer to this question is "yes," provided the individual who participates in therapy gets the right kind of help, and assuming that the non-participatory parter is committed to staying in the relationship.

"Even if one person is coming to therapy to work on a relationship, that person needs to be given couples' counseling, not individual counseling" says Dr. Bonnie. She learned from her mentor, Dr. Fogerty, that the quickest way to break up a marriage already on the rocks, is to focus on individual therapy and give them two separate therapists - this gives people a place to run and hide, whereas couples therapy does not provide a place to hide! Couples should have the same therapist, and it should be a couples therapist.

Couples therapy with only one person is extremely effective even if a couple is struggling with adultery and the only one who will participate in therapy is the betrayed, or with dealing with other addictions such as financial infidelity or alcoholism. It is a wonderful way to help a dysfunctional, addictive partner to change indirectly by the most motivated person coming to see Dr. Bonnie. Also, for couples that are having sexual difficulty, this can clear up just by having the affected partner participate in therapy without the other person.

Typically, women are the ones coming by themselves to therapy - Dr. Fogerty coined the term "distancers" to describe the typical behavior of men. Eighty percent of men are distancers, and 80 percent of women are pursuers. Dr. Bonnie recognizes that women are often the protectors of the relationship, the guardian of connection (which Dr. Bonnie explains in Make Up Don't Break Up), and as such she can lead the way for the man to be connected to instruction indirectly by the woman going to therapy.

Dr. Bonnie describes this further in her book, Make Up Don't Break Up, but it has helped form how she works with couples when only one person seeks therapy. "Couples therapy for individuals works because if you change one person, the other person will change too. I often work with one person in a couple's therapy systems approach - to teach the skills, tools, actions, and how to change the dynamic and behaviors between the couple."

In Dr. Bonnie's experience, the other partner often ends up coming, or at least communicating with her over the phone. "It's important to keep the uninvolved party in the loop, to check in with them, make them a part of the process and I do this a variety of ways," she says. She may call them, or give homework to both people even if one person won't attend therapy.

A study mentioned in the Wall Street Journal article, conducted by Howard Markman, found that women learn relationship skills more easily than men and were better at explaining and teaching to partners. Dr. Bonnie has found this to be true in her practice. "Women are more comfortable talking about feelings that come up in therapy," she says, "and I always explain to the woman that she has to make the man feel safe so he can open up about his emotions in a safe way; so the woman doesn't unconsciously shut the man up when he's trying to open up."

Understanding that men tend to be distancers can help women learn how to deal with marital problems - men often won't explain what's wrong because they don't even know, says Dr. Bonnie. Women shouldn't pressure their husband to come to therapy but rather be patient, and treat the therapy more like an educational or learning exercise - hence the homework requirements - so the man feels like he has a part.

If done this way, even if a woman starts coming to therapy alone, her husband will usually come around in time. Dr. Bonnie describes one such distancer with whom she communicated via phone for six months while his wife came to therapy: After a phone session Dr. Bonnie said "You're graduated from therapy" and he said, "therapy, that was therapy? It didn't feel like it, it just felt like you were teaching me something."

In short, Dr. Bonnie knows that couples' therapy can be done with just one person and marriages can be saved if only one person attends. To that end an unpublished University of Denver study sheds some light. It followed 300 long-term couples and found that one month after receiving relationship skills training - even as individuals - relationships improved as much as people who had the training as a couple. One-and-a-half years after training, couples who had only the woman attending alone were happier than couples where the man attended alone.

"The critical thing is that both people have to realize they had a part in the problem," clarifies Dr. Bonnie, "it's never one person's fault - it's both peoples' fault, or nobody's fault." Both have to see the part that they play and begin walking in the other person's shoes.

Says Dr. Bonnie, "Things will change even if only one person changes, the other person will have to change - they'll hear my voice whispering in their ear, even when they're not in therapy." But she reminds, this isn't a contest of who can change fastest, "change at the same time as your partner to maintain relationship stability." Remember - if you want to complain about how fast your partner is changing or not changing, don't! Look at how fast you're changing - you'll be changing at the same rate at which your partner changes (ie, not very fast!)

To see more of Dr. Bonnie's advice for couples seeking therapy, check out her recent video about setting a marriage back on track: http://youtu.be/MtdykGxY708

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