Given that it can be so difficult to find a therapist these days (let alone a good one), it’s tempting to consider double dipping if you’re in couples therapy but also looking for individual help, or vice-versa. But can a therapist see a couple individually for one-on-one therapy?
Technically, yes. There’s no law against your couples therapist doubling as your individual therapist, says Dana M. Harris, LMFT, who treats individuals and couples. However, “this is typically an ethical conflict,” Harris says. “Most of us are trained that this is not a best practice and there are lots of reasons why.”
That said, there are some cases where having your couples therapist also serving as your individual therapist may be beneficial. But there’s a lot of nuance around this topic to unpack—and reasons why therapists might not be into the idea at all.
When a therapist should not see couples individually for therapy
As Harris mentioned, there are quite a few cases in which it wouldn’t be ethical or advisable for your couples therapist to be your individual therapist.
For example, it’s a bad idea when the therapist is only seeing one person in the relationship (as opposed to everyone involved). “If a therapist is seeing one person from the couple individually, it can be hard—even as a therapist—to make sure that they’re not biased,” says Harris. After all, they’re hearing a lot more about one person than the other person or people in the relationship.
"If a therapist is seeing one person from the couple individually, it can be hard—even as a therapist—to make sure that they’re not biased." —Dana M. Harris, LMFT
And if it’s hard for a licensed therapist to check their biases, imagine what it would be like to the person who isn’t receiving individual therapy from this provider. “It is hard for the other person in the couple to truly believe that the therapist isn’t taking sides,” Harris says, which might impact the outcome or efficacy of the couples therapy sessions. (For example, you might be less receptive to feedback or exercises suggested by the therapist if you feel like you’re not getting a fair shake during the group sessions.)
There’s also an issue of confidentiality, says individual and couples therapist Anthony Phillips, AMFT. “As therapists, we always adhere to a secrecy policy, meaning that whatever is mentioned during individual therapy has to stay in that session as far as the therapist is concerned.” When your therapist is treating you and the couple you’re in, it immediately challenges a therapists’ ability to maintain that secrecy policy, Phillips adds.
Also, we’d be remiss not to point out that when therapists are treating individuals, that singular person is their client. “But when we’re treating a couple, the relationship is our client,” Harris says. What Harris means by this is that the therapist will not treat any session as one partner versus another partner. In actuality, it’s all partners versus the argument, issue, conflict—you get the point. This approach helps prevent people from experiencing perceived biases and keeps them on the same collaborative page.
For all of these reasons, none of the therapists we spoke to treat individuals separate from their couples counseling. “I have worked with couples who decide to stop therapy and I will continue seeing one member of the couple as an individual, but I make sure that they understand that we cannot go back to couples therapy once that happens,” says Harris, referencing the dangers of perceived biases.
Is it ever okay to get individual therapy from your couples therapist?
That said, there are some instances where it can be helpful for your couples therapist to double as your personal therapist. The most common occurrence for this is before you fully commit to couples therapy, says sex therapist and licensed clinical social worker Chanta Blue, LCSW.
“This is helpful for the therapist because we’re able to get a full background history of each person in the relationship,” Blue says. She adds that this may also provide an opportunity for one partner to fully express how they feel without worrying about hurting people’s feelings.
It might also be helpful for folks to separately get therapy from their couples counselor if they’re having a hard time communicating in their couples session, says Phillips. “If the couple is volatile in session and they don't do well communicating with each other, getting a story from both perspectives can be beneficial when you bring it to couples therapy,” he says.
This therapeutic double-dipping may also be beneficial in making sure that the goals of the couple and respective individuals are aligned, says Harris. Say that one of the people in the relationship is working on their defensiveness. “When that is coming up in the couple's session, it's so much easier if the same therapist knows that [and handles it in individual sessions],” she says.
TL;DR: You could have the same therapist for yourself as you do for couples counseling—but you’d want to make sure that all the people in the relationship are seeing the therapist individually in order to prevent perceived biases.
And, remember, when you and your partner(s) fight, it’s hardly ever you versus them. In actuality, it’s y’all versus the problem—so proceed accordingly.
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