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Individual Relationship Therapy

White Sheet

When One Person Wants Couples Therapy

You’re in a time in your life when most things are going well. Whether you’re a student, parent, employee or business owner, you feel content within your roles in life. You enjoy spending time with friends and engaging in hobbies, all at a pace that feels comfortable for you. Things “should” feel good, but they don’t. Privately, you recognize that your primary relationship isn’t nearly as intimate, loving, supportive, or strong as you’d like. 


Perhaps you and your partner have slowly drifted apart. You might also be struggling to forgive one another for past hurts and notice that you argue more often than not. The strain within your relationship has slowly been impacting your mood, energy level, and the vision you once had for your relationship. This area of life that once brought you joy and meaning is slowly diminishing other important areas of your life. 


You want to pursue couples counseling. However, either you feel uncomfortable asking your partner to go with you or they’ve shared they don’t want to attend. You know your relationship needs improving but couples counseling doesn’t feel like an option right now. Something has to change and you aren’t sure where to start.

White Sheet

Clarity Around the Corner

Imagine having a place to talk about your relationship with a supportive therapist. Since you begin therapy on your own, you feel more comfortable being honest and you worry less about offending your partner.  You feel clearer about what you want from your relationship.


You also feel clearer about what you need to do. You become a better listener and communicator. You share your thoughts and feelings more often because you understand yourself better and because you’ve learned to communicate in a way that increases your chances of being heard. You begin to notice that the way you bring up difficult topics decreases the chances of your partner dismissing your feelings or becoming defensive. Imagine that, because of the work you put into your relationship, you and your partner argue less often, feel more in sync, and begin to enjoy one another’s company again. You have a renewed sense of hope about your future together.

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White Sheet

About Individual Relationship Therapy

If relationship distress is your primary concern, you’re not alone. In fact, research suggests that 20% of adults who seek individual therapy do so because they’re experiencing problems within their primary relationship. Given that so many clients seek help to cope with relationship distress it’s important to understand treatment options, namely the difference between individual therapy and individual relationship therapy (IRT). 


Let’s start with individual therapy, since it’s the treatment option that’s likely most familiar to you. Individual therapy can help when a person’s relationship is their primary cause of distress. It can decrease the symptoms of depression and anxiety that so often accompany relationship problems. It can even support clients in learning new skills that might have a positive impact on their relationship. However, if not done carefully, it can result in maintaining the status quo and it might even harm some relationships. This is because individual therapy, quite naturally, is focused on helping the individual feel better. The focus is not on the relationship, but on the individual seeking treatment. 


Individual Relationship Therapy (IRT) differs from individual therapy in important ways.  While not as ideal as having both partners in the room for couples counseling, it does offer advantages over traditional individual therapy. First, the focus is explicitly on helping you improve the quality of your relationship - now and hopefully for years to come. A second advantage is that a therapist practicing IRT, while supportive of and caring toward you, will also be mindful of your partner. This means that a therapist practicing IRT is careful not to take what you share at face-value. They understand and empathize with the reality that it’s hard for anyone to understand their partner’s experience as well as their own. They’re also mindful of the reality that our memories are often inaccurate, particularly when recalling moments of heightened distress. This certainly doesn't mean that a therapist practicing IRT won’t believe or care about your experience. It simply means they’ll hold your experience within the context of your relationship as a whole.  


Beyond the focus of treatment, IRT offers several advantages in terms of what’s actually discussed in session. Therapists trained in this modality help individuals focus on and better understand their relationship patterns. For example, an IRT therapist can provide information about how partners differ in terms of value placed on autonomy vs connection and how individual ways of coping with stress might negatively impact their relationship. In addition to providing information and fostering insight, IRT therapists help their clients learn specific skills that can be used outside of session to strengthen their connection with others, their partner included.

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Our Experience

Robin Casey is a licensed psychologist with over a decade of experience treating individuals and couples. She has completed training in Individual Relationship Therapy (IRT). She also has advanced training in couples and discernment counseling, which is helpful should IRT evolve into one of those forms of therapy. She listens empathically and, in so doing, she helps her clients feel more comfortable talking about how they may contribute to difficulties within their relationship. Dr. Casey also has experience providing couples counseling when one or both partners struggle with addiction and more severe mental health concerns.  She can help individuals and couples discern if and when to pursue IRT, couples counseling, or discernment counseling with this context in mind.

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Frequently Asked Questions

My primary goal is to have a better relationship with my partner. How will attending individual sessions help? 


Couples counseling is ideal when the goal is to improve one’s relationship. However, for a variety of reasons, couples counseling doesn’t always feel feasible; at least not initially. When that’s the case, Individual Relationship Therapy can improve the quality of a person’s relationship by helping them change themselves. IRT isn’t about blaming one’s partner. It’s about becoming more aware of your dynamics with one another, including the inevitable ways in which you contribute to those patterns. It’s  about compassionately taking responsibility for your part and feeling empowered to make healthy changes in the way you listen to and communicate with one another. When one part of a system changes for the better, the system is changed for the better. In other words, when you become more insightful, empathic, and brave within your relationship, chances are your relationship becomes more loving as well. 


If I begin Individual Relationship Therapy, can my partner later join me for couples counseling? 


Yes! Assuming couples counseling is in everyone’s best interest, IRT can later become couples therapy. In fact, an IRT therapist spends adequate time on the front end talking with individuals about perceived barriers to couples counseling. A therapist practicing IRT might help an individual learn skills to invite their parter to couples counseling more effectively and/or help them explore why they assume they are the only one who needs to change. Sometimes an individual completes IRT and their relationship is improved. Sometimes an individual transitions to couples or discernment counseling with their partner. The journey and the process is different for every couple. 


Are there any reasons you wouldn’t recommend Individual Relationship Therapy? 


There are always risks and benefits to therapy. There are also reasons why a therapist may not recommend a particular type of therapy at a particular moment in time. Individual Relationship Therapy is not recommended without first exploring if couples counseling is preferable and, if so, making efforts to engage both people in the counseling process. It’s also not recommended if the person seeking therapy is ultimately looking for emotional support without a desire to learn about their role in the relationship patterns and work toward change. IRT is an active, solution-oriented therapy. Finally, IRT should be applied cautiously when the person presenting for therapy shares that their partner is experiencing significant mental health or substance use concerns or when they describe their partner as abusive or violent. In these situations, it’s important to work with a therapist experienced in treating more complex presenting concerns such as addiction and interpersonal violence.   


I like the idea of learning skills I can use to improve my relationship. What are some of the skills I can learn through Individual Relationship Therapy? 


One advantage of IRT over traditional individual therapy is that it is an active, solution-oriented approach to improving one’s relationship. Knowledge and skills taught might include learning more about the neurobiology of emotional activation along with when and how to take time-outs. IRT provides information about attachment and relationship styles, both of which influence patterns within long-term partnerships. IRT also helps individuals attend to their partner’s non-verbal communication, become more attuned and empathic listeners, learn cognitive-behavioral strategies to reframe how they interpret their partner’s behavior, express emotion assertively, problem solve effectively, and maintain healthy boundaries. The list is long, and that’s a good thing. Loving well is ultimately a verb. It encompasses a set of skills never fully formed, always worthy or revisiting, and of course requiring practice, practice, practice.

Loving, too, is good - because love is hard. For one person to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult thing we are asked to do, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is mere preparation.”  

~Rainer Maria Rilke,

Letters to a Young Poet

Image by John Schnobrich
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