Couples therapy: Can you do it alone if your partner won’t join?

Science and Health

When a relationship isn’t working, our instinct is often to seek couples therapy. If there’s a problem, then you should find a joint solution for it, right?

Well, yes and no. Yes, it would be nice to find a common solution, but sometimes the best solution is to start with ourselves, with the mechanism that will change the couple dance in which we live and from which we suffer, and then from there to refresh the dynamics in the relationship.

Here’s an example that will help to understand it a little more deeply: ‘S’ isn’t satisfied with her husband. Why? Because he doesn’t give her what she needs: Warmth, cooperation, or someone she can rely on. He’s not ambitious enough. What are his advantages? He’s a good person, takes care of the children, has stable work and people really like him.

Why does the negative she sees in her husband outweigh the positive?

It turns out that this was always the case with S. In all her relationships, she saw what didn’t work in her partner, so the moment always came when she moved away or distanced herself emotionally. That’s why she only got married at age 38. And this time she doesn’t want to screw everything up and break up the package.

Illustrative image of a couple fighting. (credit: TIMUR WEBER/PEXELS)

Take responsibility on our side

In such a case, you can go to couples therapy and try to improve the way you understand, communicate and behave toward each other. But will this help S to see the positive side in him over time? Perhaps what will put the relationship on a new path is changing S’s tendency to put the finger on what doesn’t work.

After all, the more she sees the advantages of her husband, the more satisfied she’ll be with her relationship and the less she’ll criticize him. And when the criticism subsides, it’s likely he’ll want to get closer to her and give her at least some of the things she lacks and wants. 

It’s a closed circle where it’s usually enough to change one significant element in order to change the dynamic.

And this is exactly the idea of coming to couples therapy alone: To take responsibility for our side, change our internal mechanism and then influence the other side and invite a new response from them. Here are three insights that will help us understand how this works.

1. A balanced relationship

Every relationship has two sides that nourish each other. A domineering person needs a partner who will surrender. A critical person needs a partner who knows how to absorb. A passive person needs someone who knows how to take charge. 

It’s impossible to behave in a relationship the way we do without a second party who enables this behavior in some way, even if she/he isn’t aware of it.

If we tend to be silent when the other party raises their voice, we enable the raising of that voice. If we take on everything at home, we allow the other side to be a parasite. There are two sides, and an important step to improving the quality of relationships is to take responsibility for our side of the story.

2. Many relationships are built on an abusive relationship axis

What’s an abusive or critical axis? This is an axis on which the relationship moves and in which each partner takes one side opposite to the other, an axis that contains hurt and disharmony: Abuser vs. victim, dominating vs. giving up, doing everything vs. parasite, critical vs. shrinking.

As the years go by, usually the axis on which our relationship is based grows stronger and stronger, until a point comes where we say we can’t go on like this anymore.

Why do we live on this axis? Usually a brief look at the environment where we grew up and the house where our partner grew up explains it. 

We pick up relationship patterns from our parents and reproduce those in our relationships. We tend to think we have a choice, but sometimes the choice we have is only between the two sides of the axis we grew up witnessing.

If the partner does nothing at home, we allow and enable it. If our partner constantly criticizes us, something in us allows this to happen. There’s some positive meaning to the word enabling, i.e. I allow him to go out with friends, I allow her to do whatever she wants, etc. But it also works the other way around: unconsciously I let her speak badly to me, or I let him do nothing at home.

How and why do we allow such behavior that actually hurts us? Because we live on a relationship axis that allows harm, and until we release it, we’ll continue to follow unhealthy behavior patterns and create a reality that many times contradicts our desire to live in a pleasant and benevolent relationship.

Romantically involved couple (credit: CREATIVE COMMONS)

3. One is enough to create a new couple dance

When a person stops being silent in the face of harm, the offending party can’t stay in the same place. When a person stops giving up their will, the other side can’t continue to take control.

When one person stops taking on everything at home, the other party must start picking up the slack. To change a relationship dynamic, many times the thing we need to do is change our side of the story.

If we stop criticizing then the other party can stop fearing to communicate with us, and maybe even want to start getting closer. If we stop giving up on ourselves and our desires, the other party will be forced to take us more into account. 

Every change we make in the marital axis from our side also affects the other side, causing him to seek a new balance with us.

A relationship is a zero-sum game. No one can continue to behave as they do in the shared space if we move from our place on the axis. So, in many cases, personal change creates change in the relationship.

Gili Weintraub is an emotional therapist who created the ‘a couple and a half’ therapy approach.