Most of our problems have to do with relationships - even when we are single.
Why you should stop blaming yourself
When we are in pain, it is very easy to blame ourselves or other people in our lives for our pain and our problems. This may be a human default setting - to assign blame when we are scared and confused. However, this blame rarely leads to a better understanding of our problems and usually makes matters worse. We go from hurting to hurting and feeling terrible about ourselves and distant and suspicious of those we love.
While we are all responsible for our own choices and managing our own emotional pain, most of our problems originate from interactions with others. The stories that we tell ourselves about who we are, who other people are, and what the world is like, have been learned and created through interactions with other people at earlier stages of our development. The way we were scolded for crying by a family member as child has become our own voice telling us that we are "pathetic" and "annoying" when we feel overwhelmed and sad. A romantic partner pulling away or rejecting us when we wanted to be close has turned into our own voice telling us that we are "needy and weak" when we feel lonely and long for connection. For better and for worse we had help from the beginning in creating who we are, along with our problems, our fears, and the myriad of ways that limit our potential as human beings. Because so much of our pain and confusion has been both created in relationships and gets played out in relationships it can be extremely helpful to do therapy with the people that we are in relationship with, even when it seems like the problem is ours alone.
The case for relational therapy
Some challenges are clearly suited to relational therapy, as they are created by or affect more than one person in a family or group. Some examples include conflict with a partner or child, children acting out, difficult family transitions, kids moving out, loss of a loved one, trauma that affects the couple or whole family, intimacy and sexual problems, and negotiating expectations in relationships.
Additionally, challenges that we tend to think of as individual issues may also be appropriate for relational therapy such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. It is not uncommon for people to feel depressed, anxious or resort to substance use when trying to cope with painful family and relationship experiences and tackling the pain alone doesn't change the underlying relationship dynamic - it may even make it worse.
I remember one client I worked with who after months of taking medications for her depression and assuming that it was a biological problem located in her brain, quickly discovered that the only times that she experienced depression was when she was around her husband. As we explored this topic in more depth, it became clear that years of miscommunication and issues of trust in their relationship left her feeling hopeless and alone in his presence. Having assumed it was her problem alone, she didn't even think to consider the context in which these feelings arose.
When alone is better
While relational therapy can elicit unique insights, the candour that may be possible in the privacy of individual sessions may also allow for growth that is not possible in relational therapy, especially if honesty is not possible in the presence of other people. There are issues that may require individual work, even when they are relational, in order to gain insight and avoid harming the relationship while you are sorting it all out. An example of this is when a partner in a monogamous relationship is having strong sexual urges in relation to another person and is struggling with knowing what to do about it. If there isn't the possibility of having dialogue with your partner about this without the relationship being on the line - it may be better to first seek more understanding on your own about what this means.
Five questions to help you decide
If you are still feeling unclear about what makes sense for you and the issues that you are wanting help with, here are some questions that may help you decide:
1) Are the concerns that you are wanting help with best understood as "relational" (i.e. concerns about relationships, concerns that are most frequently experienced in relationships, or something that is made worse by relationship dynamics)?
2) Would you benefit from having the support, insight, or participation of another important person in your life (e.g. partner, family member, close friend) in order to address your concerns?
3) How comfortable are you in honestly disclosing important information related to your concerns in the presence of another important person (e.g. partner, family member, or friend)?
4) Is it appropriate to share the nature and relevant details of your concerns with others (e.g. adult themes with young children or past relationship history with a current partner)?
5) Is your partner, family member, or other important person in your life willing to participate in therapy with you?
You can have it all
Relational therapy and individual therapy each allow for unique therapy possibilities. It may be possible to do a combination of individual, couple and family sessions, depending on the training and approach of your therapist. Certainly you can do both independently with different therapists. All of this can be discussed with your therapist when developing a therapeutic plan and clarifying your goals for therapy.
Nat Roman is a Registered Psychotherapist with a Master of Science in Couple and Family Therapy and a BA in Psychology and additional specialized training in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) processes, community based restorative conflict circles, and fifteen plus years studying, practicing and teaching mindfulness meditation practices and Buddhist psychology. In an earlier stage of life Nat worked as a professional musician and strongly believes that creativity is an essential part of life, whether one is engaged in a formal creative discipline, problem solving, or attempting to get kids off to school in the morning.