For the purpose of this article, we will be discussing two distinct types of problems that impact marriages, namely, couple problems and individual problems. We will also be talking about two types (or modalities) of therapy: marital and individual. Like the handyman who needs to know the details of a job before choosing the appropriate set of tools, it is helpful to identify the type of issue you are experiencing before choosing one type of therapy over another.
So to begin with, let’s define: What is a couple problem and what is an individual problem?
A couple problem is one that emerges in the context of a relationship. The problem exists because of the relationship, rather than alongside it. The behaviors of both husband and wife contribute to the problem being maintained or kept alive, and both have the responsibility to improve the situation. A classic example of a couple problem might be a conflict over management of finances, which is common enough, but can end up pulling apart the entire fabric of the relationship. Husband, for example, believes that money should be spent only on necessities, and wife likes to spend on the occasional luxury, and considers the spouse's position to be restrictive and unnecessary. The conflicting attitudes trigger frequent arguments, feelings of annoyance and worry on the part of the saver, and feelings of being stifled and guilt on the part of the spender. When the couple tries to address their differences, it usually ends with yelling, crying, and slamming of doors. Mostly, the couple avoids thinking too much about it and hope that it will somehow spontaneously resolve itself. The recurring flare-ups, however, in addition to the constant worry and guilt, bring stress to the marriage. The couple eventually find themselves arguing over trivialities, things they had previously been able to negotiate with ease, and the affection they once had for each other seems to be eroding by the day.
Relationships are complex, marital relationships particularly so. Even typically good communicators can find themselves struggling to listen and respond effectively when triggered by a spousal disagreement. Underlying themes from the past contribute to fears and expectations, and cloud the judgment of usually clear-minded people. In the absence of productive communication, the emotional, psychological, and physical needs of a couple are not adequately met. This leads to frustration, anger, loss of affection, sadness, and worry. Some couples feel unprepared or insufficiently safe to openly discuss the problem with one another. More common, however, is the scenario in which husband and wife make multiple attempts at resolving the problem. Owing to the underlying communication deficiency, however, these attempts don't help, and, on the contrary, make the situation worse.
Marital therapy can provide a safe and controlled environment in which a couple can learn to listen to, and effectively communicate with, one another. Among other things, the therapist is trained to assist a couple in recognizing underlying themes that are producing fears and misconceptions and inhibiting healthy communication. A successful course of marital therapy is dependent on both husband and wife assuming responsibility for their roles in creating and resolving the problem. Marital therapy is frustrating, and ultimately unhelpful, when husband, wife, or both are unwilling to let go of the belief that it's the other spouse who is responsible for the problem and for its improvement.
It's helpful to realize that, initially, one spouse maybe slower to get on board with the idea of therapy. This does not necessarily imply inability or unwillingness to accept responsibility. Initial resistance to therapy is quite common, and can be a result of fear of the unknown or some other inhibiting factor. Perhaps more time or encouragement from a rabbi or mentor is needed. If the spouse is willing to shoulder his or her responsibility he or she will eventually get on board. When there seems to be no sign that this will happen, this might be an indication of unwillingness on that spouse's part to assume an appropriate level of responsibility, and marital therapy will need to be shelved.
Individual problems usually predate the marriage, however, they can sometimes emerge or manifest for the first time after the wedding or after the arrival of a first child. Common forms of individual problems are depression, anxiety, addiction, and unresolved childhood trauma. Although to a greater or lesser extent, individual problems always spill over into the marriage, this type of problem is nevertheless the sole responsibility of the spouse with the problem. As a rule of thumb, individual therapy is the appropriate treatment modality. Marital therapy can be helpful, however, as an adjunct to individual treatment, for the purpose of assisting the couple with the spillover. For example, if a husband's depression is negatively impacting the marriage, and is contributing to frequent arguments, marital therapy can help the couple communicate better, while individual therapy will help the husband cope with and overcome the actual depression.
Spousal abuse in any form is another type of individual problem. Spousal abuse can include one, some, or all of the following behaviors: Physical violence or threats of same, a pattern of controlling behavior, a pattern of behavior that demeans the spouse, a pattern of disrespect for a spouse's personal and religious standards, a pattern of violation of a spouse's physical space and emotional boundaries, and a pattern of passive-aggressive behavior (e.g., not responding when being spoken to, coming and going from the home without explanation, not doing his/her share of household duties, intentionally undermining spouse's parenting). In the case of spousal abuse, the abuser is always responsible for the abusive behavior – not the couple. There is never an excuse for abuse. With all individual problems, but especially when there is abusive behavior, productive marital work will only take place after the individual accepts sole responsibility for the problem, and for the necessary behavioral changes.
In conclusion, if you are experiencing problems in your marriage and are wondering if marital therapy is the way to go, the most important question to ask is: Are both my spouse and I prepared to assume responsibility for improving the marriage? If the answer is yes, marital therapy can be a wonderful opportunity to enhance understanding of your partner and of yourself, to improve upon your communication abilities, and ultimately, to create a peaceful and mutually supportive marriage.
If the answer is no, or if you're unsure, it might be helpful to begin with individual therapy, and reconsider marital therapy at a later stage.
Ovadia Trepp, MSW, LCSW provides therapy for individuals and couples in Jerusalem, Israel. He can be reached by calling 052-704-7780 or via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.