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Introduction
Most people will agree that relationships are an extremely important, if not the most important, part of their lives. They often serve as the vibrant threads weave together the very fabric of our existence. In fact, research shows that social relationships, especially intimate relationships, have measurable effects on happiness. Yet the divorce rate in the United States is hovering around 50% for first marriages (and even higher rates for 2nd and 3rd marriages). Therefore, it’s no surprise that many people seek counseling when conflict and distress occur within their relationships.
Many couples seek out the services of a trusted relationship counselor to help with their interpersonal challenges. I mean, it makes sense, right? For example, if I had a problem with my foot, I would go see a podiatrist! That being said, what some don’t realize is that individual therapy can be a powerful and effective option for improving your relationship. And, as a trauma therapist, what I’m referring to is focused, trauma-informed, one-on-one psychotherapy to address a person’s core issues.

Now, I’m not saying that relationship counseling isn’t important. It most definitely is! There’s good reason why 70% of psychotherapists treat couples, and why couples therapy has seen some of the most growth over the past decade. Skilled relationship therapists can help partners navigate through conflict, improve communication, and develop a deeper sense of connection and intimacy. I refer clients all the time to couples counselors for those exact reasons.
Nevertheless, individual therapy can either be a powerful adjunct to couples therapy, or even a robust standalone approach to improving relationships. Let’s explore how:

How can Individual Therapy Help with my Relationship?
Reduce Trigger Points
Harry has been married to his beautiful wife for several years. He would describe her as loving, hard-working, and a bit absent-minded. Overall, they have a great relationship however when she doesn’t text him back right away he gets filled with anxiety and anger. This also happens when she’s at work and loses track of time, forgetting to let him know that she’ll be late coming home. These feelings lead him to often lash out or get quiet and passive-aggressive. Harry goes to therapy and, with his skilled therapist, explores his childhood upbringing where his parents were always preoccupied with work, fighting with each other, or their own personal struggles. In therapy, he made some connections to how invisible and unimportant he felt growing up, and how these feelings get triggered now in his current relationship. Rationally-speaking, he knows full well how important he is to his wife, yet in the moment her actions just feel so painful and personal. So, Harry asks his wife to be more mindful of her responsiveness (which she is of course happy and willing to work on). And he and his therapist put together an EMDR treatment plan to reprocess these memories from his past so that he is less triggered.

The word “Trauma” comes from the Greek origin for “wound”. We know that wounds leave painful areas sensitive to touch. Because of this, unresolved traumas from the past can leave behind a sensitivity and tenderness that can easily be poked, thus creating outsized feelings and reactions in the present. In the above example, Harry’s wounds were created as a young kid experiencing overwhelming pain and anger and not feeling seen or as a priority in his parents’ lives.
Trauma-focused psychotherapy can provide the opportunity to heal and resolve these wounds so they are no longer painful, thus reducing trigger points and helping the client to respond more objectively. A skilled therapist will help their client identify triggers and their origins, teach coping skills to manage strong emotions, while collaboratively putting together a plan to reprocess these experiences to adaptive resolution.

Improve Emotional Regulation
Meredith has always struggled with managing strong waves of fluctuating emotions. She feels like she is on a tiny boat in a violent sea, at the mercy of the powerful waves and always trying to just stay afloat. In her attempts to feel okay and manage these intense feelings, she often self-medicates with alcohol, food, and occasionally with illicit substances. While this works in the short-term, if often leads to more problems and even more emotional instability and problems with her partner.

If you’ve ever struggled with emotional dysregulation issues, you know how debilitating it can be and how awful it can feel. Waves of anger, pain, depression, anxiety… can all lead to an overwhelming sense of inner turmoil and, in turn, volatile and fluctuating relationships. It’s common to vacillate between feeling too much and feeling numb. These experiences often have roots in developmental trauma (i.e., trauma and neglect experienced in childhood).
In addition, some of the maladaptive ways we try to cope with overpowering emotion interfere with relationships. These can include substances, food, sex or pornography, gambling, technology, work, you name it. There is a strong correlation between these compulsive behaviors and unresolved trauma. As such, addressing these issues in therapy can be really important toward creating the inner calm and groundedness one needs to feel okay and maintain stability in one’s relationship.

Be More Present and Emotionally Available
Do you ever feel detached from your body or emotions? Do you have a hard time being in the moment and find yourself either trying to distract or numb and shut-down? Unresolved trauma from the past can lead to what we call “dissociation” which is the brain’s way of putting some distance from the distress and pain of the present. The word comes from the latin root meaning “to sever”. When dissociating, we are essentially severing from the present moment because, in a way, it just feels too uncomfortable. Typically, the severity of dissociation is based on a number of factors including age, duration, and severity. The younger you were when experiencing trauma, the worse the trauma was, and the longer you had to endure it, the greater the chance you may have dissociative experiences.
Some people experience enough hardship growing up that they unconsciously “turn off” their emotions as a survival strategy. This makes being vulnerable and emotionally available, core components partners often need for intimacy and connection, extremely difficult. With a skilled therapist, you can be taught how to feel your feelings, become aware of your body, and be present and vulnerable (in a good way) in your relationships.

Improve Communication
Rebecca has a hard time asking for what she needs or expressing how she feels. When she gets upset, she wants to say something but often struggles, causing her to build up resentments toward herself and her boyfriend. Sometimes she is able to express herself (usually when she is really mad), but then feels really guilty and regretful afterward.
Sometimes, learning communication skills isn’t sufficient for resolving issues with communication in a relationship. One would think that if there are communication issues, let’s go learn how to communicate better and all will be okay! Yes, communication skill-building is absolutely critical and fundamental for being an effective partner in a healthy relationship. However, for some, it’s less about knowing what to say, and more about the emotional difficulties in getting out the words and feeling worthy of saying them.

In therapy, Rebecca realized that she grew up in an environment where her needs weren’t prioritized and she would get yelled at and guilted for expressing herself, thus causing her to avoid confrontation while feeling overly responsible for other people’s emotions. She and her therapist put together a trauma treatment plan designed to address these non-nurturing memories from her childhood and reduce the negative feelings she gets when she is assertive.

Increase Trust and Vulnerability
We discussed earlier about how trauma is like a wound, often leaving a painful area that is sensitive to touch. Sometimes this comes in the form of betrayal. This could be in the form of your partner’s affair or criticisms. Or from a parent, who is inherently tasked with the job of protecting you, committing neglect and abuses instead. As a result, many develop deep difficulties with trust, and they keep their guards up as a way to protect themselves from harm.
When this happens, it’s easier said than done to “just take a risk”! I mean, how many people know they are safe with their partners, but for some reason feel like hurt and pain are right around the corner if they let themselves be vulnerable. Working with a therapist to address past betrayals, abandonments, and violations of trust is often necessary to truly feel safe enough to take healthy relationship risks.

Conclusion
Humans are social creatures by nature. As such, relationships are incredibly important. But sometimes our past experiences can create roadblocks that get in the way of experiencing the intimacy and connection we need for a healthy partnership. Individual, trauma-focused therapy, along with a safe and loving partner, can provide a great recipe for success in allowing you to work on your “stuff” and enjoy a fulfilling relationship. Let’s get to work!

Brian Gong, LMHC, CAP is the co-owner of Mangrove Therapy Group, a private practice in Delray Beach that specializes in trauma and addiction. He is an EMDR Certified Therapist and EMDR Approved Consultant and basic training facilitator for the non-profit organization, Trauma Recovery, EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Programs. For more information, visit his website at mangrovetherapy.com.