Can I Talk to Our Couples Therapist without My Partner Present?

If you and your partner are entering into couples therapy, there may times when you want to meet with the therapist individually. Most therapists have established guidelines in place for this situation to protect you and your partner, and to promote effective therapeutic progress for the relationship. The mental health counselors below discuss what usually happens in couples therapy when one partner wants to meet with the therapist alone:

Therapist Traci RubleTraci Ruble, LMFT: There is not one answer to this question, and every few years the collective treatment thinking on this changes. Ask your therapist when you are interviewing them if they will see you individually. I absolutely see individuals in the couples I work with separately, but for short periods of time. I do not, however, see a couple and also become one partner’s individual therapist.

There are things that feel so scary to say in front of a partner, and being able to say it frankly and then get help on saying it more skillfully is one of the added benefits of seeing a couples therapist individually. Some things to be aware of: you may feel left out, anxious, mad, or other feelings on the day you know your partner is meeting individually with the couples therapist. It is a good idea to share those feelings in your next couples session, so you can study these reactions.

If, at any time, you feel there is an imbalance in the therapist’s time and energy, speak up and tell the therapist. It can derail good therapy if these feelings don’t get tended to. I frequently check in with couples and see how each is feeling about our work and if anyone feels like they haven’t been getting enough air time in the session. By being direct, I model good communication skills and create an atmosphere of honest and open curiosity, as well as make each partner feel totally safe in giving me feedback. As a rule, I would recommend asking ahead of time about any policies on this.

Therapist Jonathan BartlettJonathan Bartlett, MA, MFT: Yes. Remember, however, that the primary focus of couples therapy is the relationship. From the therapist’s perspective, the couple is the client. Confidentiality, in this context, means that no information received from either person would be revealed to outside parties (unless required by law or with your mutual written permission).

Additionally, a “no secrets policy” is often utilized to safeguard against conflicts of interest between partners. This policy allows the therapist to disclose private information shared by you in individual sessions with your partner during a shared session. Thus, your secrets are safe with your couples therapist, but not if they are in conflict with the interests of your relationship. Therapists are trained to use sound judgment before disclosing and will often first explore ways to support you finding your own way to share difficult information.

Therapist Susan LevitonSusan J. Leviton, MA, LMFT: Many therapists ask to see each partner separately at some point early in the treatment, perhaps even at the first session. Some make it a rule, while others decide on a case-by-case basis. There are even therapists who treat the couple by seeing each party separately for a period of time.

There are valid reasons for both seeing each partner separately, and only seeing them as a couple. For example, there may be vital information that can only come out without the partner present. Or, there may be trust issues that will only be compounded by a partner speaking alone to the therapist. It is a clinical decision that each therapist makes on his or her own. There is no hard and fast rule about it.

However, seeing each person separately does not necessarily mean that your therapist will keep secrets. This, too, is a clinical decision that each therapist makes and if you are not told upfront what their policy is, it is important for you to ask and not make assumptions. The therapy relationship, like all other good relationships, is based on trust. If you feel betrayed because your therapist shares with your partner what you considered private information, or if your partner feels that you and your therapist are hiding information from him or her, there will be no foundation of trust in which to work.

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  • Nick Mallory

    August 7th, 2015 at 8:21 AM

    Thanks for this. I think that there are very good reason for wanting to see a couple’s therapist alone on occasion. It’s interesting, though, that the therapist may choose not to keep those sessions totally private from the other person. I didn’t realize that. It makes sense though- the therapist needs to be able to use all of the information to help the couple.

  • Niles D. Willits-Spolin

    August 18th, 2015 at 7:07 AM

    I see couples together during the initial interview and then each partner alone but only for one session each, after the initial interview, and only for assessment purposes. I’ve most often found that to see either partner separately after many couples sessions have been held only serves defensive functions and can unwittingly also reinforce the non-attending partner’s defenses. Add to this, when a divorce bound couple seeks therapy I never see either partner alone. To do so creates too much potential for collateral trouble later on when attorneys impugn the spouses in the adversarial process of divorce, depositions, subpoenas of therapy records.

  • Cory

    May 30th, 2016 at 4:32 PM

    I agree with the above comments also. Usually just one session each though if both are ok with it, then back to couples.

  • Teresa w

    June 8th, 2016 at 3:20 AM

    Relationships are at the heart of our lives, they provide us with happiness, fulfilment, and a sense of belonging.
    very interesting, good job and thanks for sharing such a good blog.

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    August 14th, 2016 at 11:44 PM

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  • Kendall R

    September 26th, 2016 at 9:51 AM

    Knowing that you can see a couple’s therapist individually is good to know for those who need to be able to get some things off their chest. That way, it might even be more beneficial during the sessions when the couple is together. The therapist will know the problems and concerns of the individual, and it will hopefully make it easier for them to help the couple as a team.

  • Nate S

    September 30th, 2016 at 6:32 AM

    Here’s the problem with couples seeing their couple’s therapist individually: therapists are not immune to persuasion during individual sessions, and whatever is brought up, individually, is not reality-tested by the non-attending person (clearly, not all information divulged in an individual session is raised in the couple’s session). It can result in a shift of balance toward the individual that is more believable/most worthy of sympathy, regardless of therapist training. I am not an advocate of individual sessions, despite some benefits. I think the process is much cleaner if all sessions are with both individuals present and everything is heard by everyone at the same time.

  • anon

    October 3rd, 2016 at 10:28 PM

    I was in such confusion over this, more than a year in, when I first encountered this “no individual sessions” prohibition. So confused, even after the therapist attempted to explain after my appointment was denied, that I had to Google it to come up with any real answer for what had happened.

    I don’t agree that couples should only be seen together. Maybe they should have two appointments each per year alone, just to help allow for a level of honesty that might not otherwise occur when they are together in the same room. My partner, as an example, makes good for the therapists, deflects questions, denies being angry (or any feeling), doesn’t participate in conversation. As for my part: I go through example after example, followed by a clear question. And I get absolutely NOWHERE. Between the therapist talking and me talking, partner isn’t answering for anything. We walk out of office and getting anywhere close to those topics of conversation will provoke either a meltdown or a walk-out-of-the-room reaction (can’t finish a sentence). We’ve already been to a life coach (2 years, nothing to show for it — can’t even get partner to set weekend plans), we saw a clinical psychologist in the past (that ended when the therapist yelled at me after getting fed up with me having the same issues every session), and now over a year in with our “new” therapist, I attempt to make my very FIRST individual appointment to ask “What’s the bottom line here on how much change, if any, I can hope for?”, and our therapist, presuming that I am attempting to schedule for individual therapy, denies my appointment through his secretary.

    Now here’s the rub: We are in these counseling sessions in part because partner goes into rages. Yet I’m supposed to say everything in front of my partner, and the one time in over a year I try to obtain an appointment to say things without my partner present, I can’t. Now get this: Upon next regular visit, therapist says that partner isn’t supposed to come alone and I’m not supposed to come alone. I have no idea what he’s talking about and I say so. I say “But at the beginning you said you wanted (partner) to come in and sometimes for me to come in individually.” I also add that I don’t remember going through any of these restrictions at the outset. I affirm that I wasn’t calling for an appointment in pursuit of ongoing individual therapy. I point out that I had missed a couple of a appointments for health reasons over the past year. Therapist asks me what I had intended to discuss. I say “I don’t remember”. Because honestly, the bottom line for me is “It’s not working. Will it ever work?”. At this point, therapist tries to cover his bases and says he has rethought the fact that I had never been in individually in over a year of couples therapy whereas spouse has come in a couple times without me due to my health issue (a chronic pain issue that can be debilitating with little warning). Well, isn’t that great! Do I want an individual appointment now, three weeks after the fact? AFTER I forgot what I specifically had in mind to go over (one of my partner’s many rages, no doubt, and the fear that I will be stuck with a partner with no capacity for change no matter how much therapy).

    Upon leaving that appointment my reaction is: Thanks, but no thanks. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the value of therapy entirely. I’m down three professionals I sought help from in nine years. Maybe the take-home message is: Know how to give yourself permission to give up, let go and move on — from whomever or whatever it is that got you into “couples counseling” to begin with.

  • lynn a.

    November 6th, 2016 at 2:47 AM

    Nice Blog! I have bookmarked your blog to refer back to it each time I write my blog. This is the first time I have ever commented on someone’s blog. It has taken me out of my comfort zone. Growth!

  • Jalu S

    November 8th, 2016 at 2:05 PM

    I thought was Susan said was interesting; I never knew that some counselors prefer to meet with each partner separately, at first. For some reason, I thought that the counseling would always happen together. I can see the benefits of doing it separately, though. That way, you can get each side of the story without any interruption or pressure. My sister needs marriage counseling. I wonder what the specialist she works with will want to try with her and her husband.

  • Martina

    February 14th, 2017 at 11:39 PM

    The couple therapy is the best way to bring declining relation back to the loving state. An experienced therapist will examine the reasons behind issues.


    May 3rd, 2017 at 10:12 AM

    I needed to know this because I am afraid that in therapy my husband will act like there is not much wrong and then manipulate me afterward with things I have said. I am not sure that only meeting together would be the best thing. I understand that therapists are human but the thing is I am afraid. I am already afraid to say how I feel to my husband after years of (mental and emotional) scars from trying. Part of this is the therapist being a mediator and translator hopefully but he is intelligent and manipulative and if he wants something seen in a certain light…I feel like I need a session alone and I do not mind him having a session alone with the therapist too.

  • Mariah

    May 6th, 2018 at 7:33 PM

    My sister and her husband are having trouble with their marriage right now. It was explained here that there are times that it will be uncomfortable to talk freely when the partner is not around. Furthermore, it will be best to consult professional marriage counselors for better advise.

  • Angel

    April 19th, 2019 at 5:04 PM

    Thank you for explaining that some therapists would rather counsel couples as individuals at first to thresh out trust issues before finally meeting them as a couple. This is just the kind of confidentiality that Aunt Tina and Uncle Tony need during their first few days if they decide to enroll in couples counseling. It would be best that after the first meeting, they individually discuss their issues with their counselor first to establish their case without fear of the other butting in.

  • Apostolos

    September 3rd, 2021 at 12:35 PM

    Thank you for the insight on this matter. I have a question to ask you please. Initially please allow me to give you a short intro. My partner and I have serious issues and essentially I broke up with her. I have felt that she doesn’t care about me and she has been extremely mean in our relationship. She is the most jealous partner I had out of many and she admitted her insecurities several times by acting even aggressively towards me let alone the shouting. I feel I can’t find justice as I don’t know what to tell her and do to make her trust me. For the records its within my principle as a man to respect and honour my partner on that regard and there is not even the tiny chance to even carelessly give her a reason to doubt my loyalty. I am 40 years old and she is 28.
    She went to see individually a couple’s counsellor for the first time. She had a long session apparently as she put down everything over an email. To cut the long story short, the counsellor told her exactly this about me: “He is a man who carries his past with him and he is attached and tied as if he has an umbilical cord and that he will always carry it with himself. She told her that she should have left me when she realized this and that no healthy person cares and keeps in touch so as not to destroy his present with his past.”
    The reason she came up with such a statement is because I like to touch base once-twice a year or so with few of my ex-partners who have been important in my life and I care their own good. They all have partners by the way and moved on with their lives if that’s what you wonder. I just care about them as they have been closer to me than some other partners that I no longer talk to and frankly don’t care to know if they are alive. So the question is: Is it normal for a counsellor to come up with such a statement without having seeing me and bring such a conclusion about myself by suggesting my partner that she should have left me because it’s within my personality to touch base with them?
    Your input is much appreciated and valuable to me. I would like to thank you for taking the time to read through my story and even more if you answer back.

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