If you and your partner are entering into couples' therapy, there may times when you want to meet with the therapist individually. You ask your therapist. The question is pretty straightforward. There is a pause.
There is not one answer to this question, and every few years the collective treatment thinking on this changes. I 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. (And if I transition from individual to couples' therapy, I will not go back to treating the individual unless the primary relationship ends and the ex-partner no longer wants to continue therapy with me, and there is a clear understanding of parameters of a new therapeutic relationship with new goals).
Sometimes it is hard to be truly honest with our partner, and being able to speak frankly with a trusted couples' therapist and then get help on how to approach conversations with your partner more skillfully is one of the added benefits of seeing a couples therapist individually.
Likewise, be aware that you or your partner may feel left out, anxious, or even betrayed on the day you either of you is meeting individually with the couples therapist. 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. I check in with couples regularly to see if anyone feels like they haven’t been getting enough attention. I model good communication skills and create an atmosphere of honesty and make each partner feel safe in giving me feedback.
Remember, the primary focus of couples therapy is the relationship. From the therapist’s perspective, the couple is the client. A “no secrets policy” safeguards against conflicts of interest between partners. This policy allows me as 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.
There are valid reasons for seeing each partner separately and only seeing clients 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.
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 them, there will be no foundation of trust in which to work.