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  • Isabelle Morley, PsyD

"Should We Do Couples Therapy or an Intensive?"

If you want to work on your relationship, you might wonder whether weekly couples therapy or a day-long intensive is right for you. Here's how to make that decision.

One of the benefits of not taking insurance is that I can offer therapy that doesn't fit into the rigid medical model of 45 minutes a week. This is especially important given that I specialize in couples therapy because many (if not most) couples make faster, more meaningful progress with longer sessions or doing day-long intensives.

So instead of 45 minutes a week, I can meet with couples for 2 hours and really work at making positive change. Or couples can choose to do a 6-hour intensive, which gives them the opportunity to efficiently tackle the issue at hand. In contrast, many couples feel that they are just getting to "the heart of the issue" by the end of a typical 45-minute session.

But how do you choose between the weekly sessions or day-long intensives?

Should you try an hour a week? Or meet for 3 hours once a month? Or a full 6-hour intensive with the option of doing more sessions afterwards if needed? And how do you know if your relationship can be saved?

It can feel overwhelming to pick the best approach, so here are some things to consider as you decide.

And remember, you can always schedule a consultation with your qualified prospective couples therapist to talk about the options and hear what they think would be most helpful.

You're in Crisis

If your relationship is in crisis and you're at a crossroads, you may want to do an intensive. Some couples need immediate work in order to save their relationship, and when that's the case, weekly therapy is probably not enough. Investing in a full day of therapy will help you more quickly address whatever is bringing you in.

A few examples are:

  • Recently discovered an affair

  • Have considered breaking up or divorce

  • Are making a decision (moving, kids) with a definite and nearing timeline

Scheduling is an Important Factor

Some people find that it's easier to carve out 1-2 hours a week for therapy, while others prefer taking a day off to invest in therapy. If you and your partner's schedules are inflexible (as in, you can't block off an hour every Thursday) or don't align (you work very different hours), an intensive might be easier to arrange. On the other hand, if you have a lot of control over your schedule but finding a day to take off is hard, then weekly therapy could make more sense.

You're Both Highly Motivated

When both partners are motivated to work on the relationship, an intensive might be the better choice. You'll have work to do before, during, and after the intensive, and couples who are engaged and invested in the process will get the most of out it.

There's Uncertainty about Therapy

If one or both of you is ambivalent about doing therapy or about working on your relationship, weekly therapy is the way to go. It's less of a time investment, it's easy to stop if you change your minds, and it gives you time to get comfortable with the process. It may also feel like less of a commitment than an intensive; starting with a first session and seeing if you want to schedule another is a smaller bite than agreeing to 6 hours of therapy. (Here are other ways to encourage your partner to try couples therapy if they're hesitant.)

You Want to Frontload the Investment

The intensive requires a more condensed time, effort, and financial investment but you'll also get quicker results. There will be pre-work, the intensive itself is a lot of work, and there will be follow-up assignments. The cost is higher upfront, versus paying a lower amount each week. The emotional work required is extensive. But if you want to jump in and frontload your investment of your relationship, the intensive is for you.

You're Worried about Feeling Overwhelmed

Intensives are just as they sound- intense. You'll have breaks and you'll get support throughout the day, but the intensive format is meant to get to the core of the issue quickly, and that can be a lot. If either of you have a history of significant trauma or have difficulty staying emotionally regulated, or if you have concerns you won't be able to engage in the process because you'll get overwhelmed and shut down, then weekly therapy is the better choice.

Signs That You're Not Ready for Either Option

There are a few situations that indicate couples work isn't the best idea. Most couples therapists won't work with people in these situations because it can actually cause damage to one or all of the partners. If you're in one of these situations and still want to do couples work, you'll need to address these issues first before proceeding.

Ongoing Affair

If one of you is actively engaging in an affair, couples therapy won't help. The person who is cheating needs to get into their own individual therapy and figure out who they want to be with (their current relationship partner or the affair partner) before any real work can be done.

Unaddressed Mental Illness or Substance Abuse

In order for couples work to be effective, individual problems with mental health or substance abuse need to be addressed. They don't have to be fully resolved, but the partner needs to be engaged in treatment to work on the issue outside of couples therapy. This could mean seeing an individual therapist, taking medication, or participating in a therapy group.

Domestic Violence

If there is domestic violence (physical abuse) in your relationship, couples therapy isn't a good choice. In fact, therapy could make things a lot worse, since empowering an abused person to speak up could lead to more violence from the perpetrator and endanger the victim further. The cycle of abuse is broken when the abused partner leaves the relationship, not through couples therapy. If you're in this situation, seek individual therapy and as much support as possible (the Domestic Violence Hotline, a therapy group, friends and family, etc.).

Summary of Therapy vs. Intensive

Weekly therapy will give you more space to process what you talked about (on your own, with others, or talking to your trusted individual therapist), practice skills you've learned, and get back to your emotional baseline. You can pace yourself as you unpack the relationship's problems, explore and voice your needs, and learn how to be emotionally present for each other. You'll also have more continuous support if new issues arise.

Intensives cut to the chase and quickly uncover the underlying problem and dynamics that need to change, and will condense months of work into one day of fast progress. You'll be given a lot of information and you'll be taught a lot of skills that you can practice throughout the day. Intensives require you to hear some potentially hard truths, and quickly, but will also move the needle on your relationship more quickly as a result.

Need More Help Deciding?

Schedule a consultation! Any couples therapist you want to work with should be available to talk about what's bringing you to therapy and if weekly therapy or an intensive is the best choice for you. You don't have to figure it out all on your own. A couples therapist should be a specialist in this type of work, and will be able to advise you on what makes sense for your relationship's needs and goals, so don't hesitate to reach out.


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