Monday, July 4, 2011

Marriage counselling and the rise of individualism.

In Australia at the moment the number of people living single in a dwelling by them self is at a record high. There has never been a time when so many have lived single and not in a family unit or a group of some kind.

I have talked before about society, psychology and the rise of individualism.

I made mention that psychological theory over the past 150 years has promoted individualism as the psychologically healthy state. Since the contemplations of Freud, psychology has been very influential in directing governments to structure societies such that individualism thrives. To my mind this has gone too far and the individualism which psychological theory promotes has indeed become a neurotic condition itself.


This is no where better demonstrated than in marriage. The divorce rate in Australia hovers around the 50% mark and of those who don’t get divorced probably half of them would if they were not under pressure from religion, family and friends, financial pressure and so forth.

Anthropological studies show that as societies evolved originally you had to live in groups. People found that if you lived in a group your chances of survival were much better. This is no better demonstrated than in the basic family unit. When a male and a female produce a child, that child had a much better chance of survival if the mother and father stayed together.

Thus the psychology of these people one could postulate, was about the survival of the group rather than a focus on the ‘psychological survival’ of the individual. In addition to just survival people would have also discovered that if you lived in groups you could achieve things and create a much better lifestyle than if one simply existed on their own.

Aboriginal child

As societies mature and become more affluent then the basic survival needs become more predictable and guaranteed. People feel more secure about their basic survival. When this happens instead of feeling relief along comes Freud and the navel gazing starts. People start focussing on their own individual psychology and happiness. This now has progressed over generations of psychologists to the point where individualism is seen as the zenith to be achieved.

This change of focus from survival of the group to the pursuit of individual happiness is reflected of course in how therapists ply their trade, especially in marriage counselling. This quote comes from a psychology text book on marriage counselling that is used in universities and training institutes for psychologists.

Darthn soldier
If there was ever a need for a collectivist mindset for survival it is between comrades in a theatre of war.

“The client who, out of his own feeling of need, seeks marriage counselling obviously has some dissatisfactions with that relationship. Some of his needs are not being met, or for some reason his life pattern is not providing adequate satisfaction.”


out of his own feeling of need
some dissatisfactions with that relationship
some of his needs are not being met

Sometimes in couples counselling clients say to me, “This relationship is not meeting my needs.”

When I hear this I get a sort of flummoxed look on my face, and think:

Hello! Marriage is not a happy pill. Marriage is not this thing that is to meant make you feel better about yourself.

No wonder the divorce rate is what it is.

Individualism riding roughshod over the collective. And we are training our psychologists and marriage counsellors to espouse that very view to the public by putting such ideas in the very text books we use to train them.

My counselling of married couples has changed somewhat over the years. I was trained on those textbooks as well. My approach besides exposing the underlying dynamics of the relationship would promote behavioural negotiation between the couple such that both parties can get their needs met more comprehensively.

Unstable marriage

Now I do more along the lines of the acceptance of the other person for who they are. Not so much about getting my needs directly met by the other, more about accepting the other for who he/she is.

However I feel this is a superficial response to the shift away from individualism to a more collective approach in marriage counselling. I feel a more basic change is needed but I am not too sure what that is at the moment. It needs to involve more of a change in the philosophical outlook on marriage that can be woven into the therapeutic process.



  1. Hi Tony, one possibility is the vision of the self in the book Gestalt Therapy.

    I think we need a way of saying that we are social-individuals not individual-individuals.

    There is a little in economics (the religion of our time) on social goods and that the 'tragedy of the commons' is a fallacy.

    In psychotherapy I think we could build on the gestalt insights to recognise belonging as a need. Building on Bowlby? Also recognising the importance of intimacy - that welcoming another's difference can lead to a deepening of the relationship. Much work to be done I think. I am very glad to see you are thinking about this it seems hugely important to me.

  2. Hi Tony,

    this text makes good point. Psychologists have set goal of individuality as target of good therapy but there is big question mark is it best it could be? I agree that individualism is (ideally) better than psychology of drove, but to declare it as zenith of therapy (or development of human race) is questionable - just because we (still) don't see what is beyond. And somehow, intuitively, I think in the future it would move to social/relationship/belonging whatever, without neglecting importance of individual health.

  3. Hi Evan,

    Thanks for your comments and you make some interesting suggestions. I think there is a lot in what you say about the need to belong.

    thanks again


  4. I think I agree with you Mirko in that there needs to be a rebalancing between individualism and collecivisim. To my mind we have swung too much towards individualism so I don't see there is too much risk of unduly neglecting the importance of indivdual psychological health at this time.

    To my mind we need to bring back some collectivist mindset in societies. I think this has the potential to benefit many



  5. I think we need an integration not a trade off.

  6. This right as for the goal of a Psychologist would not be enough for all as he should maintain individual goal for each. Marriage works by loving the right person enough to make the right choices as you do so. Irvine individual therapist

  7. Hello andreapadoker,

    I would agree that that certainly helps in making a marriage work, and I would say that they also need to be compatible flatmates and friends as well or life is going to be hard and that eventually wears down the love.


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