For many years, journaling has been a helpful tool for those dealing with stress and emotional issues. Even our military recognized the benefits of journaling and has incorporated the practice to help deployed soldiers.

It is important to appreciate, however, that not all personal writing is the same . In addition to individual journaling, marital journaling is a distinct practice and can be an important way for couples to improve their intimate communication. 

That said, there are significant differences between individual journaling and marital journaling which need to be understood.  Here are some thoughts to help couples who are confused:

— Individual Journaling

Individual or primary journaling is a writing exercise. In it, persons give themselves permission to put into words  any feelings and thoughts that they have about themselves and their life experiences.

In some ways, primary process journals are like ordinary diaries.  There is one important distinction, however.  A diary typically records mundane thoughts about everyday events. 

The purpose of primary process journaling is not to record so much as it is to deal with powerful and destructive feelings. Thus, spontaneous unfiltered writing often expresses thoughts which are not acceptable in polite society.  The content in primary journals is often offensive and disturbing. It needs to be emphasized that these thoughts and feeling, while repugnant, occur because the way our brains are wired. 

They occur because, when stressed, traumatized or erotically stimulated, the animal part of our brain (the limbic system) reacts with unfiltered expressions of fear, anger or sexual arousal.  

Since these thoughts and feelings do not come from the human part of our brain, they are often socially unacceptable and crude.  Primary process journaling is important because it provides a safe way to express raw experiences without having to act them out. THREE KEYS TO EFFECTIVE PERSONAL JOURNALING. | Pastoral Counseling Syracuse NY (

— Getting over shame and accepting our limbic experience

That said, journaling is most effective when it is honest and uncensored. Ironically, one of the largest obstacles to honest individual journaling is shame and embarrassment. Folks need to understand and accept that having such thoughts is normal and not an indication of mental illness or poor character.  They are simply part of the dark side of human nature. 

Even though normal, uncensored material needs to be kept private and absolutely confidential. It is not the kind of thing that anyone else has the right know about unless it is intentionally revealed by the writer. 

Thus, to insure confidentiality, folks must password protect computer files or lock up in a safe place any thing they write on paper. 

— Marital Journaling

In contrast to individual journaling ,marital journaling is a written form of dialog. In it, one partner writes his/her thoughts in a mutually shared file or book . In turn, the other partner responds. 

Its purpose is to address problems in the relationship or family and to negotiate solutions.  Instead of being unfiltered, messages are carefully thought out . Rather than raw or uncensored , a marital journal contains only those thoughts from which irrational emotions have been edited out. Marital journals can express unpleasant feelings such as anger or despair but they must do so in a way which does not attack or blame the other party.

The goal of primary process journaling is to access and then ventilate intense negative emotion. On the other hand, the point of marital journaling is to communicate reasonable and logical concerns and to negotiate compromises.  Journaling For Couples: How To Start A Couples Journal (Prompts Included) – Project Hot Mess   

— The importance of I-statements

In addition to filtering out non-constructive emotion, the way one writes in a couple’s journal is important.  Using I-statements are a helpful alternative to expressing harsh criticism of the partner. Expressing  what a person feels and wants rather than blaming is much less likely to  trigger angry or shutting down reactions. 

–How the two kinds of journaling can work together.

I’ve noticed that, sometimes, couples have trouble remembering to filter their thoughts when writing in their mutually shared journal. Unedited messaging can result in reactive and unproductive negotiations not to mention heated exchanges.

To prevent this from happening, couples must follow a basic rule: Don’t attempt marital journaling unless both primary process journal as well.


A good marriage successfully blends two individual needs into one compatible partnership . This task is no small accomplishment and requires excellent  couple communication and continuous effort.  With the help of both individual and couple journaling,  couples can gain not only better understanding of one another but also deepen their intimacy and marital satisfaction.

Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow AAPC                                                              7 2 2023