You recognize you and your spouse are struggling in your relationship and both of you are feeling stuck. You realize it might be time to consider couple’s therapy so you bring up the idea to your spouse. They say no, dismissing the idea for some reason or another. You try again on a different day, and you are met with the same resistance. This goes on a few times and now you are feeling helpless, knowing your relationship needs help but your spouse won’t agree to working with a couple’s therapist. So what do you do?
As a couple’s therapist, this is not a rare dilemma presented to me by clients. I have worked with individuals whose partner’s are not open to the idea of therapy, and continue to do so successfully. While it is an unfortunate circumstance, I remind my clients they are not coming to therapy in vain because while it takes two people’s efforts to create and maintain a healthy relationship, it takes just one person to begin the process of change. Relationships are systemic, meaning two people have the ability to influence each other in one direction or another. Accordingly, one person can create change in the relationship by altering their behaviors, which can influence the way their partner responds to the changes. Therefore, it is possible for you alone to create positive changes by working towards your own individual growth in the relationship.
As to why some partners are resistant to therapy, here are some reasons why:
- They did not have a good experience with a previous therapist. That is, the therapist was either not a good fit, the therapist was not helpful in the way the partner wanted help, they blamed the therapist but they were not ready for change to begin with, or they had misinformed expectations of the therapist.
- They are not ready for change.
- They have misgivings about what therapy is and how it can help.
- They don’t recognize how they contribute negatively in the relationship, therefore, they don’t believe they need to see a therapist. Instead, they blame you for the problems in the relationship.
- They are struggling with their own mental health issues which might be coming in the way of them either being open to therapy, or having the mental capacity for engaging in the process of therapy.
- They are lacking resources, such as time, money, and the ability to commit to consistently attending sessions.
To know what to do or say to your partner to get them to agree to couple’s therapy, you will first need to identify what their reasons are for not wanting to do it in the first place. Open up a discussion at a time where you both are in the right mind set to talk. For example, the middle of an argument might not be the best time to ask them their reason for not attending therapy. If they are feeling blamed in the argument, they might misinterpret your questions as further blame. When you find the right time, ask them from a place of curiosity and a desire to understand them – not from a place of wanting to convince them. To start, you can say something like, “I mentioned the idea of couple’s therapy the other day, and I got the sense you are not open to it. I want to hear your thoughts on why you don’t think therapy is a good idea for us, and whether there is something else you have in mind for us to try. Can we talk about it so I can understand you better?”
Once you are able to determine the reason why your partner is not open to couple’s therapy, you can decide how to proceed. If they had a previous negative experience of therapy, you can propose they choose the therapist and determine whether they are a good fit before the first session. If they have misgivings about therapy or misinformed expectations of the therapist, you can help them become more educated on the topic. If they blame you for all the problems in the relationship and fail to recognize their negative contributions, suggest the idea of couple’s therapy as a means for you to understand them better and, therefore, be a better partner in the relationship. Explain to them why it would be beneficial for them to be present in sessions. In all three of these scenarios, you can invite them into trying just one or two sessions before making their decision about couple’s therapy.
If they are struggling with their own mental health issues, you can advise them to work through their personal issues in individual therapy first so they can come to a better place and reconsider couple’s therapy with you. If they are lacking resources, such as time, inform them that they only need to invest an hour a week for the first few weeks, and then sessions can be more spaced out. They can also commit to once every two weeks or once every month, to begin with. As for lack of financial resources, ascertain insurance benefits between both of you, search for a therapist who offers a sliding fee scale, or find a therapist-in-training as they offer significantly lower rates.
Finally, if all else fails, you can begin working with a therapist on your own. As explained earlier in the article, one partner has the ability to initiate change in the relationship. Your partner might become more interested in the idea once they see the benefits of therapy. In some cases, your therapist can also invite your partner in session with you as a consultant, where your partner has the opportunity to share their perspective without being required to engage in the process of therapy or commit to multiple sessions. The therapist can use the consultation session to assess for critical information which can better inform the work the two of you are doing in therapy.