How to get parents into therapy?

By Daniel J. Tomasulo, PhD, TEP, MFA, MAPP

I’m a happily married 27 year-old living with my wife. My problem is with my in-laws. They have been married for 28 years… mostly not happily. Over the last few years and especially over the last few months things have been escalating with serious thoughts of divorce. The problem is that they simply do not know how to communicate and so they go around in circles when arguing often attacking/defending themselves and each other. My question is quiet simple:

How do you get someone into therapy who is not interested in seeing a ‘shrink’ or ‘paying someone to listen’?

A: This is a very good question, and I do have some thoughts I can share with you. But my views on this take a more functional approach to getting the couple into therapy rather than the usual path of helping a couple work together with a therapist for the goal of improving the relationship and staying together. Let me explain.

From your description they are not good or easy candidates for couples work because of their resistance and lack of motivation for healing. In these instances, since it looks like they are heading toward a divorce, I appeal to couples to save themselves a fortune and make one of three recommendations. All of these tend to move them out of the boxing ring.

I recommend a divorce mediator (NOT divorce lawyers). A divorce mediator is someone specifically trained in putting together a memorandum of understanding that saves the couple tens of thousands of dollars in the divorce process. But what it more often than not does is let the couple stand on the rake of reality with a third party present. The divorce mediators are trained to detect how ready a couple is to move forward in a divorce and are usually in the position of being able to recommend a professional couples counselor to help with the emotional issues.

Secondly, when couples are this cantankerous I recommend they do a couples weekend where they use an intensive approach such as Imago, to get the issues out and clarified. In these instances I make this recommendation by saying they have spent X amount of time together and they should give it at least one weekend to see if there is anything left that can be salvaged. I also point out that they will want to understand what went wrong in this marriage because it is likely they will make the same mistake again with their next partner and they should try to learn from this relationship how to avoid making that error again.

Finally, I implore them to go for a one-shot assessment with a couples expert who would see them once, usually for an extended session, to help them with the next step. Again, the approach is a functional one as I say that a divorce is expensive and a mediator, a weekend, or an assessment can save a lot. This often appeals to couples at a level they intuitively know to be true. The message is: just because you are angry at each other doesn’t mean you have to both waste your resources on fighting through lawyers. This, somehow, has been an effective approach.

Wishing you patience and peace,
Dr. Dan

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 5 Nov 2010

APA Reference
Tomasulo, D. (2010). How to get parents into therapy?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 22, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2010/11/05/how-to-get-parents-into-therapy/