What to Do When Your Partner Doesn’t Want to Attend Couples Counseling
When your partner doesn’t want to go to couples therapy, you might feel frustrated. You might feel helpless and powerless and believe there’s nothing you can do.
But there are helpful actions you can take. First, it’s important to understand your partner’s reservations. Psychotherapist Meredith Janson, MA, LPC, suggested asking your partner if they’d be willing to share their concerns. If they are, give them your undivided attention, and “mirror” or summarize what they’ve said. If you disagree with their concerns, try your best to empathize and validate them anyway, said Janson, who works with couples in Washington, D.C., and is certified in Imago Relationship Therapy.
There are many reasons why people say no to couples counseling. Many people don’t want to explore an intimate part of their lives with a stranger. They “consider themselves to be very private, and it can feel quite uncomfortable to ‘air out the dirty laundry’ to someone they don’t know,” said Silvina Irwin, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, Calif., who works with couples and is certified by the International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy.
Many people fear that the therapist will side with their partner, Janson said. They worry that this “will be just another place where they will be criticized or blamed for problems.” (They also might’ve had negative experiences with a therapist, which substantiate this fear, she said.)
However, a good therapist remains impartial. They “create a level of safety in the counseling room for both partners to freely express their thoughts, opinions and feelings,” Janson said.
People also wonder: “What does this mean about our relationship? Are we doomed?” You aren’t. And it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Rather, therapy is an opportunity to learn helpful skills to deepen your connection and work through conflict, she said. “[I]t is the best investment you can make to help ensure the long-term success of your marriage.”
In addition to talking honestly and calmly with your spouse about their concerns, the below tips also might help.
Talk about counseling in a positive, collaborative way.
When you talk to your spouse about seeking couples counseling, let them know that this isn’t about venting, fingerpointing or blaming, Irwin said. Instead, it is about helping partners stop perpetuating negative patterns and work as a team to address their issues, she said.
It’s also helpful to take responsibility for your contribution to the issues, Janson said. You might say: “I want to learn how to be a better partner to you, and I feel I need someone to teach me how to do that. Would you come along with me to a relationship coach?”
Speaking of therapy as coaching can make it less threatening, Janson said. And, overall, being vulnerable with your spouse invites “less defensiveness than an angry plea or ultimatum.”
Try self-help books.
Irwin recommended the books Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love and Love Sense, both by Sue Johnson, Ph.D. Irwin often uses these resources as a primer or in conjunction to her work with couples. “I have been consistently struck by how powerful the exercises in [Hold Me Tight] are to help couples repair and strengthen their relationship.”
Janson’s favorite book is Getting the Love You Want by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., because it features tools and exercises on improving communication and reawakening passion. And it explores why conflict and power struggles are an inevitable stage of every relationship, but also an opportunity for mutual healing and growth.
Janson also suggested John Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. (You’ll find a discussion of the principles here.)
Try a couples workshop.
Even though it isn’t therapy, a couples workshop can be very therapeutic and powerful, said Irwin, who teaches “Hold Me Tight” workshops and retreats. It can help you understand “the nature and actual science of love, making sense of what happens to people when they are distressed and how that informs their behaviors.” It also can help you learn “a map to step out of painful dynamics and into a stronger more secure bond.”
To find a workshop, Irwin suggested getting information about the therapy model the workshop is based on. For instance, many people find Irwin’s workshop after reading the book Hold Me Tight. Another option is to research the workshop and model online.
Irwin also encouraged readers to reach out and speak to the facilitators. “[A]sk about the structure and the goals of the workshop.”
The International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy has a list of national and international workshops. The Gottman Institute includes workshops led by John and Julie Gottman.
Try different exercises.
“There are many ways to work on your relationship outside of the therapy room,” Janson said. “[A]nything that increases the sense of safety and trust you feel with each other is going to improve your marriage.”
For instance, ask your spouse if they’d like to do a weekly check-in meeting to share feelings, she said. “[K]eep it safe by simply ‘mirroring’ each other, rather than turning it into a debate or problem-solving session.”
She also suggested trying activities to rekindle your passion and romance. For instance, you might go out dancing or share foot rubs while watching TV, she said. You might work on becoming a better listener and not blowing up when your partner pushes your buttons.
Janson shared these two additional exercises, which are an important part of Imago Relationship Therapy: Every night share your appreciations. This might be a quality you appreciate about your partner, such as their sense of humor: “I appreciate that you made me laugh last night when I came home after a long day.” Or share a recent experience you appreciate: “I’m grateful for the afternoon we spent hiking together last weekend.” Share how the quality or experience makes you feel: “When I see your sense of humor, I feel….” or “When we spend time together in nature, I feel….”
In the second exercise, create a shared vision statement for your marriage. Start by each listing “15 to 20 sentences that describe your vision for a wonderful, nourishing relationship.” For instance, you might write: “We are truthful with each other,” “We share major family decisions” or “We care for our relationship each day.” Share your lists. Take the items that are similar or you agree on, and create one list. These are your core relationship values. Put your statement in a prominent place.
Going to Couples Counseling Alone
Should you attend couples therapy by yourself? According to Irwin, both partners are responsible for creating a distressed relationship, so it takes both partners to stop painful patterns and reconnect. “It can’t happen with one person alone pulling the load.”
Janson believes that one person can plant a seed of change in the relationship. The key is to work with a seasoned couples therapist, she said. A good therapist won’t collude with you in blaming your partner, she said. Instead, they’ll help you become a better partner.
According to Janson, they “will coach you on the ways in which you may be perceived by your partner as threatening or critical; and teach you how to be a better listener and be able to empathize and ‘cross the bridge’ into your partner’s world.”
When your partner refuses to attend couples counseling, you might feel hurt and helpless. Thankfully, you have options, which include everything from talking to your partner about their concerns to suggesting a workshop to trying exercises to help you reconnect.
Couple talking photo available from Shutterstock
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). What to Do When Your Partner Doesn’t Want to Attend Couples Counseling. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 2, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/what-to-do-when-your-partner-doesnt-want-to-attend-couples-counseling/