“What if my partner won’t go to therapy with me?”
It’s a question couples and relationship therapists get quite often. There are problems in the relationship,, and one partner is more comfortable with the idea of therapy than the other. You can see things getting worse and get increasingly frustrated and confused when your partner says no to therapy.
There are many reasons why someone may be uncomfortable going to therapy, even if they have been to therapy before. The therapeutic process often can elicit a flurry of uncomfortable emotions, confrontation of our deepest fears and flaws, and a flood of painful memories. When I put it like that, sometimes I wonder why anyone would sign up for therapy?! Even those of us who have had plenty of counseling can feel intimidated by starting the process again. We humans are very good at staying in what is familiar, even if it is uncomfortable.
Through this lens, it can make a little more sense why someone may be hesitant to commit to therapy, not to mention therapy with a person they may care deeply about. Couples and relationship therapy not only means you are exploring all of your own emotions, but your partner’s as well, AND they may worry that if they do share their feelings, it could make things even worse.
So what are you to do? Here are a couple of things that can help…
1. Be curious, not accusatory.
If you start the conversation with “I can’t believe you won’t go to therapy with me. Don’t you even care about this relationship?” you will lose your partner in the discussion right out of the gate. Defensiveness fosters defensiveness. Potentially, your partner may care a great deal about the relationship, and that is part of their fear about going to therapy. But you won’t get to know the real reasons with accusations. You MAY get to understand better if you are curious.
“I know therapy can be intense sometimes. And I know you have been reluctant to go. I am open to hearing you out about your hesitations if you are ready to talk about it.”
Wow, that’s different! That is an invitation and an open door. If your partner is not ready to talk about it right then, that’s ok. Offer to schedule a time and a place so that they have a chance to mentally and emotionally prepare, and you have some relief that there will be a discussion.
2. Do your own therapeutic work.
To paraphrase Esther Perel: If you want to change the other, change yourself. If you start doing your own therapeutic work, the relationship can’t help but be affected. If you, a part of the relationship, begins to change, the relationship will naturally. Not to mention you will get a lot of good support from a therapist.
Here is a big disclaimer, though: When you are doing your therapeutic work, and your partner is not, often it gets worse before it gets better. In fact, because therapy can uncover uncomfortable emotions, couples therapy tends to bring out more conflict at the beginning of the process as well. Just be prepared if this happens.
3. Set your boundaries
When you start doing your own therapeutic work, your therapist will most likely help you find ways to change any unhelpful patterns that may be present in your relationships. This can include the dreaded process of setting boundaries! Boundaries tend to let others know how to best relate to us. For example, if I tell my partner I need some space to think about an argument, and they continue to raise voices or push the issue, boundaries may sound like this:
“I need space to think before I can have an effective conversation with you. If you continue to raise your voice, I’m going to walk away from this discussion until tomorrow.”
Or, if your partner has a pattern of not following through on plans with you, you may say something like:
“I’m going to continue on with our plans that we made today. You are more than welcome to join me. But I’m not going to change my plans again.”
This can be really challenging! So you may want to talk to your therapist about starting with smaller boundaries. And remember, sometimes it does get worse before it gets better. It doesn’t mean you are doing the process wrong. It just means that the process is complicated.