When Your Partner Won’t Come to Couples Therapy

Unhappy couple not talking after an argument at homePerhaps you and your partner have been fighting for years, going round and round about the same issues. Or possibly you have retreated into icy silence, not even bothering to fight anymore. Or maybe you just feel like you’ve lost the sense of connection with your partner: these days you only talk about who is driving to soccer games or picking up groceries.

Whatever the scenario, you have reached the point where it feels like your relationship is on life support and you don’t know how to fix it, so you suggest the two of you go to therapy. And your partner says no.

Such a refusal can feel like a punch in the gut, maybe even the final blow to your relationship. You may feel angry, hurt, and rejected. After years of unhappiness, you reached out to your partner with the only solution you think might help, and he or she refused it. It may feel like your partner has confirmed your worst fear—that he or she doesn’t care about you or the relationship.

As angry and hurt as you feel, try not to give up just yet. You probably think you understand the meaning of your partner’s refusal, but you might be wrong. When couples have experienced years of conflict or disconnection, they often misperceive each other’s thoughts and feelings.

By trying to understand and respond to your partner’s concerns about therapy, you may be able to turn things around. This approach can feel very risky, like a knight going into battle without a suit of armor. But it’s only by taking off your armor that you can begin to have a meaningful discussion instead of a battle.

Here are some suggestions that can increase your odds of success.

1. Choose a time to talk when you are both feeling calm and there are no distractions.

2. Reassure your partner that the purpose of this talk is not to criticize or assign blame, but to try to understand his or her perspective. For example, you could tell your partner: “I know we don’t have a good track record of talking things out, but I really want to understand how you feel about this.”

3. Ask your partner to explain his or her concerns about going to therapy. Make sure your tone is open, curious, and nonjudgmental. We all respond more strongly to nonverbal cues such as facial expression and tone of voice than to the actual words spoken. When there is a history of conflict, people become even more sensitive to nonverbal cues.

4. Once your partner expresses his or her concern, avoid the temptation to contradict, defend, minimize, or criticize. Instead, begin by trying to put yourself in your partner’s shoes and understand where he or she is coming from. Then let your partner know you understand, even if you disagree. Some examples:

  • “I can see why you don’t think anything will change. Nothing has changed for many years.”
  • “I know you think I’m the problem and it’s been very frustrating to you that I see things differently.”
  • “I can understand why you wouldn’t want to go to therapy if you think the therapist is going to take my side.”
  • “I didn’t realize you think most couples who go to therapy end up divorcing. It makes sense now that you don’t want to go.”

5. Offer your partner a perspective that addresses his or her concerns without contradicting, defending, minimizing, or criticizing. Some examples:

  • “It’s because nothing has changed for years that I want us to see an outsider who can help both of us do things differently.”
  • “Part of why we’re stuck is we each think the other is the problem. I’m hoping a therapist can help us understand each other’s perspective.”
  • “I don’t think it will be helpful, either, if the therapist takes sides. So let’s agree ahead of time that we won’t stay with a therapist who makes either of us feel that way.”
  • “Let’s do the research and choose a therapist whose approach has a good track record of helping couples resolve their differences and stay together.” (And then make sure you do this. You’ll increase the likelihood of a successful outcome if your therapist is trained in an approach to couples therapy that has strong empirical support for its effectiveness.)

Will this be an easy conversation to have? Of course not! If you could have this conversation easily, you might not be considering couples therapy. So prepare by practicing and anticipating what might throw you off. And have a fallback plan. If you find yourself getting too angry or defensive to have the conversation the way you want to, you can always tell your partner, “Let me think about what you’ve said and get back to you.”

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ruth Jampol, PhD, therapist in Newtown, Pennsylvania

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 12 comments
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  • Murray

    Murray

    September 14th, 2015 at 8:51 AM

    Your partner won’t come with you? well now that doesn’t seem like too much of a couple to me.

  • Warren

    Warren

    September 14th, 2015 at 10:19 AM

    I would suspect that men are far more hesitant about trying this then women would be. I happen to think that women are a lot more open minded about seeking help outside of the marriage while men want to do things internally, you know. Not that I think that this is always the answer, but with some men you might just have to give them a little more time to get used to the concept of asking others for help and becoming willing to accept that from other people too.

  • becki

    becki

    September 15th, 2015 at 10:24 AM

    I hope that after he sees the improvements and changes that come about as a result of therapy then he would be more apt to want to accompany you.
    Now this might always be the case but if someone really is in it for the duration then they should want there to be some changes and improvements made all for the betterment of the relationship.
    If this is not something that they are searching for too then are you going to continue to be happy with someone who is content with remaining complacent?

  • Robert

    Robert

    September 15th, 2015 at 3:01 PM

    Many men are automatically going to think that there is something wrong if you want the two of you to go to therapy when really you may just be looking for new ways to freshen up the relationship.

    I think that they would appreciate you being honest with them up front about what you are looking to gain from the experience.

  • Dr. Ruth Jampol

    Dr. Ruth Jampol

    September 16th, 2015 at 7:22 AM

    These are all great observations. Yes, it does seem like in general men tend to be less comfortable coming to therapy than women. I agree with Warren that being patient, and giving your partner more time to get used to the idea of asking for help, can be useful. As Becki says, sometimes it can help if your partner sees positive changes from your own work the therapy. And Robert makes an excellent point that couples therapy can be very helpful to shore up the connection and closeness in a relationship even when there are no serious problems. Being honest about what you’re looking for in therapy is always a good strategy!

  • Tim

    Tim

    September 16th, 2015 at 10:45 AM

    I would be very taken aback if my wife came to me and said that this was something that she wanted to try because I guess that I would think that I must be oblivious if there is actually a problem!

  • How about when she cheats?

    How about when she cheats?

    September 16th, 2015 at 3:01 PM

    I found her lovers emails. He is the controller at the company she works for.

  • Melissa

    Melissa

    September 17th, 2015 at 11:11 AM

    I would find this refusal to go along such a betrayal of the marriage, like he doesn’t even care enough to do this one thing for me and I think that would really make me shut down and say that I’m done, this is over.

  • canyon

    canyon

    September 18th, 2015 at 11:38 AM

    I struggle with talking when I am calm, I want to shout it all out when I am already upset and angry. As you can guess that’s never a good plan.

  • Dr. Ruth Jampol

    Dr. Ruth Jampol

    September 18th, 2015 at 5:24 PM

    Yes, you are not alone with this. Many people have trouble talking about sensitive topics, and then when they get angry it all spills out. For many of the couples I see in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, in the beginning the only place they can talk safely is in my office. But over time, they learn how to do this on their own.

  • megan

    megan

    September 21st, 2015 at 10:28 AM

    There are days when I really don’t even feel like we are married anymore. So much of what we say and do revolves around work and the kids that we have lost the ability to make time for each other and our relationship. And we are really suffering as a couple because of that. Somewhere along the way we stopped being a spouse and it almost feels like we are roommates with scheduling issues these days. Not a very peasant state to be in when it comes to your marriage.

  • Dr. Ruth Jampol

    Dr. Ruth Jampol

    September 21st, 2015 at 11:26 AM

    Megan, I hear so many couples saying this, especially couples with children. Somewhere along the way they have lost their connection and they’re living like roommates. Partner think they don’t have time for each other in their busy lives, but it’s not really big blocks of time couples really need, but moments of connection. I hope you and your husband can find your way back to these moments. If not, an Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist or a Hold Me Tight workshop might be helpful.

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