How to Get Your Resistant Partner to Go to Couples Therapy
DEAR DR. JENN,
My boyfriend and I have relationship issues that could benefit from professional help, but he refuses to go to couples therapy. How can I get him to come around to the idea? — Therapy Phobia
DEAR THERAPY PHOBIA,
It's not uncommon for one person to be resistant to starting couples therapy. Usually that person is afraid that they are going to walk into a therapist's office and be perceived as being what we call in my business the "identified patient", aka the "bad guy." One person in the relationship may even worry that the therapist will tell them that they should break up.
On top of all of that, there are the usual concerns about therapy: that they will be forced to talk about things that are difficult or uncomfortable, or to feel feelings they have been trying to avoid. Many also fear being so vulnerable in front of a stranger or that they will be judged. This is all totally normal.
But one thing to understand about couples therapy is that the couple is viewed in a system. Even when one person seems like the "bad guy", this is occurring in a system that both people participate in. A good therapist's job is to help couples see how they are both participating in the problem — and how to change the unhealthy patterns of communication and behavior in the relationship. That takes two. (The only exception to this is abuse, which is never justified. For this reason, couples counseling is not recommended for couples where domestic violence is taking place.)
Here, some ways you can help your partner work through their therapy resistance.
1. Avoid language that places blame. Too often I see couples where one person drags the other into therapy to be "fixed" ("You're f—ed up and we need couples therapy!"). Help your partner to understand that this is about both of you taking the steps, developing the tools, and learning the communication skills to have a more mutually satisfying relationship. Be sure to tell your partner know that there are ways you want to become a better partner to them, too.
2. Let your partner pick the therapist. I always recommend people meet three therapists in person before deciding who they want to work with. (Often times this means interviewing more than three people on the phone, by the way.) Once you meet with the chosen three therapists, give your partner the control of picking who it is that you move forward with.
3. Talk about his/her biggest therapy fears. Resistance to therapy usually comes from fear. Have a calm loving conversation with your partner to find out what their biggest concern is so you can allay their fears. Sometimes one person fears they're being brought into therapy in order to be broken up with. If that's not the case, make sure you reassure your partner that you are not looking to dump them in a therapy session.
4. Address their financial concerns. All too often, financial concerns are what keep people from going to couples counseling, but there are a few things to know about finding affordable therapy. Since all therapists must complete 3,000 hours under supervision in order to get licensed, mental health clinics are filled with interns getting their degrees. That means you can often get the expertise of two therapists for a lot less money. Additionally, many therapists keep low-fee slots available in their practice or are willing to lower their fee — you just have to know to ask. It's also helpful to discuss finances with your partner in advance (i.e. if you are splitting the fees or if one of you is paying for it).
5. Explain that it's never too soon. Sometimes one person is resistant to couples therapy because the relationship is so new. The common assumption is that the need for therapy early on means that it is not a viable relationship. But more and more often, couples are starting therapy earlier in the relationship. This is a very healthy trend because it allows couples to avoid getting into bad habits in their relationship from the start and provides an outlet for difficult times in the future. In my clinical experience, close intimate relationships tend to trigger unresolved childhood wounds. This means it's not uncommon for a couple, once they are emotionally intimate, to encounter more issues and conflict. I am a big believer in the idea that couples have the opportunity to help each other heal these issues.