My partner won’t agree to couples counseling—now what?
Updated: Sep 10
Written By Miranda Filamini - Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapy Associate
You’re finally ready to take the next step and enlist some outside help for your relationship. You’ve done your research and found a couples therapist online who seems educated, understanding, and helpful. You pitch the idea to your partner and then you hear it: “Marriage therapy? No way. Not happening. Never.”
This letdown is all too real for a lot of people I meet in my therapy practice. Couples therapy can be a tough sell. It easily and often gets misinterpreted as an attack on the less willing partner. Let’s face it—an invitation to change is hardly as much fun as an invitation to a party. Unfortunately, I can’t make anyone show up to therapy. It truly has to be a personal choice to seek healing and change. However, I want to help you break through the despair and offer some perspective on your options now that you have been shot down by your partner:
Option 1 —Reword the invitation.
Unfortunately, couples therapy often gets brought up for the first time in the throes of an argument. In the heat of feeling misunderstood, it’s easy to say, “This isn’t working! We need to see a therapist!” And though this might be absolutely true, it is important to remember that for so many people therapy still carries a stigma of admitting defeat. In this context, your partner might misread you as saying “This is obviously over. That’s what a therapist would tell us.” Who could blame this person for feeling defensive and resisting that experience? Your spouse’s unwillingness to attend marriage counseling might actually be stemming from her fear of losing you, because that’s what therapy signifies to a lot of people—the end of the fight.
Another unhealthy way I hear couples counseling being introduced is as the byline of a critical attack: “You’re so cold towards me. I want marriage counseling.” “You never listen to me. I want marriage counseling.” “You get so angry when we argue. I want marriage counseling.”
What your partner hears? “You’re the problem here. A marriage counselor will back me up.” Again, I can’t blame someone for not wanting to spend their time, money, or energy on this invitation.
So, how do you suggest marriage counseling without stepping into these holes? I advise that you lead with your softer (read: not angry) feelings about what is going on in your relationship as well as offer up what you believe you could learn through working with a third party helper. If you are feeling fearful of losing your partner and you see that your own temper is a part of the problem, own that first! If you are feeling sad that the intimate connection you once shared seems lost and you know that you have been feeling guarded against your partner’s advances lately, say it! When your spouse hears you take responsibility for your role and learns that you want to use counseling to become a better partner to them, their defenses are going to go way down. She will get a more accurate picture of what couples counseling really is—a collaborative process during which both partners will be pushed to examine how they can improve the relationship.
Option 2 —Get him involved.
More often than not, a couple shows up in my office after one partner has done 100% of the legwork in finding my services and scheduling them. I have had husbands tell me they had no idea our appointment was on the books until that very morning when their wives reviewed the daily schedule over coffee. When I ask the wife why she chose to blindside her husband, the answer is usually the same: if he had any more notice, he wouldn’t have come.
I don’t know that this is true in most cases. I do know that it is our nature to resist activities that feel they are happening against our will. I also know that these cases in which there is a lot of buy-in from one partner and very little investment from the other are my most likely to drop out of treatment. So, instead of assuming your partner would never go for couples counseling, try the path of transparency.
First, lead with the ideas I gave in Option 1 above. Next, ask for your partner to be involved in choosing the couples therapist by either Googling counselors in your area, utilizing directories such as TherapyDen and PsychologyToday, or asking friends and family for referrals. Let your partner voice his or her needs in the areas of therapist gender and scheduling preferences. The more your partner feels he was involved in the process of initiating therapy, the more invested he will be in the change process.
Option 3—Go by yourself!
I can’t drag your spouse into my office, and neither can you. However, one of the core nuggets of wisdom we relationship therapists carry in our pockets is this: when one member of a family changes, it is impossible for any of the others to stay the exact same. In other words, just you can show up to counseling and feel significant improvements in your relationship as a result. Individual therapy helps you to better understand and manage your needs, your desires, your patterns of behavior, your triggers, and your responses when they show up in conflict. Self-awareness is the first step toward relationship health, and I wholeheartedly recommend individual counseling for people at all stages of relationship healing. A relationship may be greater than the sum of its parts, but if each individual partner isn’t looking out for her own emotional wellbeing, those parts start to crumble even faster. Couples counseling is not the only way to jumpstart positive change in your marriage or partnership. It can begin with you.
Happy beginnings to all!
Quote from the author: “I believe that the best path to happiness and fulfillment is through human connection. We are relational beings. We smile more and laugh harder when our relationships are full of trust, affection, and play. I am passionate about helping couples find and restore these elements in their day-to-day lives.” Learn more about her mental health services here.
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