As the saying goes, it takes two to tango. But does it require two to make a relationship better? What happens when one person in a relationship doesn’t think there is a problem or doesn’t want to do the work—especially if that work means going to couples therapy?
This is a very common problem. Here are some of the reasons I have heard people say about why their partner refuses to go to couples therapy.
- “We should be able to fix the problems in our relationship ourselves. Keeping a relationship healthy should come naturally without a lot of work and outside help. ”
- “How can a perfect stranger know what is best for us and tell us what to do?”
- “Therapy is for the weak or the self-indulgent.”
- “You will be able to express all your feelings much better than I can, so that the therapist will take your side and then I will end up being the bad guy with the problems being all my fault.”
- “I cannot see the benefit of talking about our relationship. It will open up ‘a can of worms’ that will make everything worse.”
- “Going to a marriage counsellor is the final nail in the coffin of our relationship. It is an admission of failure.”
Before being defeated by your partner’s refusal, it’s important to make sure they really don’t want to go by understanding their reservations. Here are a few tips to about how to have the conversation:
- Listen empathically to their reservations. Stubbornness is a sign of fear. Find out what the fear is about and find ways to address it.
- Don’t let your partner pull you into an argument. Say: “We disagree and we disagree a lot. That’s why I would like for us to go to couples therapy.” Repeat it over and over like a broken record, instead of getting pulled into an argument.
- Many people have difficulty asking their partner to counselling in a non-defensive, caring way because they are hurting and angry. Try: “I care about us and I need some help in learning how to communicate to you better. I would like to try couple counselling.”
What to do if your partner absolutely refuses to try couples counselling?
If your partner is refusing to go and you have tried to have conversations as suggested above, you have a few choices:
- You could do nothing and see what happens. I have heard many a couple in my office as a last resort, on the brink of separation say, ‘I asked him several years ago and he refused.’ Now the efforts to improve the problems in the relationship will be much harder and successfully repairing the damage and keeping the relationship together far less likely.
- You could force the issue by telling them you are seriously considering leaving the marriage/relationship. This may get you in front of a couples therapist but you must be prepared for the possibility that they say, ‘then leave’.
- You could tell them you plan to go on your own. This is the best choice for many reasons in my view.
Going to Therapy Alone
Working on the relationship by yourself without your spouse can be a very powerful. At the very least you can change how you are managing your relationship problems. Even when only one person in the relationship sees a therapist, change can happen. I have known some situations where the uninvolved partner noticed the changes, becomes curious about what happens in therapy and then decided to attend.
Often when you go alone to therapy, the question changes from “what can I do to get my partner to change so I can be happier?” to “what can I do to be a happier person and maybe improve my relationship, at the same time?”
Sometimes the refusal of a partner helps to bring to light what a difficult personality you have been struggling to deal with. You may need help to recognize that the person you are with is self-absorbed and unable to be in a truly reciprocal love relationship. Your own therapy can help rebuild your damaged self-esteem from years of mistreatment, help you cope and make better decisions.
Your most important relationship is the relationship you have with yourself. If taking care of you means going to therapy, make a commitment to do so. While it may be comforting and cathartic to share your frustrations, hurt and sadness, it may also be challenging because you are forced to come face to face with some painful realities about the ways you interact with your partner. However, with a caring therapist helping you reflect on your relationship, you will be more prepared to figure out whether to stay and make things better or leave the relationship.
If your relationship is over, it is very worthwhile to reflect in your own therapy what went wrong. How did the relationship fulfill your needs and how it did not, in the beginning, throughout and in the end? Exploration of past relationships with parents as a child and presently, as well as past romantic relationships can help you recognize negative patterns. Self-knowledge helps you avoid falling into those patterns again. As you work to know yourself, you may discover deeper aspects of your nature and will find yourself on the road to healing and greater happiness.