Advice for broaching the topic of relationship counseling.
Despite long-held misconceptions, couples therapy is not a last resort reserved for people headed straight for divorce court. It’s actually great tool for partners to learn how to communicate better, resolve conflicts in a healthy way and improve their sex life ― among countless other benefits.
Therapy is healthy for all couples and the stigma is thankfully diminishing. Most of us never learned empathy and communication in school and seeing a professional who can help you develop a healthy framework for relating to one another and getting both of your needs met in a relationship can only be a positive thing.
Although couples therapy has become much more normalized in recent years, many people still hesitate to bring up it up with their partner. And not everyone has a positive reaction to the suggestion that they might see a mental health professional.
Still, there are ways to broach the topic that maximize effectiveness and emotional connection. Below is some advice for bringing up to your partner that you’d like to go to couples counseling.
Think about timing.
When asking your partner to go to couples therapy, be sure to begin the conversation at a time when you are free from distractions and it is planned, rather than in response to something that just happened, like an argument.
Bringing up couples therapy during or just after a disagreement might come off like you’re weaponizing that experience to put pressure on your partner.
During moments of tension, partners may be on the defense and not in a ‘we’ mindset. With each person in their own corner, your partner may reject suggestions from you in an attempt to protect themselves or their vulnerabilities.
Instead, choose an occasion when emotions aren’t running high, neither of you are distracted by something else and you both have time to talk.
Use “I” statements.
Resist the urge to accuse your partner of things or tell them what they need to change by communicating your thoughts and feelings with “I” statements.
This type of communication can reduce the likelihood of your partner feeling criticized or responding with defensiveness. For example, make a request by stating, ‘I have noticed we’ve been struggling to address a few ongoing issues. Our relationship is important to me and I want to prioritize getting some additional support to stay ahead of these problems before they get worse. I would like for us to discuss looking into couples therapy options and would love to find some time to chat about this.’
Share what you’ve observed and how it makes you personally feel. Use “we” language to emphasize there are things you can both work on or change together.
Rather than blaming your partner or making them feel like the relationship problems are all their fault, try, ‘I’m thinking we can both use support in shifting our communication patterns. It can be so hard when we are both sucked into the dynamics, some outside perspective may be really beneficial. Let’s see how a counselor can help us. I really want to work on this with you.’
Acknowledge their feelings.
Start with an open-ended question. Say, ‘I’m committed to our relationship and always working to make it the make best it can be, I’ve been thinking about couples therapy to gain some tools ― how does that sound to you?’ And then listen with openness to their response.
It’s common for one partner to be more interested in therapy than the other. So be prepared to hear a negative response and focus on listening and showing empathy. Don’t make assumptions about their resistance.
Rather than trying to convince them right away, try to understand why they feel that way. Perhaps they are scared of what it will reveal, perhaps they had a bad experience with a therapist previously, perhaps they’re just worried about what others will think.
Give them space to process their emotions and then ask curious and empathetic questions that show you want to understand their perspective. Try to really hear and validate their concerns.
Individuals whose parents got a divorce when they were younger may be frightened that a request to attend couples therapy is a sign of the ‘beginning of the end’ of their own relationship. Let your partner know that they matter to you and that your desire to attend couples therapy together is actually to deepen your connection to one another.
Once you’ve recognized and addressed their worries, you can restate your own emotions and needs.
Acknowledge your partner’s feelings about it by saying, ‘I understand you may feel differently than me about therapy, but I’d like to ask you to join me, even if you just come to listen.
Include positive affirmations.
Begin with appreciation and with a positive statement about what’s working in the relationship. You can then ask your partner what the things they are happy with in the relationship are and what areas they would like to grow in. This in itself can be a good exercise in healthy communication.
Use a “sandwich” approach when it comes to communicating about difficult issues.
Start by saying something positive about the relationship, then something you would like to be different or that you have tried to work on and haven’t, then end with something positive or an appreciation. Then suggest couples therapy as a way to work on the issue that you have found difficult to resolve on your own in the relationship. If you find you are unable to even have the going-to-therapy conversation, then you know bringing it up was an important step.
Focus on what you want to get out it.
Avoid blaming or pathologizing statements and instead focus on what you hope to get out of the experience of couples counseling.
Talking about how you want to show up as your best self for your relationship, identifying and acknowledging the things you would like to work on in yourself in order to be a better partner will lower the likelihood of a defensive answer and a ‘no’. Talk about the ways you personally feel stuck and why you think you would benefit. Start the conversation by talking about yourself, not by talking about how you blame your partner or want them to change.
Make it clear that couples therapy is not a space where partners play the blame game and accuse each other of various failings. Just as you use an accountant to manage your taxes or trainer to stay fit, professional support can help you thrive in your relationship.
Try framing it from a strengths-based perspective, emphasizing that you want to grow, reconnect and learn skills that will allow you to be stronger as a couple. By focusing on how therapy could improve your relationship, it shows your partner that your goal is to grow together and increase intimacy in your relationship.
Mention specific concerns.
I recommend to my clients that they bullet out the important parts of what they want to say. I find that scripting or rehearsing difficult conversations can help you get the key information they want to convey out, even if the conversation is heated and doesn’t exactly go as planned. You probably don’t want to bring the physical notes in to the conversation but use them in preparation.
As you plan out what you want to say, think of one or two examples of specific areas of concern or relationship patterns that you feel would benefit from counseling. You might find yourself repeatedly fighting about the same few issues and struggling to come up with solutions together. Again, make sure to frame these as “we” problems, not points of blame.
Use an example of a frustration, undiscussed issue, conflict and explain how you’d like to work on it together, noting it could be a parenting disagreement or dispute with extended family. Maybe point out attempts to resolve the issue that haven’t gone well. For example: ‘We brush things under the rug.’ ‘We get defensive.’ ‘We worry about hurting each other’s feelings which causes us to be indirect with each other which then leads to misunderstandings and hurt feelings.’ ‘We get moody with each other and don’t talk.’”
Suggest searching for a therapist together.
To demystify the counseling process, suggest sitting down together to check sites which have online directories that allow you to search for professionals.
Browsing therapist profiles together may help with defusing some of the resistance to attending couples therapy. As you are reviewing websites together, consider making a list of some of the qualities you are each looking for in a therapist and see where you have overlap. Ask curious questions to your partner to gain a deeper understanding of what they like or don’t like about one therapist over another.
Even if your partner doesn’t want to be part of the research process, make sure to get their feedback after you try a few sessions with a new therapist. Invite them to play an active role in this decision.
Think of it as an ongoing conversation.
Remember that bringing your partner on board to the idea of attending therapy may take more than one conversation. Viewing it instead as an ongoing dialogue may take some of the pressure off.
Give your partner space and time to reflect on the idea, as this might be the first time they’ve considered it. Even if you don’t like their initial reaction, they might just need to process those early emotions to get comfortable with it.
Don’t take no for an answer and seethe for weeks about it. Give them a couple of days to cool off and come at it another time, from another angle, stating different feelings, benefits or solutions to their concern.
Remain calm and emphasize that therapy is different from the conversations you have at home. If you have friends or family who’ve done couples therapy, see if they wouldn’t mind sharing their experience with your partner.
Present different options and see if your partner is open to any ― short-term couples therapy to focus on an upcoming event or specific incident, one or two sessions, an introductory phone call. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. If you have an upcoming event or transition that is raising concerns, suggest time-limited therapy to prepare. Or if the event or life transition already occurred and there are lingering feelings or tension, suggest therapy just to process the event.
Don’t give up on therapy.
If you are unable to get your partner on board with the idea of attending couples therapy, consider attending individual therapy to process your own thoughts, feelings and needs. Working with a relationally focused therapist may equip you with skills that you can utilize with your partner, both in defusing the resistance to attending therapy together and with addressing some of the ongoing issues in your relationship.
You can share with your partner what you’re gaining from individual therapy, which might inspire them to reconsider attending together.
I would approach your partner with an attitude of ‘working at our relationship is important to me, and I’ll be doing this work whether you join me or not. This shows that you’re not reliant on conditional change, or waiting to work on healthy changes until they agree to it, but that you see it as important work to do now, even if it’s by yourself. A lot of times, showing your partner that you’re serious about investing time and space to your relationship’s growth or healing is all they need to trust in the process themselves.
Normalize therapy by discussing its benefits in everyday conversation. This will help take away the stigma and misconception that couples therapy is something you only do when you’re at a breaking point.
Try thinking about couples therapy as part of your overall preventive care. The sooner you get started, the higher potential you may have to create lasting and meaningful change.