But sometimes couples lack the skills and tools to work through even solvable problems in their relationship. As unresolved issues, poor relationship habits, and emotional disconnection compound, the stability and spark in the relationship begin to fade.
At this stage, one partner may be eager to get some support because they know the relationship would benefit from the guidance of a professional perspective. Yet the other half of the partnership is refusing to attend.
When approaching your partner about attending couples therapy, you are likely to meet resistance. Some people have misconceptions about couples therapy; they may fear “exposing” their flaws and feeling vulnerable, or they may believe therapy will turn them into a punching bag for the therapist and their partner.
Some couples may use therapy as a last-ditch effort, rather than a preventative approach to improving their relationship. Dr. Gottman’s research on thousands of couples concluded that “couples often wait 6 years before seeking help with their marital issues.”
Sometimes the therapist is contacted after one partner has already emotionally separated from the relationship. And that makes for an extreme challenge.
It’s really difficult to get someone to commit to something if both feet are already out the door. Indeed, a lack of commitment from one or both partners can be a reason why therapy fails.
However, for the couples who are willing to commit and work through issues, there is hope. Dr. Gottman says, “Even a marriage that is about to hit rock bottom can be revived with the right intervention.”
The goal of this article is to offer you a strategy to open your partner up to the possibility of joining you on their own free will in attending couples therapy. You’ll also learn some couples therapy skills that may improve your relationship right away.
Step 1: Connect Emotionally
Saying something like “We need serious help” during a fight with your partner is not going to motivate your partner to attend couples therapy. Becoming angry and manipulating them into going will lead to resentment and withdrawal, undermining the effectiveness of the therapy.
You need to be smart about when and how you bring up the idea. As you’ll learn in couples therapy, it’s not what you fight about, but how you fight that determines the success of a conflict conversation. Dr. Gottman’s research highlights that when a partner starts a conversation aggressively, it will likely end aggressively 96% of the time 1.
Before proposing couples therapy, it’s vital that you first connect with your partner emotionally. Make them feel appreciated and cared for. Maybe even have some fun. Here are some ideas:
- Watch a comedy show together
- Cook dinner with them
- Do a fun activity like playing a card game or miniature golf
- Verbalize five things to your partner that you appreciate about them
By doing this, you’re helping your partner feel like they matter to you, which will support them in being more open, calm, and receptive. This is like waving the white flag of friendliness.
When you do have this conversation, make sure you do it at a time that is convenient for them. Don’t do it right before work or when they are stressed out or exhausted. This will backfire on you. The calmer and more relaxed they are, the easier it will be for them to hear you and be receptive.
Step 2: Proposing the Conversation
Now it’s time to ask if they want to talk about your relationship. Here is a three-step example:
- “Honey, I want to have a conversation with you about what you want for our relationship.”
- “I want you to feel like you’re enough for me, accepted for who you are, and like this a great relationship for you.”
- “Would you be willing to have a quick conversation with me?”
When you do this, and for all the following steps, make sure you speak in a gentle voice that focuses on sharing your experience. Doing so will keep your partner relaxed and prevent them from going into defensive mode.
If you know your partner is resistant to talking about anything regarding your relationship, you can write a loving letter using the ideas in this article. Such a letter can be particularly helpful with an avoidant partner as it gives them time to process and move forward on their own terms. However, the letter should be worded in such a way as to invite a conversation, not replace it.
If you are an anxious partner, it’s helpful to focus on saying no more than three sentences and then pausing when proposing the idea of attending couples therapy together, giving your partner time and space to respond.
Anxious lovers enjoy talking everything out, but when left to their own devices, they tend to repeat themselves, sometimes for 10 to 15 minutes before giving their partner a chance to say anything. Doing so sabotages your chance of getting your partner to want to listen to you because they will feel overwhelmed and like they are not a part of what feels like a unilateral conversation.
Step 3: Find the Gap
Now that both of you are sitting down to talk, focus on learning more about your partner’s view of the relationship and what they want. It will be impossible to inspire them to attend couples therapy if they don’t know what they want out of the relationship and can’t see how therapy will help them have a better relationship with you.
This can be initiated with a question. “Sweetheart, I’m curious, if our relationship was good, what would our relationship feel like for you? What might we do more of or less of? How might we do things differently?”
You partner may say, “I want you to stop causing all these fights. You always have an issue.”
If your partner starts blaming you, realize this is an expression of their pain and seek to find what Dr. Gottman calls the hidden need. Focus on listening non-defensively by reflecting and empathizing with your partner’s underlying feelings and ask open-ended questions to get a deeper understanding of what your partner is saying.
Respond to any accusations with a tone of gentleness and curiosity. “I hear you saying you’re burnt out from us fighting all the time. Me too. If we were to resolve our problems and stop fighting all the time, how do you think that would change our relationship?”
Once you have an understanding of what your partner wants in the relationship, begin searching for what’s holding your relationship back from being that way right now.
“I totally understand how difficult all this fighting is for you. I’m curious, what do you think is stopping our relationship from having fewer fights, resolving our issues, and enjoying each other more?”
Truly listen non-defensively about what they believe is in the way. It may be different from your own conclusions. That’s normal. If you feel like you’re not understanding the blocks your partner is expressing then focus on reflecting on what your partner is saying, empathizing, and asking more open-ended questions.
Step 4: Bridge the Couples Chasm
Now you want to bridge the gap between where you are now to the type of relationship you and your partner want.
When doing this, focus the conversation on wanting to improve your relationship, not on changing your partner. No one likes to feel like they need to be “fixed.” Often the problem isn’t a person, but rather the patterns of interaction partners create together.
You’re going to have more success highlighting that couples therapy is about changing the patterns, repairing your bond, and strengthening your relationship, rather than, “You’re a broken partner who needs help.”
Name the benefits your partner and you could have if you attended couples therapy in terms of what both of you want for the relationship.
“Sweetheart, I want us to attend couples therapy that’s designed to help us communicate better. I’m excited about it because I think it will help me understand more about you and how I can be a better partner. If we do it, I think we will have fewer fights, more sex, and feel happier around each other. Does that sound like the relationship you want?”
Go through my Lasting Love Checklist together to see where your strengths and weaknesses are and where you want to improve the relationship.
Step 5: Invite
Now it’s time to invite them to attend couples therapy with you in an open way that does not pressure them to participate. We want to request our partners to join us, rather than demand it of them.
Dr. Rosenberg, the author of Nonviolent Communication, highlights that requests become demands when our partner believes they will be blamed or punished if they don’t comply. With a demand, our partners only have “two options: submission or rebellion.”
Thus, you will want to present couples therapy as a choice they have. “I love you and our relationship is very important to me. I think couples therapy could stop the nasty fighting and allow us to grow closer together and feel happier. I’d love for you to join me and you’re free to say no if you choose.”
Their response could something like one of the following: “Yes.” “I have questions.” “No.”
If yes, give them a kiss and say, “I’m committed to being a better partner so we can create more of what you were looking for in our relationship.”
If they have questions, do your best to answer them and if you’re not sure say, “I’m not 100% sure. Let’s read something online or contact a therapist to get an idea.”
If their response is no, don’t take your disappointment out on them. Instead say, “Thank you for having an honest conversation with me.”
This will shock them because they will be anticipating punishment and pressure.
If your partner says no, make it clear to them that you respect their choice and want to understand why.
“Would you be willing to share why you’re choosing not to do couples therapy? I think it’d really help and maybe you don’t, so can you explain please?”
Do your best to address their concerns openly and honestly without pressuring them. If you think you’ve understood them well you can follow up and ask, “After getting your concerns cleared up, would you be willing to reconsider attending couples therapy with me?”
If they say no again, then allow the conversation to end and tell them that you respect their choice and love them. Your partner will likely marinate on the idea for a few days.
Be patient. Your partner may change their mind if you honor their choice to attend couples therapy. During this time, focus on being the change you wish to see in the relationship. Doing so may inspire them to want to make more progress with you. As 50% of the partnership, a change in your behavior has a lot of power to influence a change in the relationship.
Share with your partner the Self-Exploration Guide that might help to understand yourselves and each other better.
Listen to your partner’s concerns without thinking about how to respond. Reflect their concerns or responses back to them and ask them two questions: “Is there more to why you do not wish to try it?” and if they say there isn’t ask, “Do you feel I understand your concerns?”
Verifying that you understand them will help build trust and get you closer to truly understanding your partner’s perspective on couples therapy. Most importantly, empathize with your partner’s pain, frustrations, and worries.
Common Concerns about Couples Therapy
And how to respond:
- We can’t afford it: “Let’s look for a therapist with lower fees or get creative with different expenses we can cut out to attend.”
- I don’t need therapy: “Would you be open to attending a workshop instead of therapy?” If you attend a workshop and the skills learned still are not being implemented by you and your partner, it’s a great segue into bringing up private couples therapy for personalized guidance.
- The therapist and you will team up on me: “That’s not true. I am a part of this relationship and the therapist is going to be a neutral party that doesn’t take sides. I’m positive there are things I can do better in this relationship and I’m eager for the therapist to point this out.”
Remember, you want your partner to feel like they are part of this decision, not being thrust into a decision without a say.
Couples therapy can be incredibly helpful, and most therapists are willing to answer any questions or concerns you and your partner might have about beginning the process.
Make sure your partner knows that the therapist is a trained professional with specific couples therapy training and is there to help support you BOTH.
Wishing you all the best moving forward!
P.S. Take some time to map emotions with your partner. The questions and prompts in my Emotion Mapping for Couples workbook will guide you into in-depth and connected discussions about your experiences with emotions.
- Carrere, S., & Gottman, J. M. (1999). Predicting divorce among newlyweds from the first three minutes of a marital conflict discussion. Family Process, 38(3), 293-301. ↩