By Katie Bailey, MA, LPC
All marriages have ups and downs, and sometimes couples need help in the down times. Chances are if you are considering marriage counseling, your marriage is not only in a slump, but you also feel stuck as to how to make it better. Very often couples struggle and don’t acknowledge their need for outside help to get back on track. Almost always, when couples do show up in my office, one partner insisted on therapy, and the other one is not so sure.
I realize coming into therapy can be anxiety provoking. Sometimes people think discussing the ins and outs of their marriage with a therapist will only stir things up more and not provide any relief. Often husbands and wives are simply embarrassed to talk about their issues with someone they just met. Some spouses resist therapy because the thought of being vulnerable, sharing how they truly feel, is terrifying.
Of course, I fully believe that marriage counseling is effective. I’ve seen it. When couples come in and work hard, marriages are renewed, connections become deeper, and spouses leave with skills they can use to grow their relationship in the years ahead. (I do have the best job ever, to get to be part of this process!)
What happens when one partner wants to go to marriage counseling, but the other refuses? Most often what I see is that the spouse who wants therapy nags, nags, nags and nags some more to get the other partner in the therapy office. This never, ever, and I really mean never, works. All the nagging will only drive couples further apart and aggravate whatever other problems they already have. The other response I see sometimes is for the spouse who wants counseling to throw down an ultimatum. “If you don’t go to marriage therapy with me, I’m leaving you.” Never put out an ultimatum like this unless you are very serious about following through. Don’t just issue threats to try to get your partner in the counseling office. This is also not helpful, and only going to make things worse.
So, if you are desperate for help, you know you need professional counseling to restore your marriage, but your spouse refuses, what CAN you do? Read on for the most helpful ways to move forward when you’re the only one willing to seek therapy.
1. Accept you cannot control your spouse. The angrier you get that he/she won’t go for help, the worse you will feel. And chances are, you will take it out on your partner. Remind yourself regularly that your partner is his/her own person, and you can’t make him/her do anything.
2. Talk to your spouse about why he/she does not want to seek help. Consider the points made above. Ask your partner: Is there a specific reason you don’t want to go to counseling? I’m nervous about counseling, are you too? What could we do to make it easier for you to go? Would you feel more comfortable with a man or a woman therapist?
Listen to what your spouse is telling you. Perhaps if he/she can contribute to the process of choosing a therapist, it might ease some of the anxieties. Identify a few therapists that you think would be a good fit, and then ask your partner to view their websites. Most therapists offer a free phone consultation – I do – and you both could chat with the therapist on the phone first to see if it’s a good fit and if you both feel comfortable.
3. If your spouse still refuses to participate in therapy, consider going for yourself. Again, you cannot control your partner. While individual therapy is not going to repair your marriage, it absolutely can help you approach your marriage in a healthy way. You can work on healing your own hurts, changing how you interact with your spouse, and learn new coping skills for yourself. And just maybe, if you adjust how you speak and relate to your spouse, it’s possible you would influence his/her behavior as well.
Marriage counseling can absolutely help couples grow through the harder times of life. However, if you are the only one in your marriage willing to seek help, you don’t have to just stay stuck. Resist the urge to nag or threaten your partner into therapy. I promise you, that is not going to work. Spouses that are pressured into my office most likely will not participate and so therapy will not be beneficial. Calmly ask your spouse what he/she is resisting about marriage counseling, and try to work together to address those concerns and choose the best therapist for you both.
You can take care of you. Go to individual counseling. Learn to see how you contribute to the good and bad of your marriage and ways you can adjust your own style of relating. Discover how you can set healthy boundaries and take care of your own emotional well-being. When your spouse notices you responding differently, it just might spur him/her on to try to change as well.
At Lime Tree Counseling, LLC, I help couples see how they stay stuck in negative, unhelpful ways of relating to each other. We work as a team in marriage counseling to help the couple recognize their patterns and learn new ways to express what they both need from each other. If you and your spouse are both ready to strengthen your marriage, please contact me to set up an appointment!
If your partner is not ready to come in for therapy, I can still help you! Together you and I will figure out ways that you are helping your marriage and other behaviors that aren’t so helpful. You will learn new skills to communicate and to cope with all the hard feelings that naturally come when you are working on your marriage. I promise you, things can get better. As a counselor for many years, I’ve seen it happen.