If you are reading this post, then chances are you have noticed something is off in your relationship (recently or years ago) and want to do something about it. That is huge! You are taking an important step to improve your relationship. The next step can be tricky though, especially if someone in the relationship is hesitant to give couples therapy a try. One of the most common reasons divorced couples gave for not going to marriage counseling was that their partner was not interested or willing to try it. Asking for help with your romantic relationship can feel vulnerable and exposed, and there are often a lot of concerns or questions about what to expect (see our blog on “What to Expect from Your First Couples Counseling Session”).
If your partner is unsure about couples therapy, what is the best way to discuss this as an option? Talking to your partner about couples therapy can be difficult, and many people are unsure of how to start. Here are a few tips to help you get the ball rolling.
Tip 1: Ask Them About Couples Counseling.
Often in romantic relationships, partners feel so sure of how their partner will respond that they do not even bother bringing up a concern or request. Try and challenge any assumptions you have and talk openly to your partner about your desire to go to couples therapy. It helps if the conversation is framed in terms of what you want, rather than what your partner “needs to work on” or “fix.” For example, try stating, “I really want some help with working on myself and our relationship in couples therapy with you.”
To make sure that this conversation goes as well as possible, check out the next tip “Avoiding Blame.”
Tip 2: Avoid Blame.
This step is all about setting yourself up for success when bringing up couples therapy. Avoiding blame will decrease defensiveness and increase the likelihood your partner is willing and able to have a conversation about this with you. Discussing the potential of needing professional help with your romantic relationship is difficult! It takes courage to acknowledge and address something so close to home, so using gentle and deliberate language and checking your tone can help reduce defensiveness and increase the chances that our partner will be able to hear and listen.
To start, use “I” statements. These statements tend to be formatted as “I feel _____.” Here are a couple of ways “I” statements can be misused, and some tips on how to properly use an “I” statement to talk to your partner about couple therapy:
Ineffective: “I feel stressed because you never help out”
§ You are starting with a feeling, but the second half is blaming.
Effective: A more helpful way of saying this is “I am feeling overwhelmed, can you make dinner tonight?”
Ineffective: “You never help out” or “You always talk down to me”
§ Avoid using “always” or “never,” chances are your partner can think of a time they did help or a time that you talked down to them.
Effective: “I am worried about how much we have been fighting.”
§ States your feeling specifically (always good to be as specific as possible), takes ownership for what you are feeling, and avoids blaming your partner for “making” you feel that way.
Tip 3: Put on your listening ears
If something matters to you it can be hard to hear that someone feels differently. When bringing up couples therapy it is possible your partner will hold a different opinion about seeking help. Try and listen non-defensively. What exactly does non-defensive listening look like? Here are some key points below:
- Notice you are feeling defensive. The brain is wired to feel defensiveness when we feel criticized, it can feel automatic. The first step is to notice it – what does it feel like when you feel defensive? Do you feel the tension in your neck? Does it feel like an invisible wall has dropped in front of you? Knowing what defensiveness feels like will help you become more aware and catch it in the moment.
- Another clue you are feeling defensive is your thoughts: are you looking for (listening for) what you believe is wrong? Are you focused on winning, and not on understanding?
- Learn how to soothe your defensiveness. Do you need to take a few deep breaths or close your eyes for a second so you can truly hear your partner? What will help the best part of you show up at this moment? Often you need to practice some different ways to calm your brain down from this natural reaction of defensiveness.
Tip 4: Discuss next steps together
If you and your partner are able to agree on going to couple therapy that does not mean that all worry or concern goes away. To start you may want to discuss what will get in the way of going. Do you need to figure out childcare? Will telehealth work better for you than in-person, or vice-versa? Sorting out these barriers together can help you both feel on the same page and like you are working together.
It can also be helpful to explore possible therapists together. You and your partner can decide if there are specific qualities you want in a therapist, which can help narrow your search. Often couple therapists do a brief consult, and it can be nice to do this together. That way both of you are able to ask questions and address any possible concerns.
Bonus Tip: Try Individual Therapy for Yourself.
Dr. Esther Perel, a couples and sex therapist, says, “it takes two people to make a pattern and only one person to break it.” Ideally, both you and your partner would go to couple therapy. Sometimes that is not possible. In those situations, it can be helpful to seek out therapy individually. In these cases, try to seek out a therapist that will help you see the big picture and help you take accountability for areas you can grow as a person and a partner. You want a therapist who can help you figure out how to show up differently and break the patterns that leave you and your partner feeling stuck. You can get the most out of individual therapy if you approach the process from the mindset of trying to become a better version of yourself and a better partner, rather than using that space to vent about your partner.
Next Steps? What to Expect Next in Your Couples Counseling Journey
There are also a lot of misconceptions about what couples therapy entails – if this feels like a barrier for you or your partner to take that next step, check out our blog on “What to Expect for your First Couples Counseling Session” and “5 Relationship Myths that Keep Couples from Seeking Help”.
Discussing the growth areas of your marriage or relationship is a difficult but important conversation to have with your partner. Know that all couples struggle at times to navigate conflict and hardships together – there is no shame in needing assistance to know how best to do that. It can be hard and scary to take the leap to ask for help and work towards the relationship you want.