The trend of seeking support from an outside professional when your relationship is in crisis is a relatively new one. Historically, marital woes have been navigated behind closed doors. And when counsel was sought, it was traditionally from family, friends and pastors, rather than trained professionals.
Understandably, flagging that your relationship is in trouble can be scary, and in turn, it can result in one or both you feeling hesitant (or even resistant) to make a change.
If this is you, and your partner or spouse is reluctant to attend couples therapy, know that you are not alone. Also, know that your partner’s hesitance is likely more a reflection of their own fears then it is of their feelings about your relationship.
In fact, the best thing you can do is to avoid taking their reluctance personally. Instead, consider the following points when trying to “get to the heart of the matter” and choosing which steps to take next.
Do Not Let Your Fears Get the Best of You
Reading meaning into our partner's stance, it can be tempting to interpret it as rejection, to panic and become reactive. After all, shouldn't they want to work on the relationship? And if they don't, what good can come out of forcing their arm?
While it's true nobody responds well to ultimatums, there are a couple of ways to handle a hesitant partner. First, look at the degree of ambivalence or reluctance that your partner is communicating to you.
“If your partner is just neutral or indifferent, that's one thing,” advises NCCT Director Kerry Lusignan. “Many of us want our partners to come to therapy from a place of enthusiasm and gusto. However, as lovely as that idea is, it is often not realistic. Instead, accepting that your partner loves you and feels differently is an attitude that can benefit you in the long run.”
More often than not relationships are balanced out (and sometimes challenged) by different levels of desire. Often, one partner wants to talk and process their feelings, while the other partner prefers just to move past things and not dwell, or in more extreme cases, stonewall or avoid.
Likewise, one partner is often the initiator of sex or activities, while the other partner takes on a more passive role. Sound familiar? This type of dynamic is referred to as a “desire discrepancy,” and all relationships have them. So if you find yourself being the one who desires couples therapy more, understand that this is entirely normal.
Attend Together (Best with an Ambivalent Partner)
If your partner is ambivalent about couples therapy, first try to assess and understand the degree of ambivalence or reluctance your partner is communicating to you.
One idea is to let your partner be hesitant, and take the lead in scheduling the first appointment.
It is very possible that your partner’s reluctance is a symptom of their own anxiety, wrapped up in fears or concerns about the unknown and what the couples therapy process will be like. You can help ease this by sharing with them some materials from the therapist before the session. Resources such as a link to a website, a book, or even a pre-arranged phone call, during which they can speak openly with the therapist and ask questions, can all be helpful.
Then, once they meet the therapist and get a taste of the benefits that couples therapy offers, they will likely be sold and more invested in the process.
No matter what level of ambivalence or reluctance you are facing with your partner, an experienced couples therapist can create a course of action specific to you — one that is designed to adapt to both of your levels of motivation.
A skilled marriage counselor will honor both stances and adjust your treatment to focus on assessing how your relationship arrived at this impasse and where to go from here.
Consider Discernment Counseling (or a Customized Plan)
There is the possibility that you could be facing another, more challenging, scenario. Your partner may be flat-out refusing to work on your marriage or relationship. While this situation is not uncommon, it is more challenging to navigate. Unfortunately, it puts you in the genuine position of having to choose between taking a stand or accepting the status quo.
The reality is, many people won't change until being put in a position where change is the only option that is remaining to them.
However, if you decide to take a stand and insist on change, you must be prepared to accept that you may not get a “Yes” from your partner, and in turn, be thinking about how you will handle that scenario. That said, the cost of not asserting yourself is often far graver and can result in growing resentment, which is a form of contempt that is just as toxic to a relationship as going on the offense.
Ask yourself these questions, "Am I at a point where I can't handle the status quo anymore? Can I continue to pretend everything is okay when it is not? What are the potential consequences and fallout to myself (and my family) if I continue to say “Yes” to things that really feel like a “No?”
If one person is strongly "leaning out," your therapist might recommend a process called discernment counseling, during which the therapist focuses solely on helping you (and your partner) decide what you want to do with your relationship. The therapist might also choose to help you or your partner set stronger individual boundaries for yourselves (with love) while still extending compassion to one another.
“Most people tend to either stand up for themselves too much…or not enough,” says Lusignan. “For some of us, the emphasis needs to be learning how to assert ourselves with our partner without overdoing it or making our partner into the villain. While it may sound simple, it’s not.”
Lusignan advises partners who find themselves stuck in this sort of boundary-setting “limbo” to keep their own regulation top of mind. Habits such as mindfulness-based meditation can help you cultivate these skills. Studies even show that meditation can go so far as to create structural changes in our brain that help us keep calm in the heat of things.
Just stay calm. Breathe. And practice healthy habits that can help you avoid flooding so you can skillfully communicate your wants and needs without going too far.
Attend Individually with PEX Therapy
Even if your partner does not come in for therapy, there are things you can do individually that can result in changes and improvements. At NCCT, we offer couples treatment even to individuals, teaching you the same skills that we teach couples.
Says Lusignan, "One of the great benefits of couples therapy is that you are likely to walk away from it with emotional and relational skills that last a lifetime and translate into all aspects of your life. It will improve your relationships with your children, with your friends, with your colleagues, etc. The ripple effect of doing this work is tremendous on a familial and societal level."
We are all interconnected as human beings. Each of us carries with us the potential to either soothe or disrupt those closest to us. At NCCT, we see this in our office all the time with individuals who wear heart rate monitors to measure the spikes in heart rates as conflict and tensions rise. Learning how to change your own physiology (and in turn actions) will likely create a change at home.
Change is an ongoing process, sometimes the changes we seek out within ourselves can create a catalyst for growth within others. So, it stands to reason that once you make positive steps towards self-regulation, it can foster more positive growth and regulation within your partner.
Just be sure to meet with a relationship therapist if your end goal is to improve your relationship, even if you end up attending the treatment solo. Most individual therapists lack experience in working with couples and tend to align more with the individual. This runs the risk of your therapist siding with you (from a well-intentioned, but uninformed stance) and actually advising you in ways that can hurt the relationship.
Again, the trick is to see a therapist who specializes in couples therapy, even if you are attending alone. As couples therapists, we tend to see things from a holistic perspective. We think systemically. Even when your partner is not in the room, we will evoke them and help you to learn and practice new skills that will translate well to your relationship.
At NCCT we are trained in Pragmatic Experiential Couples Therapy (PEX), which is an evidence-informed model rooted in the research of John Gottman. PEXT places emphasis on the power that our actions have as individuals to shape (positively or negatively) the dynamics that play out in our relationships and it is a fantastic model for offering tools to a person whose partner is unwilling to come in or is begrudgingly participating.
So, if your partner is flat-out refusing to attend couples therapy, you still have the option to enroll in one of our 1-day couples retreats, during which we employ the leading methodologies in couples therapy and can teach you how to apply some of the research-backed relationship skills when you are back home.
Bottom line? Be proactive. Don’t rush to conclusions about your partner’s or spouse’s reluctance, and don’t be afraid to initiate the process on your own.
If you don't choose change, it will come on its own.
But instead of you writing your story, your story will write itself.