When you realize that your marriage or committed relationship would benefit from relationship counseling, what follows is the challenge of “selling” this idea to your partner. Sometimes partners may initially refuse to participate in couples counseling because they feel blamed for all of the problems. So how can you communicate to your partner your desire to start therapy together in a way that doesn’t put them on the defensive?
Something I hear often is, “my partner doesn’t listen to me”, “my partner doesn’t do what I would like her to do”, or “my partner has anger issues.” While all of the above statements are valid relationship concerns, the difficulty here is that the partner is presented as the problem, and the therapist is expected to “fix” him or her. Naturally, if your partner senses that you want them to do all the changing, they are likely to feel defensive and refuse.
In my work with couples I find that most of the time relationship problems are a two-way street where both partners have a role to play when communication goes awry – both get triggered and enter a “vicious cycle” that both continue to contribute to. Even when it seems that the issue is truly one-sided, there are still ways that you get stuck in ineffective strategies and dynamics, but the good news is that this is the part you have control over. Much of the time, when you change your part, the whole dynamic changes. As emotions researcher Brene Brown says, “when you own up to your part of the story, you get to write the ending.”
So how does this all tie into convincing your partner to join you in couples therapy? Here are some suggestions of what you might want to express.
1. You want to be a better partner and need their presence and support.
Of course you have complaints about your partner’s behavior, but the only behavior you truly can change is your own. The couples therapist will help identify what each of you can work to change, so you can tackle the problem from both sides. Crucial here is focusing on what kind of partner you want to be, and overcoming the things that hinder you from acting accordingly.
Try to enlist your partner in YOUR process, rather than asking him or her to change first: “I feel I haven’t responded well to you lately, and I know I can do better. I want to learn new strategies of responding to you, but I of course need you to be a part of that, giving me your input and feedback.”
2. You want to understand them better.
Often we have a knee jerk reaction when our partner tries to tell us something, only thinking about what this says about us, rather than hearing what is important to them and why. Because of this you often will find yourself catapulted into an argument before you know it. Couples therapy helps to slow things down so you can actually hear and understand your partner.
You could say: “I really want to understand better where you’re coming from, and I feel I haven’t been doing such a good job of that. It’s so easy for both of us to get triggered when we talk about these things, and I’m hoping that couples therapy might provide a safe space where we can really hear each other.”
3. You care and want to invest in the relationship.
If you are reading this article, chances are you have been a couple for a while and feel your relationship is worth fighting for. It can be a challenge to find the time, strength, and funds involved. But you had something special in the beginning, and maybe you still have a lot holding you together now. Without your relationship you both would be losing a lot.
One possible way to phrase this is: “I know therapy is an expense, and we’re both busy and tired, but I really think our relationship is worth investing in and fighting for. We have history, our lives are intertwined, and I love you and want to make this work. We have so much to win here.”
Oftentimes the way we frame things makes all the difference. It’s important however not to be disingenuous when you phrase your goals in the ways I’ve suggested - your partner surely would pick up on that! If however you’re willing to frame things in a way that allows you to genuinely take responsibility for your part, then you’re already on your way to a successful couples therapy process. Setting your mind to making changes on your end is the first step to putting you both on a trajectory that is much more likely to succeed.