While the stigma around therapy has certainly lifted over the past few years, deciding to see a therapist can still be difficult. It’s natural for many, men in particular, to simply white-knuckle their way through a difficult situation rather than seek professional guidance. Many factors contribute to this, including the fear of vulnerability, the shame of “not being okay,” and a general discomfort in the entire affair.
It can be even more difficult, then, to ask a partner to attend couples therapy. While an immensely powerful tool to help couples manage conflict, grow closer, and gain a better perspective on one another — and, importantly, helps solve problems before they start — the very mention of it can light up a blinking marquee in your partner’s head that reads “OUR RELATIONSHIP IS NOT OKAY.”
So how do you ask your partner to try couple’s therapy?
“Don't avoid bringing it up and don't avoid sharing why it's important to you,” advises Elizabeth Earnshaw, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the founder of OURS, a virtual premarital counseling service. “The sooner we bring up requests in our relationships, the better.”
Earnshaw also stresses the importance of trying not to avoid upsetting your partner. “Difficult emotions exist and nothing good comes from tip-toeing around them,” she says.
So, if you are trying to figure out how best to broach the topic of couples therapy with your partner, here are a few tips to keep in mind.
1. Pick the Right Time
Suggesting couples therapy can be a hot-button topic, so you want to make sure that the timing is right. Your partner may be defensive, so you want to pick a time when you are both in the right headspace and he or she can be receptive to what you’re proposing.
“Don't bring it up on the fly,” says Krista Jordan, PhD, a couples therapist. “Make sure there is enough time to have the conversation in case they have questions or need to talk it through.” You know your partner best: find a time that you sense might be best for them.
2. Consider Your Approach
The very mention of couple’s therapy might make your partner think that you’re suggesting that the relationship is in crisis or that he or she is somehow to blame. So, it’s important to be firm in your stance but choose your words carefully and stay focused on the positive outcomes.
“Your objective is to try to engage your partner in agreeing to try couples therapy, so stick to that agenda,” says Jordan. “Any issues you have about the relationship can be brought up once you get started with a therapist.”
In that spirit, Jordan suggests saying along the lines of I really value our relationship, it means a lot to me and I want it to be as strong as possible. I think we could use some coaching in this area.
3. Try to Be Disarming
Tell your partner that this decision is not just about them. Don’t be afraid to throw yourself under the bus and point out some of your own shortcomings. Tell your partner how you’re hoping that a therapist can help you with your own issues, which will only make your relationship better.
“Don't worry if your partner doesn't reciprocate by saying what he or she needs to work on,” says Jordan. “Remember they may be back on their heels a bit since this was your idea at this moment, so don't expect them to pour forth with their own shortcomings. Just demonstrate that you are not trying to drag them to therapy to only talk about what they need to change.”
4. Stay Flexible And, If Need Be, Firm
Your partner might say no, and you should prepare yourself for that answer. If that happens, don’t panic or become combative. Understand that you may have to rethink your approach and offer a compromise. Consider suggesting that you go to one session to start and see how it feels. However, don’t feel you have to back down.
“If you are at the end of your rope, it’s okay to let your partner know that you don't want to continue to be in a relationship with them unless they commit to doing some couples therapy,” Jordan says. “There is a difference between ultimatums and manipulation. In an ultimatum, I am fully prepared to back it up because I cannot keep doing the status quo. In manipulation, I am not actually ready to leave the relationship. I am just making that threat to get you to do what I want.”
5. Don’t Settle
It’s important to make sure you find a therapist that is a good fit for both of you. Don’t just choose one because it’s the one you want. Be willing to interview therapists until you find the one that aligns with what both of you are looking for.
“One main pitfall of couples therapy is when one person feels that the therapist is taking their partner's side,” says Jordan. “Be sensitive to this when interviewing therapists and don't pick one if one of you feels that the therapist aligned more with one of you than the other. You both should feel that the therapist is neutral and that your relationship is with the client, not either of you.
6. Leave Nothing Off The Table
There’s no sense in going to therapy if you’re not willing to do it the right way. If your partner agrees to therapy, don’t avoid certain topics because you feel that they might cause more friction. You’re in therapy to work on the parts of your relationship that need addressing, so don’t hold back.
“Relationships need to be strong enough to hold whatever life is throwing at us,” says Jordan. “When we don't talk about hard things we start walking on eggshells with each other, which reduces intimacy and reduces feeling physically and emotionally close. The relationship may survive in this state but it's going to be stale and mechanical.”