When things seem to be going wrong in your relationship, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and alone.
Arguments with your significant other can become repetitive and cyclical — and it’s hard to know how to break out of unhealthy patterns, even when you want to. And that can do a lot of damage to a relationship in the long term.
That’s why couples therapy can be helpful.
“In the chaos of life, couples often put their relationship last, finding it difficult to set aside time for themselves,” explains Traci Maynigo, a clinical psychologist who specializes in couple and family therapy.
“Therapy is space not just to work through challenges together, but also to feel enriched and nourished by focused time together,” she says.
But what do you do if your partner won’t agree to go to couples therapy? We asked six therapists for their advice.
There are lots of reasons why someone might not want to go. To be a supportive partner, your first step should always be to listen to their concerns. Then, you can try to address some of their worries.
Here are some potential reasons they might offer.
This is a very valid concern: Therapy isn’t cheap, even if you have insurance.
If one of the things you argue about in your relationship is money, spending money to fix the issue may seem like the last thing either of you really wants to do.
If cost is a barrier for you, there are a few things you can look into.
Look for someone with lower session rates. Not all therapists cost the same amount. Their rates often depend on their education, experience, and where they’re located. Sometimes online therapy sessions are less expensive.
You might also want to consider a workshop instead — they’re often less expensive than prolonged therapy.
Look into whether your employer provides an employee assistance program (EAP). EAPs will usually offer you a limited number of free, short-term counseling sessions.
Your partner sees therapy as a ‘punishment’
“One or both parties may be reluctant to try couples therapy when it is used as a threat to one another,” says Jennifer Teplin, founder and clinical director of Manhattan Wellness, a psychotherapy practice.
Therapy should never be something you threaten your partner with or force them to go to through an ultimatum. That’s a sure way to make it something your partner resents and it will prove useless.
If they feel like therapy is a punishment, try to reframe why you want to go. Sometimes just being honest about why you want to go can help them understand why this is important to you and what your actual goal is.
“It’s important to reassure your partner that the therapy is for them, too,” explains Maynigo.
They don’t want to tell a stranger their problems
“Many people don’t like the idea of airing their ‘dirty laundry’ with a stranger,” explains Maynigo. “The conflicts and the challenges in their relationship feel like they should be kept private and there may be a lot of shame there.”
If this is how your partner feels, try to be compassionate.
“It makes sense that they would be worried about entering an unfamiliar space with a stranger to confront difficult issues that require taking huge emotional risks,” she continues. “Most people would be afraid of doing this. It’s human for us to have these fears.”
But, she says, “it’s also human for us to want to feel connected with someone, and couples therapy will help you do that with your partner.”
Your partner is uncomfortable discussing relationship issues at all
Sometimes, avoiding painful issues seems like the easiest path.
“Going to couples therapy means you have to do difficult emotional work,” Maynigo continues. “It requires honesty and vulnerability. And vulnerability feels risky.”
This tends to be an issue if a partner has a hard time expressing their feelings or doesn’t feel safe opening up.
There is no quick fix here — but if you think your partner is struggling with being vulnerable, the best thing you can do is be there for them and give them the space to feel comfortable expressing how they feel.
They don’t want to be attacked
“When couples first come in, I typically hear a lot of ‘Well, if you stopped doing this… ‘ or ‘You never…,’” says Beverly Andre, licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of BeHeart Counseling Services. “It places blame on the partner and feels like an attack.”
No one wants to be attacked — especially in front of a stranger.
Try to remember that the goal of therapy isn’t just to air your grievances. It’s to get help.
“Talk about [therapy] as the opportunity for growth and connection that it is,” says Heather Lyons, psychologist and couples therapist in Baltimore.
In fact, therapy might actually provide you both with the safe space you need to avoid feeling attacked.
“Being able to hear — and feel heard — without giving in to the strong need to defend can be tremendously helpful for couples,” says Bowers. “And [that] is difficult to achieve without the space therapy provides.”
They’re afraid the therapist will take sides
This is perhaps one of the most common reasons why one partner might be reluctant — or even hostile — to the idea of going to therapy.
“It’s a totally understandable fear given that there has likely been some blame-throwing at one another in the relationship,” says David Bowers, a couples and family therapist in Columbus, Ohio.
But, he says, it’s important to remember that “when a therapist takes on a couple as a client, it’s the couple to whom the therapist is responsible, not one partner. It really falls on the therapist to be sensitive to issues of taking sides — both real and perceived.”
In other words, a good therapist will give voice to and validate both partner’s perspectives so they each feel heard and understood.
“It can be helpful to know that couples and family therapists aren’t trained to think about problems in such a linear “X causes Y” type of way. We’re taught to think systemically,” says Lyons.
The issues you experience as a couple are a product of the dynamics inside that relationship, not a problem caused by either of the partners alone.
Instead, it’s most likely that your partner triggers one behavior in you, which can lead to another behavior in your partner and that cycle continues in a feedback loop.
A good therapist will also help get both of you out of that blame game and break the cycle, adds Maynigo.
Of course, at the end of the day, if either of you feels like the therapist is taking sides, you’re also totally within your rights to get a new therapist.
They had a bad experience in the past
Unfortunately, it’s hard to combat a past bad experience unless they’re willing to try again, but once again, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to stay with a therapist if you don’t trust them.
If either or both of you go to a therapy session and don’t feel comfortable, you don’t have to go back. Look for another therapist that you’re both comfortable with. After all, therapy won’t really work if you both don’t feel safe or comfortable enough to open up.
They’re worried couples therapy is only for relationships that are already ending
“So often, couples therapy is used as a last resort, which leads to the negative stigma surrounding it,” says Teplin.
But in reality, therapy can help save a relationship, especially if you seek help before you’ve had time to cause deep wounds.
“I use the car metaphor with my couples,” says Andre. “If you wait until your relationship’s ‘check engine’ light comes on, I can assure you there will be a number of issues that will pop up in session.”
Bowers agrees, though he prefers a dentist metaphor: “Some people avoid the dentist for years, only going in when a tooth is too painful to stand anything other than extraction,” he says. “Thinking of couples therapy as only for those in dire straits is analogous to thinking of a dentist as only for tooth pulling and not for routine cleaning and maintenance.”
A study mentioned by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy found that 90 percent of clients reported an improvement in their emotional health and over 75 percent reported an improvement in their relationship.
“As a therapist, I have seen couples come in presenting with very serious relationship distress — intense fighting, on the edge of divorce — and leave my office months later with a secure, satisfying bond,” says Natasha Seiter, a marriage and family therapist in Colorado.
However, it’s true that not all couples will leave therapy still in a relationship.
“Couples therapy can work in two ways: to help the couple experiencing challenges work through their problems and leave stronger,” says Teplin, “or [it] can support them in recognizing that their lives are better apart and can support them through uncoupling.”
If your partner is reluctant, see if they’ll compromise and try just a few sessions — with the agreement that they can end it at any time.
“You’re ultimately in charge and can do what you need to maintain a sense of safety, whether that’s not answering some line of the therapist’s questions, ending a session, or ending work with a therapist,” Bowers says.
Maynigo emphasizes that self-help books, workshops, and even talking through issues with trusted friends can be a big help.
“As long as the couple is taking dedicated time to focus on their relationship together, their relationship doesn’t have to be doomed,” she says.
“One of the really cool things about a system such as a relationship is that if one part of the system changes, the whole system changes,” says Bowers.
In other words, even if you go alone, your relationship might benefit and get better. The progress might also be enough to convince your partner to reconsider couples therapy, too.
The lack of desire for therapy is not itself a relationship killer. Things can improve without therapy if the couple is committed to each other and working together.
However, sometimes a reluctance to go to therapy signals something else. Maybe that partner is unwilling to work on the relationship. Or maybe they know it’s already over and don’t want to work on things.
Ultimately, with or without therapy, if your relationship is deteriorating, you’ll have to decide if you want to continue it or not.
Couples therapy can be a game-changer for your relationship, even if things seem to be going well. But it takes two to make it happen. If your partner is hesitant to give it a shot, try to have a conversation about why. Armed with that information, you’ll likely be able to figure out a path forward that works for both of you.