- Isabelle Morley, PsyD
It Takes Two- Part 1:Why Your Partner Doesn't Want to go to Couples Therapy
Not everyone is excited about couples therapy, and here are some common reasons why.
So you've hit a rough spot in your relationship and things aren't looking good. Maybe you've discovered an infidelity, or every comment turns into a fight, or maybe you aren't talking at all these days. No matter the issue, it's not uncommon for one partner to suggest couples therapy and for the other to quickly respond with "No."
Why would someone not want to try couples therapy if things are bad in their relationship? They should be open to any solution if it means repairing and growing as a couple, right? Many people ask these questions and get frustrated (or infuriated) when their partner persists in saying no, but their partners are hesitating for a reason. Below are some common reasons why partners hesitate, or outright refuse, to try couples therapy.
Before you start a fight over it, first try to understand why your partner doesn't want to try couples therapy.
They Worry They Will be "The Bad Guy"
Although a couples therapist is not a judge of who is right or who is wrong, often one partner worries that they will be painted as "the bad guy" in the relationship (note that both male and female partners can have this fear). They worry that the therapist will team up with their partner, and the sessions will be an hour-long blame fest where two people tell them what they are doing wrong and how they need to change.
Who wants to be attacked and not heard? Let alone pay for that experience! This fear keeps a lot of partners from trying couples therapy, but a good couples therapist will help each person identify their mistakes and where they need to grow without attacking or belittling. The goal is to help both people see where they can improve and work together to strengthen the relationship, not tear down one partner.
They Feel Anxious About Therapy in General
Not everyone feels comfortable with therapy. Some people, those who have never been in individual therapy before, don't know what to expect and have anxiety about what the experience will be like. Other people are nervous about being vulnerable in front of their partner, let alone in front of another person, who is a stranger to them. Even still, some partners worry that the therapist will either push you to either stay together or tell you to break up. If your partner is ambivalent about the relationship, they might not know what they want, and they might fear that a therapist authoritatively will tell you both what you should do.
Talking about vulnerable feelings or painful experiences isn't easy. Hearing how you've hurt your partner in the past, or sharing how they've hurt you, isn't easy. Not knowing what to expect from therapy or if you'll be "good" at it, isn't easy. Feeling uncertain about what you want in your relationship is not easy.But it's important to remember that most people feel this way, and a couples therapist will know to be empathic, go at a pace that feels comfortable, and won't dictate if your relationship should continue or end.
They Anticipate an Avalanche of Your Unspoken Complaints
Some partners think that as soon as the door is closed you will start listing off a litany of complaints, going through all the things they've done wrong and why they're a bad partner. They're often nervous that there are issues they don't even know about yet, and they'll be hearing about these issues for the first time in front of a new person who will judge them.
This fear isn't entirely unfounded, since many people feel more comfortable sharing their complaints in the safe space of therapy, where they know their partner is more likely to listen and where a therapist can help deescalate conflict if it arises. An easy remedy for this is to have a calm discussion before your first session where you each share the general topics and issues that you want to address in therapy.
They See It as A Bad Sign
This is the reason I hear most often when talking with individual therapy clients who wish their partner would try couples therapy with them. Their partners voice concern that going to couples therapy is a bad sign. They think that their relationship must be basically over if they need to see a couples therapist, and that going to couples therapy is actually the beginning of the end. Or a similar reason, they think you (as a couple) should be able to fix things on your own, and if you can't it means you're inherently incompatible. (It's worth noting that most therapists have been in therapy, and some of the most prominent couples therapists like John Gottman and Terry Real openly share how struggles in their own marriages prompted their work.)
Research by Dr. John Gottman shows that couples are unhappy in their relationship for 6 years (on average) before seeking treatment. By the time they DO go to therapy, they have a lot of resentments and complaints to work through. Don't wait this long! Starting therapy at the first sign of trouble gives you a chance to stop the problems early and avoid years of negative interactions.
As much stigma as there is about individual therapy, there is perhaps even more about couples therapy, as many people see it is as an indicator that the relationship is beyond repair and a breakup or divorce is inevitable. However, the best analogy for couples therapy is likening it to car maintenance. You change the oil every few months to keep the car working as it should; you don't wait for the engine to need replacing. Doing general maintenance will keep things running smoothly so that you don't need to replace parts, or buy a new car altogether!
So Now What?
In Part 2 of this series, where you'll learn strategies to help your partner be open to considering couples therapy.