A lot of people are asking this question. Something’s wrong with their marriage, something doesn’t feel good. Maybe it’s a problem communicating, maybe it’s feeling disconnected, maybe it’s arguing too much. They’ve tried to change things but have had no success. They think: We need help.
But then their husband refuses. “I’m not going to therapy.” “Things aren’t that bad.” “You’re the one with the problem.”
And then you wonder whether you should go to individual therapy. Maybe you think you can work on your relationship problems there. You may feel that you’ve been working on them by yourself so far. Now maybe you could get some help and coaching about how best to do that work.
It makes sense. And anyway, what else can you do?
But, unfortunately, there’s some bad news: Research has not shown that individual therapy helps couple’s problems.
There was a crucial article in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy entitled, “Individual Therapy for Couple Problems: Perspectives and Pitfalls. It was written by Drs. Alan Gurman and Mark Burton and published in 2014. They reviewed all the scientific studies about the treatment of couple problems.
They found much evidence that couples therapy is helpful with couple problems.
And no evidence that individual therapy is helpful with couple problems.
This is important. Not everyone knows this. It means that individual therapy might help you, but it probably won’t help your relationship.
Now, of course, we all need to understand that the finding of “no evidence” means that, on average, when you consider many cases, there is no statistical finding of help. It does not mean that zero individuals got help. Some relationships improved, some were unchanged, some worsened. It averages out to no help. Of course, any one case might be an exception.
Individual therapy is good for considering your options. It’s good for formulating a strategy. It’s good for deciding whether you want to continue in your relationship or not. But there’s no evidence that it will help solve the problems in your relationship.
There are also some serious problems with individual therapy for couple problems. You might feel more alone. You might feel it’s all up to you. You might feel responsible for doing all the changing. Or, you might feel that you have no impact on your partner. It’s also possible that your partner might feel left out of the decision making.
So, how do you get a reluctant partner to come with you to couples therapy? Here’s a list of possibilities:
- Ask them why they object to couples therapy. Did they have a previous bad experience with therapy? Do they think therapy leads to divorce? See if there are any of their objections that you can address.
- Ask them what kind of therapist they would prefer. A man? A woman? What age? What race? Psychologist? Social worker? Counselor? Marriage and family therapist?
- Ask them what location would be best for them. What day? What time?
- Ask if they’d be willing to look at a few therapist websites.
- Ask them if they’d be willing to talk to a couple of therapists on the phone.
- Ask them if they’d be willing to attend a lecture that a therapist is making somewhere nearby.
- Ask them if they’d be willing to look over a book that a therapist has written. Or a blog post.
- Ask them if they’d be willing to go in for a get-acquainted session with a therapist.
- Tell them how much it would mean to you if they did some of these things. Tell them how much better it might make you feel, or more hopeful, or happier, or more encouraged.
- Tell them what it would mean to you if they refuse to do some of these things. Tell them how much worse it might make you feel, or less hopeful, or sadder, or more discouraged.
- If (and only if) it’s true: tell them that unless you get help together, you’re not sure you’re going to be able to continue in the relationship.
This last one — an ultimatum — should only be used when it’s true. Don’t use it as a bluff or a manipulation. But, if it really is true, then yes, you should say it. Letting them know where you stand, and how serious this is for you, is honest, respectful assertiveness.
Best of luck with this. I hope you can get him to come in with you to therapy. If you can, you’ll have a lot better chance of improving the problems in your marriage.
Gurman, A.S., & Burton, M. (2014). Individual therapy for couple problems: Perspectives and pitfalls. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, Vol 40, No 4, pp. 470-483.