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What to Do When Your Partner Won’t Go to Couples Therapy

You don't have to drag them in.

Key points

  • It's common to feel hesitant about going to couples therapy.
  • Often, this hesitancy is rooted in the fear that couples therapy could exasperate relationship patterns.
  • Getting curious about your partner's resistance in an accepting and nonjudgemental way can help.

When I ask couples in my office, “What brings you in?” often, I hear one partner respond, “I don’t know, it was his/her idea. I don't know why I'm here.”

It’s an honest answer, and one that we can work with. There are many reasons that partners are hesitant to start couples therapy. Some don’t believe that couples therapy really improves relationships. Many believe that it may actually make relationship problems worse, and that it’s better to just try to move on (or push problems under the rug). Others are concerned about the cost and whether it will be worth the investment. Still others are afraid that they will be blamed for the problems in the relationship — that they will be “ganged up on” by their partner and the therapist. Bottom line: Couples therapy requires being vulnerable with your partner and a stranger, and that is some scary stuff.

It used to be that couples therapists “guessed” at how to improve relationships. Now, we have it down to a science. One of the most effective couples therapy methods is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT); 90% of couples improve their relationship when they go through EFT. So yes, it works. As a therapist, I have many seen couples present with very serious relationship distress (intense fighting, on the edge of divorce), and leave my office months later with a much more secure, satisfying bond. They break out of their destructive, negative patterns and end up showing admiration and affection toward each other. The role of the therapist is to identify negative patterns in a relationship and facilitate conversations that will move you past your negative pattern and toward connection. It's important for both partners to know that most negative cycles in relationships are systemic, meaning that they are a product of the dynamics of the relationship, not a problem caused by either partner alone, and couples therapy can help partners see these dynamics more clearly and learn how to heal from them.

If your partner refuses to go to couples therapy, don’t panic. Their fear is valid; going to couples therapy is scary for most people. It makes complete sense if they’re afraid and even resistant. Likely, they are hesitant because they are afraid of making things worse in your relationship: They don’t want to lose you; they want to be with you in the best way they know how. The key to a good relationship, at its root, is being able to sit with your partner’s vulnerability with acceptance, understanding, and support. Start by getting curious about their fear of digging into your relationship. It may be that they don’t want to mess things up with you, and they are afraid. Tell them that you accept this fear, and that you are there for them, always. See what happens.

If your partner won't take the risk of seeing a professional, you can always start with something that feels lower stakes for them, such as reading a book together about how to connect better (I recommend Love Sense by Sue Johnson) or completing an online course. You can also try individual therapy to work on your own role in the negative relationship pattern; we know that if one person changes their behavior in a relationship this can change the way the entire relationship functions.

It's only natural to be apprehensive about trying couples therapy; relationship work is not for the weak. You and your partner will have to dig into tough stuff that you may have been avoiding, and it can bring up some hard emotions. However, if you are the hesitant partner, please know that it will most likely be worth the challenge and investment. Couples therapy works, and the science proves it. When you are finished, you can have a partner for life who will be there for you to comfort and support you in challenging times, and bring more joy into your day-to-day. Face your problems head-on with a skilled professional, do the work, and you won’t regret it.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


More from Tasha Seiter MS, PhD, LMFT
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