How to Tell Your Partner You Want to Try Couples Therapy

A gay couple holds hands in a therapy session and looks at each other with joy.
A gay couple holds hands in a therapy session and looks at each other with joy.
Photo: yacobchuk/iStock/Getty Images Plus

NoNo relationship is perfect. (Remember how even the Obamas went to marriage counseling?) Even if you’re crazy about your partner, maybe their workaholic tendencies are putting a strain on the time you spend together. Maybe you disagree about how to manage and spend money. Maybe your different approaches to conflict resolution cause small issues to blow up into big arguments.

Whatever it is, a complicated relationship issue doesn’t have to be a chronic one. Think of the health of your relationship the same way you would think of your own physical health: You wouldn’t wait months to see a doctor about a throbbing ankle. You wouldn’t let years go by before doing something about a nagging stomach ache.

But when it comes to relationships, it’s all too easy to punt on issues that are causing real pain. After all, avoidance is so much easier than addressing problems head on, which involves admitting that they are problems in the first place.

Ideally, any two people in a healthy relationship would have regular checkups to keep it that way, says Emily Stone, a therapist at the Austin-based practice Just Mind Counseling. In this non-ideal world, therapy can be expensive and often carries a stigma, and most people don’t have the resources or the willingness to be that proactive. But if you are open to a “well visit,” or if tension between you and your significant other is becoming more frequent or intense, a professional can help you through it.

Therapy isn’t always an easy sell. Your partner may balk. They may insist you don’t need it. They may think of it as the death knell of your relationship. Here’s how to thoughtfully, lovingly convince them that therapy can be part of the regular care of a healthy relationship.

Don’t present therapy as a threat

An especially heated conflict or a prolonged period of tension might prompt you to finally have the conversation about counseling, but that conversation shouldn’t happen in the moment of crisis. Resist the urge to spit out the word “therapy” mid-fight. Wait to bring it up at a time when it will feel proactive, rather than reactive.

William Schroeder, a licensed professional counselor and the co-owner of Just Mind Counseling, emphasizes the importance of bringing therapy up in the right circumstances — a moment of calm, ideally — and with the right tone. “I think it helps to frame it in such a way that you want to improve things and to make the relationship stronger,” Schroeder says. “There are so many tricky things that can happen in relationships, and if they go unprocessed, they can easily turn toxic.”

To convey the right message, try opening the conversation with something like, “I know we have had some arguments lately and I was thinking about things we can do to help. I was hoping we could read a book together on relationships or start considering couple’s therapy.” You can ask if they have any ideas, too.

If breaking up is on the table, Matt Lundquist, the founder and clinical director of Tribeca Therapy, recommends acknowledging the possibility head on — again, not as a threat, but as a scenario you’re actively working to avoid. Try saying, “ I’m worried that if we don’t address some of our challenges, we might not be able to make it long term, but I really want to give us a chance and I think counseling is the best way to do that.”

Be careful with your pronouns

Put aside everything you’ve ever learned about the power of “I” statements in tough conversations. This isn’t the time. Instead, you’re going to want to frame everything in terms of “we”: what you both need, what you can do together to address those needs.

Here’s one way to kick off the discussion, according to the relationship psychologist Kathy Nickerson: “I’ve been thinking that we’ve had more fights recently and there might be some tricks we could both learn to help things go better. Would you be up for us talking to someone about it?”

When you use this type of “we/us” language, you make it clear to your partner that your suggestion of therapy is less about anything they’re doing wrong and more about what’s best for the relationship as a whole. It shows you’re taking equal responsibility for the challenges you’re facing — and that the step you’re suggesting will benefit both of you.

Keep the good stuff front and center

Make sure the language you use around couple’s therapy is upbeat, hopeful, and solution-oriented. Nickerson recommends highlighting the strengths of your relationship, and framing the conversation around those strengths: You’ve always been great at supporting each other through work stress, for example, and with things being extra stressful right now, you want to make sure you know how to be there for each other as best you can. Call out the good, and then pivot to what you think you might be able to learn to keep it going.

“Stress that it’s not about finding fault,” Nickerson says. “It’s about finding solutions.”

Make it a joint project…

If you and your significant other are going to be attending therapy together, you should also research and select your therapist as a team. A skeptical partner may be more likely to come around to the idea of seeing a counselor when given the chance to play an active role.

Lundquist recommends having open conversations with your partner about the kind of therapist they’d be most comfortable seeing, and asking them to help screen potential candidates. “There’s some accountability in that, but also empowerment,” he says.

As a first step, Lundquist suggests making a list of everything you’d be looking for in a therapist and what you hope to get out of therapy. “In addition to giving some guidance to the search, this is also a way to begin to hold each other’s concerns,” he says. From there, you can use that list to sift through prospects with a therapist directory like Psychology Today.

but give them some space, too

To help your partner feel even more in control, you might also consider encouraging them to do some research on their own. The therapist Juliet Heeg, who works with PARC, a New York-based couples-counseling practice, suggests asking them if they’d like to start with an individual consultation, so they can gauge their comfort level with the therapist and get any of their personal concerns or questions out of the way.

Heeg also recommends sending them links to videos featuring well-known couples therapists like John Gottman or Esther Perel. Your partner can watch those clips on their own time, which may demystify the process and give them a better idea of what to expect.

Be prepared to go it alone

There’s always the chance that, despite your best efforts, your significant other remains resistant to couple’s counseling. That’s frustrating, but you’re still not doomed to let your relationship issues fester unaddressed. “If your partner does not want to participate, it does not mean your pursuit of growth and relational health is over,” Stone says. “You can get your own therapy to think through ways you want to grow.”

Let your partner know that you’re planning to attend therapy independently, and that your goal is to do some emotional work on yourself that will benefit the relationship. The key here is to be clear about why you’re going without making it seem like you’re shaming them for their reluctance, which might make them dig in their heels even further.

You can say something like, “I know this may be scary for you, but I am going to start going to counseling on my own. I hope you can see this as an opportunity and not a threat. My goal in going is to improve myself and to be a better partner.” Once they see how helpful (and non-scary) therapy is for you, hopefully they’ll reconsider going as a couple — or, at the very least, listen to and apply the concepts you’re learning in your sessions. Even with the best of intentions, one person can’t fix a relationship’s issues entirely on their own.

Alli Hoff Kosik is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY. A voracious reader, she channeled her love of books into launching The SSR Podcast in June 2018.

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