If your partner is causing conflict and strain in your relationship, it might seem as if they need therapy to fix whatever’s going on for them so you can have the relationship you’re hoping for (maybe something that looks “like it used to,” back at the beginning of the relationship).
Obviously, we’re a big fan of therapy here at the Baltimore Therapy Center. Let’s take a look at the question of asking your partner to go to therapy.
The long and the short of it is, if your partner is exhibiting specific problematic behaviors that are affecting their life, your life, or the relationship, individual therapy might be a good idea. But if the problem is mostly just the conflict between you two, you may want to consider couples counseling to deal with it.
A Good Place to Start – Couples Counseling
If the primary problem you are concerned about is the conflict in your relationship, the place to start is couples therapy and not individual therapy. No matter how much you think this is about your partner and not you, there are two people in this relationship, and in the vast majority of situations your choices and behavior are impacting the relationship as well.
This should not be taken as blame or judgment in any way! You may well be doing the best you can in a difficult situation (and it’s entirely possible that your partner is not!). But good intentions and sincere efforts might not be enough to change how things are going. There is no shame in needing guidance and support in your relationship!
Understanding what’s going wrong in your relationship and learning the skills needed to make it different – skills that probably nobody ever taught you! – you are likely to find yourself stuck in the same patterns.
Couples counseling can help you find ways to be an active force for change in your relationship. Even if your partner does have flaws (because of course you don’t, right? 😆), a new approach to handling the challenges of a relationship – which are normal and to be expected! – can make all the difference.
Taking Responsibility for the Problem
An important corollary to all this is that if you’re experiencing relationship troubles and you suggest couples counseling, and your partner’s response is along the lines of, “this is YOUR problem, YOU go to therapy!” – this is a big red flag. It is basically a statement of lack of responsibility – as in, “I am not going to accept responsibility for any part of this problem.” That’s not good. As we stated at the outset, there are two of you in this relationship.
Even if you partner sincerely believes you need therapy to help with whatever you’re struggling with – and you might! – blowing off any responsibility on their part is not a good sign and not a good way to make the relationship. It says, “I’m not going to deal with this and I’m not going to do anything to make it better.”
If they are genuinely concerned about your mental health, or you are about theirs, there is a way to bring that up (as we will discuss below), and an angry blow-off ain’t it.
Note then that if you find that you are the one putting all the blame on your partner, and feel a resistance to considering your own role in this relationship, that’s something to pay attention to. This doesn’t mean that your partner isn’t doing something wrong and didn’t totally ruin dinner last night with your family or embarrass you at the restaurant. It just means you need to keep an open mind to looking at yourself too if you want to improve your relationship, and if you notice that your mind is not really all that open, well, pay attention to that.
What If It’s Really Not About Me?
It’s totally possible that your partner does have an issue that could be helped by therapy and that it has nothing to do with you, although it may be helpful not to start with that presumption. Generally speaking, there’s no harm in going to a couples counselor together to figure that part out (note, however, the exceptions mentioned below). And going to counseling together likely to be an easier sell than placing the blame entirely on your partner’s shoulders by telling them they need therapy in order to fix your relationship!
Let’s talk for a moment about when couples counseling is not a good idea:
- If your partner is abusive to you. Not sure what about looks like? Check out this post about what constitutes abuse in a relationship. Abuse is never the fault of the victim, or in their hands to fix. If you are a victim of domestic abuse, please focus on getting help for yourself right now rather than the relationship or your partner. (National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233)
- If your partner has an active addiction. Your partner’s addiction is not something couples counseling will take care of. As they say in the 12-Step world, “you didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, and you can’t cure it.” This is something your partner will have to take full responsibility for addressing. While there are things you can do to support that, trying couples counseling to fix the problems your partner’s addiction is causing is not an effective approach (although someone who is proactively working on an addiction problem can benefit from the extra support provided by couples counseling).
- If your partner has a personality disorder. A personality disorder is “a type of mental disorder in which you have a rigid and unhealthy pattern of thinking, functioning and behaving.” Examples include narcissistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder. These are very difficult conditions to treat, and while treatment can help, it is often very challenging (and that’s for people who are even willing to acknowledge there’s a problem and get help). Couples counseling does not do much for tough problems like these (although it may be a relief to hear a mental health professional validate that your partner is indeed suffering from such a disorder and it’s not just in your head).
These are issues that will certainly create relationship conflict and that couples counseling is a not a good solution for. Individual therapy is likely to be the better option; unfortunately, these particular issues are often the ones where people who have them are most resistant to getting help for themselves.
That said, if you do go to couples counseling, a competent practitioner should be able to spot these problems and guide you accordingly; so you don’t need to freak out trying to decide if you should or you shouldn’t. (If you do go to couples counseling wondering if one of these issues is the problem and things get worse for you, try another couples counselor, or again, get individual help for yourself to figure it out.)
What to Look For
If you believe that the right course of action is for your partner to go for individual therapy, it is helpful if you can identify the specific behaviors that are concerning you about them. You can then share those with your partner (and/or the couples counselor) in a non-blaming way to discuss whether therapy is something that can help.
Here is a quick-and-dirty list of behaviors you might notice that merit a visit to a mental health professional. This is not a list of all the possible conditions a person could have, nor does it include all the possible symptoms that might result from these conditions.
Some of the indicators might be when your partner:
- has trouble getting out of bed in the morning; no longer activities they used to enjoy; make comments about wishing they were dead; attempts suicide. (depression)
- seems overly stressed about minor issues; worries about things that seem irrational; experiences panic attacks. (anxiety)
- is fixated on certain thoughts or rituals; washes their hands far more than needed; needs things to be “just so” to an extreme degree (obsessive-compulsive disorder [OCD])
- experiences flashbacks or nightmares of previous traumatic events; is irritable and aggressive without any apparent reason; engages in self-harming behavior such as cutting. (post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD])
- severely limits their eating; has eating binges; experiences dramatic weight loss or gain (eating disorders)
- displays a decreased need for sleep; speaks rapidly and at length; exhibits poor judgment (such as going on huge spending sprees or engaging in highly risky behavior). (bipolar disorder)
Note that being argumentative, yelling, not doing the dishes, never admitting wrong, not being terribly interested in sex, and other common relationship problems aren’t on that list. These are pretty typical issues many people face in their relationship, so don’t be too quick to chuck your partner into therapy over them. (I’m not saying these behaviors are acceptable! I’m just saying that being lazy or defensive or stubborn aren’t mental illnesses.)
How to Tell Your Partner They Need Therapy
This is tricky, no doubt. Let’s be clear though that “you need therapy!” is not a winning approach (especially if said in anger or frustration, and especially if used in a demeaning way).
The let’s-go-to-couples-counseling strategy suggested above is a good way of avoiding the pitfall of blaming the relationship problems on your partner. (Even if they do bear responsibility for most or even all of the trouble, the odds of them readily admitting that and taking 100% responsibility for fixing things is small – if it wasn’t, they would probably have done so already!)
However, if the issue is clearly a concern of mental illness (for example, as described above), you may well be hoping for them to get therapy, not just because of the ill effects it may be having on your relationship – severe depression is not an aphrodisiac, and traumatic outbursts are hard to live with – but for their own well-being too.
The key is in how you approach it.
If your attitude is one of “you’re messing things up and you need to fix it,” you won’t get a lot of takers. If your message is more like “I really care about you and about this relationship, and I am concerned about what you might be going through,” you’re a lot more likely to hit the mark.
Note which behaviors you are seeing that are of concern to you and share them with your partner. Do it in a focused conversation, not in passing on your way to work or just after a fight. It might sound something like this:
“Honey, I’ve been seeing some things that have me concerned about how you’re doing. For example, I notice that you’re hardly eating lately. You look like you’re in a bad mood most of the time. And you seem to be sleeping a lot more than you used to. I’m worried that maybe you have some kind of depression. I think it’s probably affecting you and affecting us both together. I wonder if we could make an appointment for you with a doctor to check this out?”
See how there is no blame or judgment? It comes off as caring, not accusing. This is the most likely path to success.
How to Make Your Partner’s Therapy Not Helpful at All to Your Relationship
It’s also important to recognize that you cannot make your partner go to therapy. (Even if they are literally at risk of killing themselves, in which case you can have them involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility, you cannot force them to sit and talk with a therapist.)
Trying to control the situation by nagging, pressuring or coercing them to see a therapist is unlikely to yield satisfying results. You will likely cause more conflict between the two of you and even if your partner capitulates and books a session, it is unlikely to be very productive if they are resentful at you for their being there in the first place.
It can be helpful to be aware of your own feelings about all this – your worry about your partner, your anxiety over the future of the relationship, your anger at them for what they’ve already put you through – and to take that out of the equation when trying to have the conversation about therapy for them.
It’s not that it’s wrong to feel those things, of course – they just won’t help you achieve your goal in this situation. (Seeking your own therapy to deal with these feelings can also be helpful!)
Note that this doesn’t mean you have no control in the situation. Relationships and marriages can and do get to a point sometimes where you have to tell your partner that if they don’t fix [fill in the blank], you can’t stay together with them. This often does motivate partners to take action and get into therapy in order to fix up their own issues.
Such an ultimatum, however, should not be used as a pressure tactic – meaning, you don’t throw it at your significant other as a way to force their hand; rather, you present it to them as taking responsibility for your own needs.
You can’t be expected to stay in a relationship that is hurting you. All you’re doing is protecting your own boundaries. If your partner can deal with their addiction/anger problem/sexual issues/whatever, then hopefully this relationship can be a place you can stay and be happy. If they don’t, then you can’t. It’s not an arm-twist, it’s simply a statement about where you’re at.
It’s Their Therapy, Not Yours
Another way you can scuttle your partner’s therapy experience is by constantly checking in on them. Are they going? How often are they going? When’s the next appointment? If you are hovering over them like this, it again does not leave room for them to take responsibility for their own change, and probably yields more resentment than anything else.
Likewise if you’re interrogating them about what they’re telling their therapist, what they talk about, what they’re working on. You need to get yourself out of their therapy and focus on your own needs. If you need to know they’re going regularly because you worry they aren’t going to take care of this, that’s a conversation: you can ask your partner for accountability (but again, you can’t force it).
If your partner goes to therapy just to get you to stop nagging, but isn’t taking it seriously, that will probably come out sooner than later. They may refuse to share with you whether they are or are not going (or lie that they are). Or they might actually go but more or less waste the time, in which case you probably won’t see anything changing at home (accompanied by continued lack of taking responsibility for their share in the problems).
If that’s where the situation is, it’s also the case that your hovering over them won’t actually help the situation, even if you do manage to strongarm them into attending sessions and talking about what you think needs to be talked about. You cannot bear the responsibility for their therapy, or their change. Much as you would like them to make things better, it’s not under your control and trying to make it so will only cause more stress and conflict.
What You Can Do
Ultimately the key in all this is to remember what you can control and what you can’t. You can control ways in which you are contributing to any issues in the relationship. You can control whether you stay in the relationship or not.
But you cannot control what your partner does, whether they go to therapy, whether they change their behaviors, whether they stay in the relationship, or anything else they might choose to do or not to do.
Being clear about this distinction will help you figure out whether your partner really does not professional help and how to approach it with the best shot for success. Speaking to your own therapist to figure all this out can certainly be a helpful part of the process, and we encourage you to reach out if there any way we can be of help to you, or your partner, or both of you together.