Have you thought about going for marriage counseling, but can’t figure out how to bring it up with your spouse? Or maybe you’ve brought it up with them, but they haven’t been interested?
This is a common problem I help people figure out. And by people, I mean mostly women. Certainly it happens the other way around too, but almost always it’s the woman who wants to get counseling and the man who is reluctant.
This is not surprising. In our society men are raised to not have any emotions, unless that emotion is anger. (“Hungry” is not in fact an emotion, nor is “drunk.”) And men often assume that going to counseling means talking about your feelings.
Which, thought not always true, is actually not a bad assumption. Most relationship problems are happening because of how people are feeling in that relationship, not because someone has intellectually decided that it would be advantageous if I would act like a big fat jerk right now.
Big Fat Jerk syndrome is in fact frequently due to – you guessed it! – feelings that the person acting like a jerk is experienced (and is most likely not totally aware of). Getting a handle on those emotions can go a real long way towards fixing the problem.
So I won’t lie and say we’re not gonna talk about feelings. We probably are. But if you are a man, don’t panic. I am also a man, and I can assure you it won’t be as bad as you think.
If you are a woman, do not tell your man you want to go sit in front of a stranger and talk about his feelings. This is not a successful strategy for getting a man into counseling.
So let’s break this down and see how you can actually most likely succeed at getting a hesitant partner to agree to see a marriage counselor with you. I say most likely, because there are certainly people who simply won’t do it. I can’t promise that your spouse will behave the way you would like, but I can offer some techniques and ideas that will give you the best shot at it.
If You Haven’t Brought Up Marriage Counseling Before
There are two subcategories we should discuss here:
- Your partner knows there’s a problem.
- You partner doesn’t know there’s a problem. Let’s start with #1 since that’s actually a bit easier.
1. Your partner knows there’s a problem.
If there’s a problem in your marriage (or whatever stage of your relationship you’re currently in), probably you both know it. It’s been increasingly uncomfortable, or explosive, or distant. Maybe you keep getting into arguments. Maybe you keep getting into the same argument. Maybe there’s no arguments at all ‘cause you’re not talking. Oh, and the bedroom is a desert, too.
So he knows something’s up. Maybe he’s thought about counseling too, maybe he hasn’t. So here’s what you do. Wait for a time when things are generally calm and pleasant. If you’re in the middle of a fight, nothing you’re going to say is going to make any real impact, so don’t throw out in mid-argument, “WE NEED TO SEE A MARRIAGE COUNSELOR!” Won’t help your case.
Also, don’t pick a time that is super wonderful and exciting and happy. It’s a real drag in the middle of a fun bike ride to stop and talk about your problems (and also, you probably won’t have the same motivation to follow through when you’re having warm and fuzzy feelings). But after the bike ride, when you’re chilling at home on the patio, that might be a good time to bring it up.
Start off by mentioning how important he is to you, and how important the relationship is to you. Make a brief mention of the problems you both know are there. Then ask him if he’d be willing to see a marriage counselor so that you guys can get back on track the way you want to be.
If you don’t get a yes on the first try, go down to the section on what to do if you’ve brought it up already. (This is a likely scenario; don’t be discouraged. Did you run to make an appointment the first time you thought of this? Probably not. You’ve had some time to mull it over. He likely needs that time as well.)
2. Your partner doesn’t know there’s a problem.
If your spouse has no idea there’s a problem, it’s a little more dicey. He’s going to be surprised (unpleasantly) to hear that you think things are so bad you need to seek counseling to fix them. (Note: couples counseling is not just for couples who are in terrible shape and can’t figure it out on their own. We see lots of couples where things are just fine and they are looking to make it even better, or where there are small problems they want to address before they get worse. But people do tend to see it as kind of a last-resort option. This is unfortunate.)
Start off again letting him know how important he and the relationship are to you. Then tell him you’ve been feeling unhappy for some time and would really like his help in trying to fix this. Share with him what you’ve been feeling and then mention some specific examples of things that have happened that have made you feel that way.
(It’s very important here not to start pointing fingers or placing blame. Check out this post which talks more about how to communicate what’s bothering you without it turning into an attack.)
Finally, ask him if he would join you in trying to improve the situation by getting professional help. Then proceed as mentioned above, namely: if you don’t get a yes on the first try, go on to the next section on what to do if you’ve brought it up already (and don’t get discouraged!).
If You Have Brought Up Marriage Counseling Before
So he knows you’d like to get counseling but it hasn’t happened yet. He may say he’s unsure about it. Or he flat-out refuses. Or, most exasperating of all, he may actually say yes but then refuse to commit to a time or keep pushing off actually starting. Let’s tackle these one a time.
The Uncertain Spouse
If he seems open to the idea but has some misgivings, well, that’s normal, isn’t it? Ask what his concerns are and then listen to them. I would avoid trying to respond to them, though – I expect that that kind of interaction is likely to play into exactly the rough dynamics that are sending you to counseling in the first place.
Instead, just nod your head and say you understand his hesitations. Then ask if he would be willing to do you a favor and call up a therapist to ask about those concerns. (We offer a free consultation precisely so that people who aren’t sure about the process can get their questions out and see if they feel comfortable moving forward.)
Someone who has genuine concerns holding them back is likely to take you up on that. Someone who says, “Nah, there’s no point, I already know what they’re going to say” or something like that, probably is more like the guy in the third category I mentioned, who seems to just be pushing it off. We’ll get there in a minute.
The Spouse Who Says No
For the spouse who gives a clear no to the idea of counseling, it’s still worth listening to any concerns he has, nodding, and offering the suggestion of a free consultation call.) Check out a list of common objections here.
If he’s willing to listen, you can suggest some of these answers. It might be more helpful though if you send him to that page to read it himself. It’s much easier to swallow coming from anyone else besides you.
If he is still uninterested in joining you for counseling (perhaps with the rejoinder, “you go to counseling, this is your problem”), all is not lost. Here is the secret trick you need:
Decide for yourself that you are going to get some professional help. The truth is you can absolutely turn a marriage around by making changes on your own, which will have a ripple effect. It is certainly easier in some ways if your partner comes with you, so we’re not giving up on that yet.
Call us up and make an appointment at a time you know he would theoretically be able to attend. Then let him know, politely and genuinely, that you’ve made an appointment for yourself with a counselor to see how you can improve the situation. Let him know he is welcome to join you if he’d like. Do not pressure him. Do not look over your shoulder to see if he comes running. This is not a trick. You must mean it in your heart that you are willing to go on your own and try to work at things, and you must not be angry or critical if he decides not to come.
Frequently a man in this position will agree to come along. It may not be at the first opportunity. He may continue to refuse, whether genuinely or to see if you are really just baiting him. (Don’t do this; see previous paragraph.) It may happen that the day of the appointment he’ll tell you he’s coming, possibly with no further explanation, or possibly telling you that he doesn’t want you saying bad things about him in front of the counselor and he’s not there to defend himself. (This is a fine reason to come in. Don’t worry about it.)
But he may decide he is still not coming, and you must be okay with that and go to counseling anyway. There is a lot you can learn that will be helpful to you. But you might also use some of that counseling time to take a good, hard look at your relationship, and what it means for its viability that your partner recognizes that you are unhappy but is unwilling to do anything about it. That is not a good sign for a marriage. It doesn’t mean the marriage is doomed or that there’s no hope, but it definitely is something you might want to think about (and what better place to do that than with a therapist?).
The Spouse Who Says Yes
And now for the spouse who agrees to marriage counseling but always finds a reason it can’t happen right now. This can be the most frustrating situation because it drags out the process, and keeps raising and dashing your hopes.
You can ask what his concerns are, but in this scenario it is less likely that the hesitations he brings up are what’s really holding him back. There may be other reasons beneath the surface that he is unwilling or unable to discuss openly.
The best way to handle this is to use the secret trick mentioned above and book a session for yourself and let him know about it. Again, don’t use this as a ploy just to get him to come in; you have to mean it that you will go by yourself and try to do what you can to improve the situation.
The difference here is really just your attitude. It can really build your resentment to have him seemingly agree but never really follow through. Accept that that’s where it is right now, and head to a counselor. If it’s you on your own, so be it. You can discuss the situation with the counselor and try to get a handle on how you can (or cannot) make things work.
How to Get Your Spouse to Go to Marriage Counseling
The bottom line is, you can’t. You cannot control your spouse’s choices or behavior, and if he doesn’t want to go, he won’t. But the ideas discussed above will give you a good shot at making it happen. You can never really make anyone else do anything; you can only create an environment in which they are most likely to make the best choice.