What do you do if your partner won’t go to couples therapy? Can you just go alone? Read on for helpful tips from Amelia Peck, LMFT.
Marriage is full of trying to strike a balance and compromise. Things can begin seemingly simple, but life gets complicated. If you and your spouse or partner have kids, make life changes, job changes, things can get stressful.
For many, the discussion with a spouse about couples therapy can be stressful and anxiety-provoking. Many clients tell me that even when they began to think about marriage counseling, it triggered anxiety because they wondered what that meant about their relationship.
Debunk the Myth in Your Mind
There is nothing wrong with considering couples therapy. In fact, it’s healthy. It’s healthy to realize you do not have all the skills in your toolbox to handle every situation life presents. Often, couples don’t start going to marriage counseling until they’re talking about divorce.
What if My Partner Doesn’t Want to Go to Couples Therapy?
Unfortunately, this thought is not uncommon when people come for counseling. There are several variants in couples therapy theories that follow some pursuer/withdrawer dynamic. Often, one partner is seeking out the connection in the relationship. Their natural anxiety plays out that way. Their partner plays out the opposite. They pull away. So when one suggests therapy, the other shies away or avoids the topic.
But Something Needs to Happen
You’re probably right. Even though a pursuer shows their anxiety about the relationship in a more outward way, it doesn’t mean they’re overreacting or wrong. Something does need to happen. While it’s easy to feel defeat in going forward with the idea of couples therapy alone, there can be benefits, and it’s likely something you’ll be glad you did. There are a few things to consider first.
Choosing Your Therapist for Couples Therapy
When looking for a therapist, look for someone who specialized in couples therapy. While some couples therapists have a license that says “Marriage and Family Therapist” (as mine does), there are others that can have special training to deal with marital issues as well. Therapy licenses and titles have different popularity in different regions of the country, so it’s best to look at the therapist themselves, not just their license.
When you see a therapist that you think might be a good fit, ask if you can have a free consultation before your initial session (this is very common for therapists to advertise and is not an odd thing to request). During this consultation, ask the therapist their orientation or theory they work from. Popular theories practiced by many are Gottman and Emotionally Focused Therapy, or EFT.
Let the therapist know that you are seeking help with your relationship even though you are coming in solo. The work may look a bit different than if you’re coming in with your spouse or partner, but it can still benefit your relationship and mental health.
What Will Look Different About Solo Couples Therapy?
Traditionally, in couples therapy, you set goals together as a couple. What areas do you need to focus on in your relationship? Which patterns keep you stuck, etc.? However, heading into it alone, you can talk about the relationship, but a lot of the focus will be on you. Your therapist can’t tell you what’s wrong with your husband (it would be unethical). They may empathize with your struggle and challenges; however, they will ask you about your process in them and the choices you make.
You can also take advantage of talking freely about your relationship in the therapeutic space. Topics like intimacy and sex are important in couples therapy but can be awkward when sitting with your spouse in front of a stranger/therapist. However, alone, you may be able to open up sooner about some of these things you have been thinking about.
Remember, the focus is on you. So fears of infidelity, how your spouse treats your parents, and some other things you don’t see eye to eye won’t get too far without looking at why you are having these concerns.
Managing Relationship Anxiety
Setting goals for your relationship can have unique benefits. A good place to begin can be looking at your own anxiety management skills. What do you do when your anxiety starts to rise in your relationship? Do you want to pull away or give the silent treatment? Do you seek out an argument and keep wanting to talk about the disagreement?
Often, when our anxiety is flooded or triggered to a higher level than is your “baseline” or typical level, we cope with behaviors that may feel in the moment like they are going to solve a problem. However, it is often a band-aid and only gives temporary relief.
Pursuing couples therapy solo can help you get to the root of these patterns for yourself. They may be showing up in other areas of your life. They’re often rooted much earlier in our experiences than we realize.
Don’t Ignore Your Trauma
If you have past experiences with a trauma that you have never processed with a therapist before (this meaning abuse or environmental circumstances that cause severe mental, emotional, and even biological stress), it may be helpful to seek a relationship therapist that uses a skill called EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). This helps your mind and body process trauma and understand its impact on your life and relationships.
Personal boundary setting is also important. This can involve knowing emotional and physical boundaries. When are they pushed too far? How are you communicating about touch, sex, and your needs there? It can also be about boundaries in your environment, tasks, or chores that need to be done.
One way our anxiety can present itself in relationships is over-functioning. This is when one partner takes on too much of the load. Not because of necessity, but out of thoughts like, “well, I’ll just do it myself.” Or, “I guess if I don’t do it, they’ll blame me anyway.” These thoughts are common but can breed toxicity in relationships. When you start noticing these thoughts, bitterness and resentment may soon follow.
A therapist can help you learn better-coping strategies that you can try on your own. While your partner or spouse may still be skeptical about the idea of therapy, the shifts you begin to make may change some of the communication patterns happening.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Awkward Questions
It’s ok to be asked if you’re still attracted to your partner. Or if you’re worried you married the wrong person or if you think about divorce. These questions aren’t meant to make you feel doom about your relationship. They’re meant to help you clarify your real feelings and avoid generalizations.
The reflections they require may take time, and you may not be able to answer right away. That’s ok. Therapy is work. It isn’t meant to be a quick fix. Sometimes what is really irking you about your relationship isn’t the issue you bring into the first session. We are complex, and these things are not always so obvious.
Relationships Are Work; so Is Couples Therapy
In the end, what you get out of therapy is what you’re willing to put into it. Be willing to get vulnerable and get out of a blaming mindset. Couples’ issues are rarely one-sided. And even if only one side of the couple is in therapy, change can still happen.