You cannot make anyone do anything. However, you can try to understand your spouse’s fears or concerns about marriage counseling and then try to address those concerns in a win-win approach in your response.
Although there are many reasons someone does not want to come to counseling, here are a few common ones:
• Don’t want to be blamed for everything wrong in the marriage or relationship
• Don’t want to be embarrassed in front of a counselor
• Believe couples should be able to solve their own problems
• It costs too much.
• It’s not going to do any good anyway.
• Don’t want to fight in a counselor’s office
• Don’t think the marriage or relationship is so bad, so you must be the one who needs help
• You went to marriage counseling or couples counseling before and it didn’t work or your spouse didn’t like it.
Today I’m going to focus just on “how do you get a reluctant partner to counseling?” I will talk about some of the fears and concerns in a future post.
One of the main keys when you have this talk is to listen, listen, listen — without interrupting or arguing. Listen with your heart, not just your head. Before you respond, try to imagine stepping into your partner’s shoes — why it makes sense he or she would have the concern, and then express understanding of why that makes sense in their shoes (whether or not you agree with it.).
What do I mean by that?
Your spouse objects: “We can handle our own problems. I don’t want to air our dirty laundry in front of somebody else.”
“Your concern makes sense to me — you pride yourself on handling problems and taking charge of things in life — and you have done that in many ways in our family. I also know you are a very private person and don’t like to share a lot — especially things that are difficult. You don’t even like to do that with me or your friends, so I imagine the thought of doing it with a stranger is not very appealing! You probably have tried to work on our marriage in your own way — and I have too. But we are not coming closer together — we are growing further apart and I don’t want that. What I want in counseling is someone to teach us skills and tools to help US be more effective in handling our own issues. No one can do it for us, but we can learn better ways to work to fix things. I would like you to agree to one session — then after that, we can decide if we want to continue.”
I’ll give you another example later, but let me give you a few other tips first.
1. The first thing is to tell your partner you want to talk about something important related to your marriage or relationship — and no, it is not to blame him or her for anything. Then ask if it is a good time to talk for 5-10 minutes. If it is NOT a good time for them, try to suggest a specific time frame within the next 24 hours. For example, “can we do it after the game?”, or “how about tonight after you get the kids to bed”, etc. This helps them not feel ambushed.
2. When you sit down to talk, tell your partner that you would like him/her to listen without jumping in and then you will do the same when they respond. Tell your spouse that he/she and your marriage or relationship are very important to you, that there are some/many things that are going well. However, there are also some things bothering you that you want to fix so that you, and both of you, can be happier and more fulfilled in the marriage/relationship.
3. Tell him/her that you are not interested in pointing fingers, and that you know that both of you create the quality of the relationship by everything you do, say or fail to do and say — whether you intend to or not. It’s never just one person. (Trust me, this is true, even if you think it is just the other person’s fault!) If you know something that you do that is probably not helpful to the quality of the relationship, own it. (For example, “I know that one of the things I do is __________ (nag, criticize, don’t always show appreciation, am stressed out at work and bring it home, etc. ) Sometimes things we do ends up having a negative effect on the other, even when neither of us means to.
4. Say (if it is true), that you have tried to make things better, and maybe he/she has too, in their own way, but that you want your marriage/relationship to be more fulfilling, fun, alive, connected for both of you. You would like the two of you to go together to a marriage or relationship counselor to learn more tools and skills to help both of you make your marriage better for you both. You don’t want to feel more and more disconnected or feel like you both have to walk on eggshells (or whatever is true for you).
5. Assure them that this is not about blame or shame or who’s right or wrong and counseling should not be about that either. It’s about building together a happier, alive, strong marriage that you both enjoy. (At least, that’s what it is about in my office. I cannot speak for other counselors!)
Often, when a partner realizes that counseling is not about blaming or embarrassing them, they are more willing to go to counseling. They also are more likely to attend when they realize that you want to help the marriage or relationship because you value them and your life together, and that it needs to be more of what you BOTH want – even if you want different things.
6. Tell your spouse the kind of counselor you are looking for, that you have done some research (if you have) and that you would like them come to at least one session at the very least to help the counselor hear both of their perspectives. It is very important for a counselor to hear the concerns and experiences of BOTH partners, not just one. Your partner’s perspective is just as important as yours. After the first session, both of you can decide whether or not you want to continue or not, or whether they want to find another counselor if it is not a good fit for either of you.
Listen, listen, listen to their concerns:
7. When your partner objects or says they don’t want to go, do not interrupt or defend. Instead, be curious.
8. If they just blurt out something like “I’m not wasting time and money on that” (or whatever the objection is), take a breath, don’t argue and try to step into their shoes. Try to imagine why it makes perfect sense that they think or feel the way they do.
9. The key is to work to make sense of what they are saying, whether or not you agree. Their concerns DO make sense, standing in their shoes. Then after you express understanding of the concern, say why it is important to you and to your relationship with this person you love – and if you have any ideas about how to meet both your concern and theirs, suggest it.
Here is an example to give you an idea. When you respond after expressing understanding, you don’t need to make it as long as what I’m including here. But see what points you think would help your spouse consider going for a session. Then use similar points when you respond to your own partner.
Objection: “I’m not wasting time and money on that”
Expressing Understanding: “It makes sense you don’t want to waste time and money – we both work hard and with the economy the way it is, it goes out quicker than it comes in. It also makes sense that you don’t want to just throw it at something that you’re not even sure would help. Is that right?”
Sample response: “I respect your concerns and I know the economy is tough right now. I don’t want to waste money either. At the same time, I want us to be closer and happier. We have tried what we know but it hasn’t worked. And I agree that we should not just throw money at something that might not work. I think we should both discuss it after the first session to decide if we think the counseling can help us, discuss with the counselor about how many sessions we might need — and then make our decision. I want to get what we need and then continue to use the tools on our own. I don’t want a long, drawn out thing. But our marriage/relationship, happiness and peace is too important to both of us not to try to learn some tools to help us. It’s like hearing a noise in the car. You might ignore it a little while, but if it continues or gets worse, we spend the money to fix it. If we ignore it, the problem gets worse and can cost more. I think our silences (or arguments, or lack of fun, my criticisms, etc.—but pick only 1 or 2 that are not blaming) are making some noises that something needs attention — and we need to see what we need to do to fix it. Will you agree to go to at least one session before deciding? Then if you don’t want to return, at least the counselor has heard some of YOUR concerns and not just my version of things.”
10. If they have questions or concerns, feel free to have them e-mail me.