So, you want to know how to talk to your partner about couples counseling. You’ve come to the right place!
As a marriage counselor and relationship coach, I know that having “The Talk” is crucial, but it can also be hard. Getting into high-quality couples counseling is often a turning point in relationships… but you can’t get into couples counseling until your partner sees the value in the experience and is ready and willing to give it a try.
If you are currently the only person in your relationship who’s even remotely interested in trying counseling, that’s 100% normal. The impetus for positive change in relationships always begins inside of one partner. When you lead by example, you can show your partner the value of growth, and what your relationship could feel like if you grow together as a couple. This is not only the path to getting your partner to say “yes” to couples counseling, it’s also how you create the kind of relationship where growth can flourish.
Even if your partner is hesitant about going to couples counseling, you can still use this heart-to-heart as a launch pad for positive change, and I’m going to tell you how. Do it well and odds are that both of you will walk away feeling energized about the idea of couples counseling and hopeful about your future.
If you would prefer to listen to this one, I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on “How to Talk to Your Partner about Couples Counseling.” You can find it in the player below this article, or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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Begin with Your Own Mindset
Being the change you wish to see in your relationship begins with your mindset. Unfortunately, many people enter couples counseling with mindsets that are not helpful. Many more never make it through the door because their mindsets are barriers to getting started.
This is what these unhelpful mindsets can sound like:
We should both want to go to couples counseling.
My partner doesn’t care about our relationship as much as I do.
If they wanted to change, they would.
My partner is completely closed off to counseling and they always will be.
The problems in our relationship are my partner’s fault. They need to change. That’s why we need to go to counseling.
Do any of these resonate with you? If so, don’t worry — we all think this way sometimes, and beginning to change that is a big part of how couples counseling works. But you actually need to start shifting away from these mindsets before you even broach the topic of counseling with your partner, and I’ll tell you why.
When you carry a negative mindset into a difficult conversation, it throws a wet towel on your own feelings of hope and motivation, and your partner will be able to feel that. It’s also bad news for your relationship in the long run. Quiet, insidious shifts like these are like the first microscopic cancer cells that will eventually consume the body of your relationship.
Relationships fail because people begin to lose hope that growth, improvement, and satisfaction are possible. They stop fighting for change and start emotionally withdrawing. If your mindset is telling you that there’s no point in even trying to get your partner to go to counseling with you, then you actually have the demise of your relationship brewing inside of you already, whether you know it or not. Scary I know, but also true.
The biggest mistake you could make is approaching this conversation with a mindset that says the problems in your relationship are all your partner’s fault. Blame is the single most significant obstacle to getting your partner on board with couples counseling — even when blame is subconscious, which it often is.
So ask yourself. Do you believe on some level that the reason you need couples counseling is so that the therapist can finally help your partner understand what you’ve been saying all along and teach them how to change in the ways that you want them to change? If so, you need to adjust your expectations about couples counseling, before you talk to your partner. They will pick up on your agenda, even if you’re not saying it in words. They will hear something like, “I’m going to take you to the judge / jury / relationship police and they are going to scold you and side with me, and tell you that you need to be different,” and your partner is not going to want to do that with you. Because, who would?
If your mindset is a little blamey, that’s nothing to feel bad about. We all find it much easier to see other people’s shortcomings than to reflect on our own. I’m not immune to this either. When my husband and I went to couples counseling over 20 years ago, I can tell you that I believed that I was the innocent victim in our relationship, and that we needed to go to couples counseling so that he could change. I was surprised to learn that I was actually contributing to the problems between us — surprised and maybe a teensy bit defensive, but then, empowered. Because if I had a role to play in creating our relationship dynamics, I had a role to play in changing them. This revelation was so beneficial to my own personal growth that it was a big part of what inspired me to become a marriage and family therapist. I wanted to help other people who were struggling in their relationships and feeling powerless to create change, because that is how I once felt.
If you’re worried about your partner refusing to go to couples counseling, the first thing you can do is shift your mindset away from defeat and blame, and toward hope and responsibility. Next, I’ll show you how.
Cultivating the Right Mindset to Talk to Your Partner about Couples Counseling
The best mindset you can carry into this important conversation is a growth mindset.
Having a growth mindset means believing that the obstacles in your relationship are simply reflections of the skills that you and your partner have had the opportunity to develop up to this point — not reflections of who you are as people, or your potential to be good life partners for each other. When your relationship is feeling hard, that’s an indication that it’s time to grow, not an indication that it’s time to call it quits or turn on each other.
It’s important to have a growth mindset in your relationship because there is no other life circumstance or situation that fosters greater growth and transformation than the relationships we have with our partners. Why? Because our partners are connected enough to our authentic selves to experience the reality of our rough edges, our baggage, neuroses, unrealistic expectations, core beliefs, and personality styles. They also care enough about maintaining a relationship with us to fight with us about it. Nobody else is going to do that with you.
Approach your partner with humility, take personal responsibility for your own side of the relational fence, and express your sincere desire to grow, for the benefit of your relationship and your partner. That is the kind of message that will make someone want to go on this journey with you.
Here are some mantras that you can bring into this conversation with your partner:
- I know that we are creating our relationship dynamic together.
- Even if I don’t always understand them, my partner has valid reasons for how they feel, what they think, and how they behave — just like I do.
- Getting involved in couples counseling will require me to examine how my way of being might be challenging for my partner. I know it will sometimes feel hard, and so I can have empathy for how my partner feels about it.
- I have a more positive perspective about diving into growth work than my partner does right now. That’s simply because my partner has not had the same life experiences or cultural messages about getting help that I’ve had.
Talk to Your Partner About Couples Counseling
Now you’ve got your mindset right and you’re ready to talk to your partner about couples counseling. Fabulous! Here are my pointers for how you can talk to your partner about couples counseling in a way that lands, and gives you the best shot at getting the help your relationship needs.
- Pick the right time
Start this conversation at a quiet time when neither one of you is feeling angry or stressed out. Do not shout “I WANT TO GO TO COUPLES COUNSELING” in the middle of a horrible fight, for example. If a particularly nasty fight is the impetus to get into counseling (as it is for many couples), wait until the dust has settled, and offer your partner a sincere apology as an olive branch before discussing your desire to go to counseling.
- Own your crap
Instead of going into this conversation armed with a list of complaints about what your partner is doing wrong, enter it with a list of the things you want to do better. Talk about how you want to work on your communication, or your attachment patterns, or anything else that you think might be contributing to the difficult dynamics in your relationship. If they’re used to feeling blamed, they’ll be all ears.
- Talk about your hopes for the relationship
What do you want your relationship to feel like? What are your hopes for the future? What’s your vision for what your relationship will be like on the other side of counseling? Talking about this with your partner will help you create shared goals and motivation to work toward them together.
- Be real about your challenges
Maybe you’ve been feeling lonely in your relationship. Maybe all the fighting is breaking your heart. Maybe you’re starting to feel drained and disconnected. When you share your vulnerable feelings with your partner, rather than blame or anger, you are giving them the information they need to understand that this is important, in a way that they can hear.
- Be curious about what this is like for your partner
Your partner is also having an experience in this relationship. Ask them how they’ve been feeling and what their challenges are. Listen to what they tell you without getting defensive, and express your desire to make things better for them.
If your partner shuts down or says everything is fine, when you know there’s more to the story, that’s an indication that there’s some very important work to be done.
- Find their noble intentions
Your partner wants love, respect, caring, and understanding just as much as you do. When they’re being an irritating weirdo, these are their deeper motives, I promise. Highlight that you understand that and that you believe going to couples counseling will help you both give these things to each other.
Understanding the Obstacles
It’s also a good idea to spend some time thinking about the obstacles you might encounter during this conversation.
The most likely obstacle is defensiveness. If your partner feels blamed, or believes that the point of going to couples counseling is to figure out who is to blame (it’s not!), they are not going to want to do this with you.
The second obstacle is a belief that couples counseling is for people in terrible relationships. This belief will keep your partner from wanting to acknowledge that you need to go to couples counseling, because if they did acknowledge that, it would mean something scary is happening in your relationship and they don’t want that to be true. Reality is on your side here: The best time to get couples counseling is before relationship problems get big and scary. That’s how happy couples keep their relationships strong.
A related obstacle is believing that, if you go to couples counseling, that means that one of you must have serious issues. Your partner doesn’t want to be “the partner with the problem,” and I’m sure you don’t either! Thankfully, that’s not what going to counseling means, at all. But for people who want to steer clear of anything adjacent to clinical mental health “treatment,” relationship coaching is a great way to work on your relationship in a setting that is 100% growth focused.
Expense can be another barrier to getting into couples counseling. Many people believe that the cost of couples counseling is beyond their means, when in reality, there are highly qualified providers who accept clients at sliding scale rates. More often, the couple has the means to pay for counseling, but one partner doesn’t understand the value. Helping your partner put the cost of couples counseling in perspective can help if concerns about cost are the obstacle.
Another obstacle can be having a DIY mindset. This mindset says that, if we just read enough books, watch some YouTube videos, and listen to some podcasts, then we could fix this ourselves. You actually can learn a lot from resources like these. I host a podcast on personal growth and relationships, so I would never turn up my nose at DIY. But it’s really not a substitute for the insight, accountability, and support that you will get from working with a third party relationship expert.
If your partner is attached to the idea of doing this on your own, make a 30-day plan to learn about the changes you want to make and begin putting them into practice. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, then there are trained experts who can help you in a way that books and podcasts cannot.
The final obstacle is the way you manage yourself. It can be hard to have this conversation, not only for your partner, but for you too. Make sure that you have the right mindset, you listen more than you talk, you approach your partner with the goal of understanding them, you mobilize your empathy, and you manage the effects of emotional flooding. Doing all of this is an exercise in emotional intelligence. It’s not only how you get your partner to go to counseling, it’s how you create the emotional safety that makes change possible in your relationship.
Empowered Growth for Your Relationship, With or Without Your Partner
Here’s the good news: You have the power to create change in your relationship, whether or not your partner agrees to go to couples counseling.
When you enter growth work on your own for the purpose of improving your relationship, it is likely to succeed. Your partner will feel you changing in positive ways, and it will change the way they respond to you. This is how relationship systems work. It may even inspire your partner to do their own growth work, especially if you talk to them about what you’re learning and how you’re applying it in your relationship.
You will also stop participating in unhelpful patterns that are enabling problems to persist in your relationship. This will either help both of you feel better, or it will help you feel better, while putting “natural consequences” in place that will support your partner’s growth.
Either way, you will experience a transformation that will either 1) change your relationship for the better; 2) encourage your partner to engage in the process with you after all; or 3) grow you away from someone who does not wish to evolve with you, which is also okay. It’s certainly better than not growing at all, and continuing to spiral down.
I hope that you will embark on your own growth journey, whether your partner joins you or not. And if you would like to do this work with a knowledgeable clinician on my team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.
P.S. — For more advice on having courageous conversations, healing your connection, and creating positive change in your relationship, check out my “Growing, Together” collection of articles and podcasts. I made it for you!
Music in this episode is by Annie Hart with their song “Stillness.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://anniehart.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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