Why Your Spouse Won’t Do Couples Therapy

January 12, 2021


Are you wishing your spouse would go to therapy with you? If so, you aren’t alone! I saw a statistic recently that said 90% of couples that will divorce, will do so without having ever talked to a marriage therapist. Honestly, it blows my mind. How can you throw away years of building a life together without even putting forth every effort to save it? 

This got me thinking. What keeps people from reaching out to marriage experts in order to keep families together?

It’s a question that deserves thoughtful consideration.

I’ve personally found that when one partner is willing (and even desires) to do couples therapy, and their partner refuses to participate, most fall into one of these categories. Let’s take a look at each of them and I’ll offer up some helpful tips that can encourage them to participate.

The Avoidant Spouse

The resistant partner is afraid certain subjects will be brought up during therapy, and they simply do not want to talk about them. Usually, these are topics that are especially painful. They may be embarrassing or shame-inducing, or they may address other significant wounding from the past. We all have had experiences that cause us pain – some may have caused physical pain, others mental and/or emotional. Even the thought of looking at the feelings behind the traumatic experiences causes distress, so putting their ‘head in the sand’ feels safer and much less vulnerable. We usually call these folks “avoidants” because they avoid going very deep into their feelings. They would prefer if you just got on board with “less is more” when it comes to emotions.

Tip: Express your desire to feel closer to your partner, but also let them know you respect their desire to move slowly. Assure them they will not have to talk about anything they do not want to bring up in session, and you will support them in holding that boundary. Offer to allow them to meet with the therapist privately if that will ease their concerns.

The Fearful & Defensive Spouse

Some of us have a very hard time owning the parts of ourselves that need to change. Your partner may realize they have some unhealthy behaviors or attitudes, and is afraid of being ganged up on by you and the therapist in session. Good therapy provides a space to safely look at some of the less attractive parts of ourselves (we all have them!), but a fearful and defensive spouse is scared of that spotlight. 

Tip: Let your partner know you fully expect the therapist to be on the side of your marriage and encourage them to be open to whatever needs to be addressed. Assure them your intention is not to assign blame and that you are willing to see your side of the street in this relationship.

The Hopelessly Pessimistic Spouse

I think of the character, Eeyore, from Winnie the Pooh. Sometimes people have been frustrated so long they lose hope anything can or will ever change. They are convinced therapy will be a waste of time, money and effort. Sadly, this attitude can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Tip: Sometimes the only one who has hope in the counseling office is the therapist and that is ok to start. Let your spouse know that doing the same thing you are currently doing, will certainly guarantee nothing changes. Take the attitude of “What do we have to lose?” when talking about therapy. Be willing to come alone at first, if necessary, to set the example.

The Once Bitten, Twice Shy Spouse

If you are someone who gets upset when your partner tries to express a feeling or belief you don’t agree with, your partner may feel therapy isn’t worth the price they think they will pay. It is common for me to separate couples and speak to them individually at times during the therapy process, and I usually hear things come from one of them that are not said when both are together. A client once told me “the squeeze isn’t worth the juice”, meaning ‘I have to leave here and live with her, and she will make me miserable if she knows I said these things.’ 

Tip: Let your partner know that you have not always been receptive to feedback or criticism, and that you realize you have gotten upset about difficult conversations in the past. Assure them of your commitment to learn how to have these discussions and remain calm.

The “I’m Not Nuts” Spouse

I think this archaic view of therapy is finally changing, but some people still see therapy as only for ‘crazy people’. Interestingly, I think millennials are much more comfortable with therapy than prior generations. Afterall, they have grown up in the age of social media where everyone seems to share everything, and they don’t feel the need to hide it from anyone. In fact, I believe it puts them in a favorable light – as someone who is actively working to improve themselves. The older generations, as a whole, tend to view seeing a therapist as embarrassing and shameful, as if it is a weakness to not be able to fix your own problems. While I see this occasionally, our practice is actually full of 30, 40, 50, 60-somethings (and beyond) who have embraced the therapeutic process wholeheartedly!

Tip: Let your partner know that seeking therapy is a healthy response to figuring out solutions to problems. Reassure them that no one else has to even know they are getting help. Remind them your relationship is worth tolerating a little discomfort.

The Apathetic Spouse

Sometimes a spouse is so checked out they have lost all desire to work on the marriage. Sometimes (though not always) the spouse is checked out because they are secretly involved with someone else. If they do come to therapy, they may appear to be participating, but have no follow through at home and make little to no effort in reconnecting. It’s actually a form of gaslighting, as the checked out spouse only pretends to be working for a better relationship because they aren’t yet ready to leave the marriage. Unfortunately, however, they have no desire to work on the relationship either. Honestly, this is frustrating for both the partner who wants to work and the therapist.

Tip: You may have to be firmer in approaching this topic by insisting that something change. Encourage your spouse to come to therapy with you but let them know if they do not participate, you will go alone to discuss what your options are when living with a spouse who isn’t interested in improving the marriage. Don’t threaten or get ugly. Just let them know you find their disinterest curious and you need to think about how you want to respond to their lack of interest.

The Complacent Spouse

Sometimes a spouse won’t come to therapy because they are in their comfort zone and simply aren’t hurting enough to make the effort to explore anything more. This is also the “I told you I loved you 20 years ago, if something changes, I’ll let you know.” spouse. Perhaps they don’t feel the need for the same close connection you desire and like things well enough at home. They may also be blindly unaware of just how unhappy you are; or, it’s possible they know and simply don’t care.They may also reason that the relationship is “good enough”. 

Tip: Consider the same tip as for an apathetic spouse. Let your spouse know that while he/she may be satisfied, you certainly are not. You believe the marriage can be better for both of you and take the initiative to start therapy alone if needed.

The “It’s not me, it’s you” Spouse

Your partner may feel YOU are the one with the problem and you are the one that needs the help. This type of partner feels they have a good handle on what is wrong in the relationship and things would be better if you would just fix you.

Tip: Take a deep breath and try not to buy into your partner’s message that you are the problem. When you can respond without anger and defensiveness, let your partner know you want to better understand all the ways you have contributed to the marriage problems. Assure him/her you are open to seeing your part. Let him/her know you are more interested in improving things than assigning blame.

Taking the initiative

The good news is that even though your spouse may refuse to see a marriage therapist, you still have options to work on your marriage. Going alone to a qualified marriage coach or counselor can show initiative, It can also set the stage to encourage your spouse to ultimately join you. 

While doing couples therapy solo isn’t ideal, you’d be surprised how productive it can be, allowing you to make changes in your relationship that actually benefit both of you. So, if your spouse is on this list, don’t give up and let their reluctance to participate keep you from moving forward towards positive changes in the relationship.

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