What to do if your spouse won’t go to counseling

John Gerson, Ph.D.

The scenario of one spouse recognizing that therapy might be useful to look at a troubled relationship while the other is resistant has several possible explanations.

It may be that your partner has become too anxious as a product of interpreting your request for counseling as a sign that the relationship is in serious danger, and may only have the strength to defend against the anxiety by denial and non-participation. Your partner may also feel too threatened by the notion that he or she is to blame for your relationship difficulties, and visualizes a therapy session as one in which you persuade the therapist of this unilateral conception. The fear here is that of you being the complaining, “righteous” partner who co-opts the therapist in a biased alliance against him or her. In addition, your resistant partner may not feel as competent to present his or her case to the therapist as you might, since after all, you are fueled by pain and indignation of one kind or another. Again, for this mate, refusing to go to therapy is a way to reduce anxiety, at least short-term.

If you find yourself in this situation, it is useful to examine your emotional stance in the relationship with respect to judging and blaming. Dominating your partner with blame only serves to maintain a power imbalance and your sense of being victimized and deprived. If your partner is the source of blame and judgment and paradoxically still won’t attend sessions, it may be that this person feels hopeless about the possibility of change or too vulnerable to relinquish the role of blamer in order to learn more about the contributions that he or she makes to the problems that are straining the relationship.

Solutions to this problem may be emerge through the use of compassion, an emotional attitude sometimes not easy to find in the midst of the acute pain and anger that are ordinary products of disappointment in love. Recognizing the dynamics presented here may serve as a framework for re-shaping your attitudes about your resistant partner from helplessness, disrespect, and judgment to interest and care about what is very likely to be underlying fearfulness and vulnerability. If you can do that, then you may be able to have conversations with your partner that are characterized by a softer tone, and more demonstrations of true empathy – the ability to de-center and put yourself in your partner’s shoes. This act will have healing potential and effect some change even before you both arrive at the therapist’s office.

If your partner still refuses to attend therapy sessions with you, it is advisable for you to go by yourself. There is much helpful work that you and your therapist can accomplish regarding how you live in the relationship, and as you become stronger, so, like ripples formed by a stone being dropped in water, the positive energies that you bring home may be helpful to both of you, whether or not your partner ever attends.

John Gerson, Ph.D.