If you and your significant other are stuck in repetitive and unhealthy cycles and you’re both on very different pages about a solution, it’s natural to feel alone and overwhelmed. For some, couples or individual therapy may be a natural choice, but a lot of people still have big hangups about seeking any kind of therapy. This oppositional dynamic inside a romantic relationship is prevalent. USA Today recently published an article that proposed the newest dating dealbreaker: not going to therapy. If this sounds like an argument you and your partner have had before, keep reading. We’d like to offer some perspective and guidance on how to navigate these difficult conversations.
Remember, therapy still carries a lot of stigma — it’s incredibly vulnerable, requires much internal work and patience, and can still be inaccessible due to finances, region, cultural influence, etc. Your partner may have had a bad experience with therapy in the past. They might have preconceived judgments about the kind of person who goes to therapy. Your significant other may see therapy as a weakness or just may not understand what really happens during therapy. Fear may be the underlying emotion, instead of defensiveness, reluctance or arrogance.
So, if you’re the partner who sees therapy (either couples or individual therapy for your partner) as your best hope to resolve your shared problems, what do you do when your partner refuses to go?
Instead of giving unsolicited advice or getting angry, slow down and listen to your partner to better understand their reasons for not wanting to go to therapy. It’s tempting to tell your partner what to do. We do this believing we’re being supportive, loving, or helpful, when we’re really just giving them advice out of a place of judgment. When you ask thoughtful, curious questions, and genuinely want to know the answers, it gives your partner the chance to reflect and feel empowered to make changes on their own.
What you might say…
“Can you help me understand what your thoughts and hesitations are about starting therapy? This is important to me and I know I can get heated when we talk about it, but I want you to know that your thoughts are just as important as mine. I really do want to understand where you’re coming from.” If they don’t have an answer, make gentle suggestions. “Is it possible you’re feeling anxious because you’ve always thought about therapy as a weakness or for people who have serious mental illnesses?”
Remain calm and supportive
How often are we actually making suggestions during calm, connected moments? If you’re like most, it’s not often. Conversations like “why won’t you go to therapy?” are often initiated due to emotional triggers. It’s no surprise that these conversations turn into heated argument cycles where it becomes difficult to hear or understand each other past each of your defensive walls. Slow down, calm your body and then work to validate what your partner shared. You may not agree with everything that your partner said, but there is always something that’s understandable and acceptable to discuss. If you haven’t found it yet, keep being curious and ask good questions.
What you might say…
“I can definitely understand that. It makes sense that you’re struggling to challenge beliefs that you grew up with, especially when there are many cultural and media narratives as well as your personal experiences reinforcing them. Can you also understand the way that I’ve learned to think and believe about therapy?”
Be honest and clear about your concerns
Share with your partner about your reasons for thinking they could use support. Remember to stay present with your personal experience and fears- Sharing these things with vulnerability will encourage them to be vulnerable as well. Explain with concrete examples how you feel going to therapy would benefit them, you, and your relationship and help them envision how this could impact things in a positive way, leading to less conflict, more joy, peace, deeper understanding and commitment. Connect it to a change you know they would enjoy. It is also important to share with them vulnerably in a non-critical way what it would mean to you if they were to continue to refuse to consider therapy. Invite them into understanding how alone, discouraged, and hopeless you might feel about resolving your issues and about your larger feelings toward your partner and the relationship.
What you might say…
“When we get into these cycles, I feel so disconnected from you and scared about what it means for our future. I want to figure this out with you but I think we need help. When we argued the other night, I noticed you shut down and I didn’t know how to reach you after that with anything I said. I want to understand why that happens so I feel less helpless and we feel more connected. I believe working with a therapist can help us with that.”
Be open to alternatives.
Your partner may not be ready to consider therapy right now or it might not be a viable option for them due to finances, time, therapist availability, etc. However, if you are craving deeper understanding and connection, therapy is not the only option. Do some research and be open to trying something like a weekend retreat, an online workshop, or setting aside specific and protected time each week to connect with each others’ thoughts, feelings, dreams, etc. Committing to reading a book or listening to a podcast or speaker together on a relevant topic to your relationship can also stimulate growth. So much can be gained just from these small changes.
What you might say…
“I hear you when you say that therapy isn’t an option right now and even though that makes me sad, I respect your needs about not pushing the issue. I still have an important need from you though. I need to feel more connected to you and to feel that growing our relationship is a priority for you. Will you commit to exploring other ways to grow and heal our relationship?”
Lead by example and then report back
If you are already in therapy or have been in the past, consider sharing more about your journey in therapy with your partner. Share your personal perspective about what happens in therapy, emotions you process, skills you learn, insights you gain, and the parts of you that experience validation and healing. This helps to remove the fear of the unknown and visualize how they could benefit from therapy. It will also give them the opportunity to understand you more deeply and potentially even trigger their own self-reflection. This includes things that were difficult for you about your therapy journey. If you can relate to anything they shared with you about what’s holding them back, tell them how you worked through the same things.
What you might say…
“I remember feeling the same way before I started therapy. I didn’t tell anyone because I worried they would judge me, but trying to figure things out on my own wasn’t working. It took some time for me to trust the process but when I opened up to my therapist and we explored things in my life that had shaped the ways I think and feel and relate to others and I learned new tools to care for myself, new ways of thinking about myself, and new ways of relating to others.”
Use your discernment
There is a big difference between your partner refusing therapy and refusing to acknowledge your needs, work on the relationship, and make any changes at all to help themselves or your relationship thrive. There is a big difference between being in a relationship with someone who has different perspectives, life experiences, belief systems, and cultural influences and being in a relationship with someone who forces those belief systems on you. This could look like your partner demeaning or invalidating your therapy journey, controlling, manipulating, or gaslighting you, or ignoring and neglecting your legitimate needs. This is a problem and if you have been telling yourself that you just have to live without these things when you are clearly suffering, you are neglecting your own needs. You cannot change your partner, but you can be honest about your needs and take appropriate action to put yourself, your health, and your needs first*.
*You should also seek to be discerning about when not to recommend therapy to your partner. If your partner is abusive in any way, giving them advice could be triggering to them and could put yourself in harm’s way. Seek external, expert support to create a safety plan. You can speak with expert support members today by calling the 24/7 Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
*If your partner is suffering from a severe mental health disorder or episode, they may need a stronger intervention. Seek expert advice before you make this decision from the National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline at 1-800-950-6264.
These conversations can be painful and often feel like they’re not going anywhere. Think of it like sowing seeds that your partner might just need more time with to process and reflect before they’re ready to grow with you. Continue practicing openness and endurance because you can still connect with your partner and get to know each other more deeply when problems like this remain unresolved. Connection, understanding, and accepting, rather than getting your way, can be the new goal.
If and when you or your partner are ready to make an appointment, we would love to be a support for you. We offer both couples and individual counseling that can help you navigate whatever struggles you’re facing. Contact In Session Psych or Connect Couples Therapy to get started. We offer virtual and in-person sessions.