I get this question a lot. So I decided to write a blog post about it. Now, of course first you need to realize that you cannot control another person. Believe me, I have tried and tried hard. I like to say that I am just stubborn enough and strong-willed enough and persistent enough that if anyone COULD control another person it would be me. And I have always failed every time I tried.
So please realize that. You cannot force another person to do anything, least of all couples therapy. Not without firearms being involved (shotgun therapy?) which most therapists will strongly discourage.
That said you do have some options if you are a partner who wants to get into couples therapy and your person is not on board. First I would suggest trying to understand their position. This is best done when you are CALM. So not in the midst of a fight. Seriously. That's important.
So if you are calm, sit down with your person and ask them if this is a good time to talk about something that is important to you. This cues them to pay attention and reminds you not to try to have this conversation while you are driving to dinner, doing laundry together or generally distracted. These kinds of conversations need their own time and space. As a PACT therapist I also recommend that you sit in a way where you can face each other directly so that you can see each other's faces dead-on. This helps reduce the chance that you will mis-read each other's facial expressions or accidentally trigger a threat response and cause your partner to become instinctually defensive.
Now that the stage is properly set let your partner know that you have given this a lot of thought and that you would very much like them to go to couples therapy with you. I am pretty sure if you are in this situation you have asked them this before. So they may get a little activated and say "I already told you I don't want to do that!" or something equally contrary. STAY CALM AND CARRY ON! You could say something like "You are right", (people love it when you tell them they are right), "you did tell me that. And I wanted to know if we could talk about why you don't feel like couple's therapy is something you want to do. I want to understand more about how you feel about it." Generally people want to be understood so this is a pretty non-inflammatory statement. However look at your person and if the veins in their forehead or neck are starting to bulge make sure that you take a nice slow breath and settle yourself as best you can. Then just let them know you just want to talk about it for maybe 10 minutes. That way they know that they are not trapped there forever. You can also say "I'd like to talk about this for maybe 10 minutes to see if I can better understand how you feel about it, unless that's not OK with you." Phrasing it this way tends to help people who can be a little reflexively defiant to be more agreeable. Then set a timer on your smart phone and put it on the table so your partner knows you mean business. They are not trapped forever!
Once you have set the stage as well as you possibly can, and assuming they have not stormed off, I recommend starting with asking them why they feel couples therapy would not be helpful. DON'T COMMENT!! Just listen. No matter what they say don't interject. This will be hard, trust me. But to be effective at this point you must just listen until they stop talking. Then repeat back to them what you think they said and ask "did I get that right?". Yes, folks, this is that "active listening" that you probably practiced in that hokey "emotional intelligence" class in High School. But trust me, it's important.
Then if they agree that you heard them right you can start taking their concerns one at a time. For example if they say "it's too expensive" you can say "yes, it is expensive, but I would be willing to forgo my weekly pedicures, or poker nights with the guys, or my daily Starbucks, or whatever, to contribute to the cause. Try to show that you understand that whatever their concern is there is some legitimacy to it but you are willing to give ground to allay their concern. If they say "I don't have the time" you could offer to take some chores off their plate or in some other way help them to create the time. You want to show that you are willing to put skin in the game.
Sometimes your partner may question how couple therapy can help. You can explain that having the right skills to be good in a relationship is just like any other skill we learn, like tennis for example. You can try to teach yourself tennis by reading a book or watching other people play tennis and you may learn to hit the ball but you may also develop some bad habits like holding the racket incorrectly or using a backhand when a forehand would be more effective in that moment. So if you really want to learn tennis well it makes a LOT more sense to engage a tennis instructor for a few lessons. After that you will understand the proper form and be able to practice on your own much more effectively. Couples can try to learn how to get along well without professional help, and they may make some progress, but they may also fumble more and even develop patterns that are not super healthy. Better to hire a "relationship coach" to help learn how to get along and after a period of time (3-6 months) you may have all of the skills you need to go do it on your own.
Another helpful offer in trying to get ones partner engaged in couples work is to ask him or her to just go to ONE session to see how s/he feels about it. Often a partner will be willing to go once (to an actual session by the way, not the 30-minute consultation, since no therapist could do enough in 30 minutes to help anyone see the value). In my experience I have never met with a couple once and had them not see the potential value of couples work.
Since I practice a very specific type of couples therapy (PACT) if you are interested in that style of couples work you could also ask your partner to at least familiarize himself/herself with PACT by :
These resources may help your partner understand what PACT couples therapy would look like and what kind of relationship principles you are interested in applying to your situation. It may spark some helpful conversations with your partner and/or help to get your partner more engaged around the idea of couples work.
Or finally if none of these suggestions works and you REALLY feel like you do not want to stay in the relationship if s/he is not willing to go to therapy then you have what we call a "deal-breaker" situation. You sit down with your partner and CALMLY tell him/her that you are simply not willing to continue in the relationship without professional help. You need to make VERY specific requests at this point (not vague) such as telling your partner that you need him/her to consent to scheduling meetings on a weekly basis for at least 6 months (these are the terms I recommend) and if s/he can't commit to that and show up and try it then you want to end the relationship. The thing about this option is that you MUST be willing to follow through with ending the relationship if your partner says no. So this only works if you are really at the end of your rope and don't want to go on without therapy.
Relationship are tough. Intimate relationships, in my opinion, are the toughest. Plenty of folks who can earn 6 figures, run companies, paint masterpieces, compose symphonies, run 4 minute miles or solve quadratic equations in their heads while doing back flips fail at intimate relationships. There is no shame in that. But there is help! I hope that these tips are useful to you in trying to engage a reluctant partner in therapy.
Wishing you happiness and harmony in your intimate partnership,
PS Remember if you have found this blog to be helpful to "like" it on Facebook or "tweet" about it on Twitter to help others find it! And always feel free to leave a comment, I will respond as soon as I can.
Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.