How To Get a Spouse To Come To Marriage Therapy

What can I do if my problem is my marriage and my husband/ wife won’t join me in therapy?

The callers who ask me this in great dismay have already asked their spouse to go to therapy alone or together. They have heard the same stonewall reasons: “I’m fine, you’re the one who is unhappy.” Or “I don’t believe in talking to strangers about private matters. What can they tell us?” Or “Let’s just see where things go.”

I remembered these couples when a man came in and said, “My wife is leaving me and I don’t understand it.” In the course of conversation he told me that she says it’s too late for marriage therapy, that she asked him to go years ago and he refused. “I’ll go now,” he told her, “I didn’t know it was that serious.” Meanwhile her clock had run out.

I tell the callers to go back and try a new conversation about getting help. First they must make 3 assumptions:

  1. If you are unhappy the way things are, so is your spouse.
  2. When a marriage goes downhill, people can learn to change and climb up again.
  3. We make a mess of things in life, but we have good intentions. Believe in your spouse’s good intentions.

Armed with these beliefs, go to your spouse and say with confidence:

“I don’t like the way we are with each other and I’m pretty sure you don’t either. I want to learn to be kinder (more understanding? more respectful? less angry?) with you. I’m asking you to help me by talking together with the therapist I’ve found. If you like, you can pick the therapist, but this must be a priority. We deserve to be happier than we have been and I’m afraid it will only get worse if we keep going on this way.”

Find your own words, but keep to these rules:

  1. Own the problem yourself.
  2. Speak with respect.
  3. Do not blame either of you.
  4. Stick to the idea of We.
  5. Make sure you don’t ask if the other person wants this. You are not asking, you are telling them it is important and you expect agreement.

After the conversation you may get reluctant agreement or you may get refusal. If it is refusal, make it clear that you are going to the therapist alone. One person working on the relationship can make a difference. Never underestimate the positive effect of your change on those around you. Go to marriage therapy for yourself and your marriage and let go of the idea that you must change the other person.

One last word: every problem has a solution. We may like some solutions more than others, but nothing is hopeless.