I like working with couples.
It’s quite a privilege to be trusted with people’s most tender, most vulnerable, and often most important relationship. Working with marriages and relationships can be both heart-wrenching and insanely rewarding, and it such a remarkable thing to watch couples grow in their sense of safety, their sense of connection, and their ability to hear and see and meet the needs of their partner.
But getting couples into therapy can sometimes be tricky. Sometimes one partner is hesitant and unenthusiastic about the idea, and can dig in heels and stall the whole process. Some people have had negative experiences in therapy that leave them feeling railroaded and unsafe, and so getting back into a counsellor’s office can be less enticing than a visit to the dentist. Others have never been, but have a sense of impending doom about what might transpire and so manage to avoid the topic with their partner indefinitely.
If your partner has ever casually said, “Maybe we should see someone?” or mentioned heading to therapy at any point, I want to dispel a few myths and share a bit of info that may be helpful.
First, if you’ve heard a comment or two over the years from your significant other about wanting to see a counsellor together, please understand what they are saying. To bring up the idea of therapy with your spouse is insanely vulnerable for the suggesting partner, basically he/she is disclosing that they are not okay with the relationship, they are hurting, and they want help. The first mention or two of this idea is typically reflective of a desire to work at restoring and repairing connection. But often rather than hearing this as a vulnerable expression of desire for restored closeness, the receiving partner hears, “You’re not a good enough spouse. Let’s go see someone so we can talk about what a crap partner you are.” But that’s not necessarily what’s being said. Rather, when a partner musters up the insane amounts of courage to suggest therapy, it is an acknowledgement that they want to feel closer and safer with you, and it’s a recognition that you guys need some help in order to figure out how to do that.
Also, don’t assume that because your partner dropped the counsellor idea that it means everything is okay. It may not be okay. They may have simply taken your lack of initiative and action as a response, only it is a response that says, “Your needs are not important to me. I am not unhappy, therefore I will not work at helping things be better for you.” Ouch. I want to highlight that if your partner has uttered words about seeing a couples therapist it is not too late to jump on that bandwagon. Look someone up. Have a few options researched and ready to go. Circle the wagon back and revisit that conversation from 2 months, 2 years, or 12 years ago. Check in. Unsure of how? How about something like this, “Hey honey, a few years ago you mentioned wanting to see someone to work on our marriage. I [missed hearing how that was important, was too afraid to pull the trigger, don’t think I realized the seriousness of what you were saying, hadn’t realized how much courage it took you to say that, totally dropped the ball…]. I wanted to check in and see if this was still something you would like to pursue?”
See, the desire to see a therapist at the onset of struggle is typically reflective of a desire to repair and move forward. When we miss this though, the therapy talk may come up again years later – but at this point, a desire to go to therapy can for some people be an expression of a partner giving up and wanting help to get out. As a therapist it’s hard to have couples come to session when the relationship is so far gone that one partner feels unable to put the energy into rebuilding something that has for years been broken and left untouched. Often at this point the reluctant partner is finally hearing that their partner is unhappy and genuinely wants to work at things, but unfortunately at this point it is often too late; the damage is done and the relationship often fails.
There are a few myths about therapy that can make it hard to get the process started. I want to speak briefly to those.
1. If I go, the therapist is going to blame me for the problems in our marriage. Well, simply put, no. A skilled marriage therapist is able to help the couple understand their pattern of interaction – the back and forth triggering that happens between partners. In this way, couples come to see the ways in which they get off course and trigger each other. Marriage is not a one player game.
2. I am not unhappy, so what’s the point in me going? If he/she is unhappy, then they should go on their own. It may be true that you aren’t dissatisfied with the partnership, but if your other half is finding their needs unmet, is the marriage a healthy partnership – or a self-serving union? Practice curiosity, seek to understand where your partner is at and what they’re experiencing. If you’re content in the partnership, wouldn’t you want the same for them? If your partner’s needs for safety, security, and connection are left unmet by you, note that it leaves them ripe to find someone or somewhere else to get those essential needs met.
3. It’s going to be hard/uncomfortable/trigger lots of feelings. Ok. This one is true. It may be hard, uncomfortable, and full of feels. But a therapist is there to help you and your partner figure out how to navigate this space. You don’t have to do it alone.
4. I’m already giving all that I can/doing my best. If this isn’t good enough, I’ll never be good enough. This one may be true in many cases, that you are already doing your best. Only sometimes our skill set is limited, we can’t give/do what we don’t know. Not all people come into marriage with a full arsenal of relationship tools. Sometimes therapy is a space for you and your partner to learn things about yourself, the other, and about connection that you haven’t known (and therefore haven’t been able to do.) If your partner didn’t think you’d ever be good enough, they wouldn’t have suggested therapy. They’d have left. Therapy is a space where you can learn new ways of building and strengthening your relationship, new ways of hearing and seeing your partner, new ways of naming and acknowledging unmet needs.
5. I’m afraid to go, because what if it doesn’t work? What then? This is a hard one. Sometimes marriage therapy helps to end partnerships, because we realize the chasm between people can simply be too great to cross. This is an unfortunate and hard reality for me as a clinician, and for couples. It is a risk to look critically at your marriage, and at yourself, and not every relationship survives the process. Moving closer emotionally is risky. Some folks choose the ‘safer’ route of staying stuck and emotionally distant. But the emotional loneliness that can ensue for the partner who wants more closeness may result in the relationship crumbling down the road anyway.
I’ll be honest. Therapy is hard. It can totally suck. And it can increase the tension in a relationship as part of the process. Learning how to share vulnerably, how to say hard things to your partner, how to express deep needs – these can be excruciating tasks. But the reward is that you may end up with a closer, safer, more satisfying partnership.
As a therapist, I always assume that folks are doing their very best to keep themselves emotionally safe. Sometimes in marriage that means we are employing behaviours and ways of being to take care of us that end up hurting our partner. Working with a therapist ideally isn’t going to be an hour of feeling beat up and shamed, but rather an experience of understanding how each partner’s best efforts to stay safe may end up inadvertently hurting the person you love. Inadvertently. Because as a clinician, I assume that nobody is trying to be a jerk to their spouse. But sometimes we are, not because we’re trying to hurt them – so much as we are trying to keep ourselves safe and intact.
So, if your person has mentioned therapy? Pick that ball back up. Dust it off. Take a deep breath and know that you can do this hard thing. You don’t have to settle for a safe distance, reaching out to bridge the gap between you and your partner can help to create a new, more satisfying, and safer connection moving forward.