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What if My Partner Won't Agree to Couples Counseling?

I get this question a lot in my counseling practice. You are seeking help and your partner isn’t willing to join you. Perhaps they want to address the issues without a third party. Maybe they think they’ll be blamed or don’t even see a problem. The next question I often hear is, “Would getting individual counseling help?” Well, the short answer is probably. It will probably help you, and it may or may not help your relationship...

You and your partner have a cycle, or pattern of communication. You can look at your pattern like a dance that you both know very well; you’ve been dancing these steps for years. As the partner seeking help, I suspect you are often exasperated trying to connect with your partner. You try to reach out and when your partner withdraws you get angry. Of course you do! One of our biggest fears is that our partner will reject and abandon us; that the person we have given ourselves over to on so many levels is no longer interested. We need to know that they are there for us! As your anger (fear) heightens, your partner retreats even more. This in turn makes you more upset and isolated, and they continue withdrawing with resentment…the dance goes on.

Of course this is a generalization, but some form of this dance is very common. So what can you do if your partner won’t join you in counseling? In a literal dance, when one partner changes the steps, this won’t go unnoticed and the other will make a change to keep some semblance of the dance going. Could they stumble? Yes. Could it feel awkward? Yes. But the dance will change, and breaking out of your cycle is the first step to creating a healthier relationship. You can imagine in this scenario, however, that learning a new dance is much more effective when both partners are taking the new steps together.

In an individual session, we can look at the nature of your dance (cycle of communication) and your role in it. The first step to change anything is awareness and unless you understand what your pattern is and the attachment fears driving that pattern, it’s difficult to change. We can also explore your partner’s role. Do they withdraw out of fear of not measuring up? Feeling they’re never able to meet your needs so they’ve given up trying? Do they need to hear that they are good enough for you regardless of their flaws or mistakes?

In an individual session, we might also shine some light on your triggers. We all have them. I’ve got them too. If I find myself freaking out for no apparent reason when my husband says something pretty benign, I know it’s worth looking at. These wounds, or soft spots, have been there for a very long time; often since childhood and we are experts at protecting them. If you can recognize your triggers and not react (as much) when your partner nails them, and instead respond in a way that tells them they’ve hit a painful or sensitive place (this is hard), it can change your dance for the better. Think about it. If half of the energy is removed from a negative cycle that is rapidly spiraling south, the deterioration is at least going to slow down. Ideally, it will slow down enough so you can both gain some perspective and begin the repair process.

So can seeing a therapist individually save your relationship? Maybe. Maybe not. There is no guarantee that just because you’re doing the work and committing to change that your partner is willing or ready to do the same. What therapy can do is help you gain awareness to change and grow for the better, and in my opinion, that’s what this journey is all about. 

Feel free to reach out to me to talk about your situation. I'm now accepting both couples and individuals in my Apex, NC office.

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