Having seen too many divorces and breakups, I am always interested in writers who help couples make it together despite the many twists and turns of being in a relationship. John Gerson, Ph.D. is a first rate clinician who really understands how couples get stuck. This piece offers insight on why a spouse may refuse counseling and what his or her partner can do about it.
The message – don’t give up. A lot can be done, even if you are the only one who starts treatment. MB
The scenario – you want to get into couples counseling because the relationship is in trouble. Here’s the problem: your partner refuses to go.
What is going on – and what can you do about it?
You imagine; she’s unhappy just like me. Won’t she want help? Or, he knows I’m miserable, why not get an objective person to help us? Unfortunately, the answer is often no. In my experience, stonewalling of this kind breaks down into three different forms of resistance:
- Thinking that the relationship must be over: It may be that your partner has become too anxious as a product of interpreting your request for counseling as a sign that the relationship is in serious danger, and may only have the strength to defend against the anxiety by denial and non-participation.
- Worrying about blame: Your partner may also feel too threatened by the notion that he or she is to blame for your relationship difficulties, and visualizes a therapy session as one in which you persuade the therapist of this unilateral conception. The fear here is that of you being the complaining, “righteous” partner who co-opts the therapist in a biased alliance against him or her.
- I can’t speak up for myself: Another possibility could be that your reluctant partner may not feel as competent to present his or her case to the therapist as you might, since after all, you are fueled by pain and indignation of one kind or another. Again, for this mate, refusing to go to therapy is a way to reduce anxiety, at least short-term.
If you find yourself in this situation, it’s useful to examine your emotional stance in the relationship with respect to judging and blaming.
The problem with blame: Dominating your partner with blame only serves to maintain a power imbalance and your sense of being victimized and deprived. If your partner is the one who blames and judges, and paradoxically still won’t attend sessions, it may be that this person feels hopeless about the possibility of change or too vulnerable to relinquish the role of blamer in order to learn more about the contributions that he or she makes to the problems that are straining the relationship.
The healing power of compassion: Solutions to this problem may be emerge through the use of compassion, an emotional attitude sometimes not easy to find in the midst of the acute pain and anger that are ordinary products of disappointment in love.
Compassion can sometimes unlock the reactive negativity that one sees so often in a relationship that’s doing poorly. For the first time in a long time, she may really feel heard. Or, he may step back and think a bit when you don’t just rush to judgment – after all, he knows perfectly well what you don’t like about his behavior. If he or she knows that you’re not trying to win, there may also be a softening towards couples counseling.
The limits of compassion: As in everything in life, there may be a risk in being too compassionate. This occurs when one of the spouses has a personality disorder; a good example being a narcissistic personality disorder. In cases like these, your compassion can be used against you. People with this psychological infirmity simply want to win – at all costs. In a case like this you may need a good therapist to figure out how to handle the relationship in a productive way.
Understanding as a force for change: Recognizing the dynamics presented here may serve as a framework for re-shaping your attitudes about your resistant partner from helplessness, disrespect, and judgment to interest and care about what is very likely to be underlying fearfulness and vulnerability. Healthy people respond to an understanding ear.
If you can do that, then you may be able to have conversations with your partner that are characterized by a softer tone, and more demonstrations of true empathy – the ability to de-center and put yourself in your partner’s shoes. This act will have healing potential and effect some change even before you both arrive at the therapist’s office.
Finally, going alone can still work: If your partner still refuses to attend therapy sessions with you, it is advisable for you to go by yourself. There is much helpful work that you and your therapist can accomplish regarding how you live in the relationship, and as you become stronger, so, like ripples formed by a stone being dropped in water, the positive energies that you bring home may be helpful to both of you, whether or not your partner ever attends.
John Gerson, Ph.D. is a psychologist with over forty years of experience, specializing in individual and couples therapy. He holds memberships in the American Psychological Association, the New York State Psychological Association, and the Westchester Group Psychotherapy Society. Dr. Gerson is the author of numerous articles about couples and relationship issues. He has offices in Katonah, New York as well as New York City.
Dr. Gerson’s Website: www.thrivetherapypractice.com
You can hear Dr. Banschick on The Intelligent Divorce radio show as well.