Help! My Partner Won't Do Couple Therapy

for couples Dec 13, 2023

William Ryan, PhD
PACT Level 3 Therapist

Sarah and Dylan have been married sixteen years and have two children together. Over the last four years, Sarah has been increasingly dissatisfied in the marriage. She has repeatedly asked Dylan to do couple therapy with her. Dylan consistently responded by rolling his eyes, dismissing Sarah's concerns, and making it abundantly clear he felt pressured by her requests. Consequently, it got more difficult for Sarah to talk to Dylan about her dissatisfaction. She began to feel lonelier and more unpartnered in her marriage.

Every time Sarah brought up couple therapy, Dylan responded, “We’re fine. We don’t need it. If we have a problem, we can handle it ourselves." In this widespread dynamic, one partner pleads to get professional help for the relationship while the other balks at the idea.

Why do partners dispute the need for couple therapy? There are a multitude of reasons. Often the partner has adopted cultural prohibitions from his or her family of origin. Such prohibitions may include, “We don’t do therapy," or “We don’t air our dirty laundry outside the home." Others may fear harsh judgment and wonder, “What does it say about us that we can’t handle our own problems?” or “We don’t go to the doctor unless there’s something seriously wrong." Privacy concerns can make some people feel too vulnerable to talk to a therapist. 

We acknowledge that it may be uncomfortable building a relationship with a couple therapist because he or she is a stranger. On the other hand, the hesitant partner may be wedded to the status quo in the relationship and fears the potential losses that change could bring. They may have lost interest in the relationship or lost hope, or they may be secretly leaning out of the relationship. 

If your partner is inviting you into couple therapy, you are fortunate. Heed the call. Odds are, your partner may become happier through therapy, in which case therapy is likely to make you happier in the relationship.

One partner's relationship dissatisfaction is perhaps the most common signal that you need couple therapy. Fail to heed this warning at your own peril. Untreated, your partner's dissatisfaction will chip away at the foundation of your relationship. Going into denial and keeping your head in the sand will almost always guarantee things get worse, not better. 

When you dismiss or minimize your partner's concerns, or fail to take them seriously, your partner may be confused, but ultimately, they will make their own sense of your behavior. They may conclude that you put your own satisfaction far above their satisfaction. This goes both ways, of course, so understanding and validating your partner's reasons for avoiding therapy might ultimately help them feel safe to enter therapy with you.

In pursuit of a solution, Sarah read several books by Stan Tatkin, founder of the Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy (PACT). Sarah learned about secure functioning, wherein members of the couple are in each other’s care. Couple members take care of themselves and their partners at the same time and rarely sacrifice one for the other. Secure-functioning partners don’t settle for less than both partners cocreating and committing to win-win agreements that solve relationship problems. From Stan, she learned that win-lose solutions are unfair and unjust.  

Sarah developed clarity about what was missing from her marriage and what she wanted in her relationship. She took this newfound insight to Dylan and expressed that she was hurting. She told Dylan that it felt as if he was unmoved by her distress. She said she could never be happy if Dylan was unhappy in the relationship and wondered out loud how he could be happy in these circumstances. “I have your back, Dylan, but it feels like you don’t have mine,” she told him. “I’m starting to feel betrayed." 

Sarah recognized that she was ineffective in part because she was pressuring Dylan and noncollaborative. She adopted a sweet inviting approach and reassured Dylan that he would not be shamed or blamed in therapy. PACT therapy is about changing the relationship, not about changing either partner.  

Armed with PACT values, the couple willingly partnered in couple therapy. The work was not easy; in fact, they both worked very hard. As a result, they began to feel much more connected with each other and more loved by each other. They developed new capacities to collaborate in their parenting. Both reported experiencing greater sexual satisfaction in their relationship. Ultimately, Dylan expressed enormous gratitude to Sarah for bringing him to couple therapy. 

Bottom line: Don’t ignore your partner's request to join them in couple therapy.


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