I am often asked the question of how to get a friend or a partner to enter (their own) therapy. This can be for any relationship partner, including platonic friends as well as romantic partners. These partners or friends usually fall into two categories: 1) People who we see are in genuine need of assistance (to the point the person’s struggles are visible to others); or, 2) people we are generally frustrated with (e.g., “My wife is always telling me what to do. She needs therapy”; “My boyfriend never listens or does what I tell him to do. He should be in therapy.”).
For both scenarios above, trying to talk someone into therapy can be an incredibly frustrating experience. It’s almost telling someone they have some sort of “problem” or that something is “wrong” with them, while also asking them to actively seek a service that they may not really want or feel they need.
Though it’s not always easy, if we keep an open mind, it’s possible to encourage our partners towards starting counseling.
How Therapy Can Help
Issues present in a variety of ways in our lives. For some of us, we don’t manage stress well — we get irritated quickly, lose sleep, yell at people we love, get headaches, backaches, etc. Some of us get sad or depressed when we feel overwhelmed by thoughts, emotions, and stress. Maybe we have difficulty with effective communication that impacts interpersonal or relationship issues. This is a small sample of the struggles we can face in daily life.
Therapy (or psychotherapy, as it’s formally called) is intended to help us deal with internal and external responses (emotional, cognitive, and behavioral) to things that happen in our lives through a process of reflection, self-exploration, and many other possible methods. Sometimes, we don’t need an in-depth exploration as much as we just need someone to hear us and be supportive — knowing that for a period of time each week (or however frequently), we have that time to fully explore the things we want to talk about, and know that the therapist is there helping us cope and process. Therapy (or counseling) is there for all of these types of issues as well as others.
Now, how does this relate to getting my partner into therapy? Sometimes the old stigma of therapy causes people who want help to avoid the help they need because they feel it won’t work for them. For those in genuine need of some help, a bit of education about therapy can go a long way.
Help them see that therapy is a safe place. Also, being supportive and sensitive and showing that you care about their well-being is important. Identify the unbiased reason(s) (preferably fewer reasons — too many will seem daunting) you see they could benefit from therapy.
For example, “I see that you are really down lately and having a hard time coming out of it.” Let them know you don’t think anything is wrong with them, but feel they may benefit from some help with their current struggles. Sometimes people want the help, but just don’t know where to turn. Be willing to help them find a therapist and even to take them to their first appointment.
For those partners and friends who we want to see enter therapy because we are generally frustrated with their behaviors, the approach is a bit different. Relationship conflict is usually the catalyst for this scenario where we are personally involved with the issues. Here we are more than passive observers of someone’s struggles, we are an active piece of the issue.
Relationship conflicts are almost always two-ways (there is cause and effect from both sides). There is a common misconception that the more active person is the only contributor to an issue, but this isn’t the case. For example, if a person watches TV for 18 hours a day, and their partner constantly yells at them about laziness and relationship neglect, the tendency is for the TV-watcher to believe that the yelling partner needs to calm down. However, both have a role in this issue, even if one is quiet.
If you want your partner in therapy with this scenario, it can be a wise move to start by being in your own therapy — not necessarily because you need it more than your partner, but because it shows your partner that you’re making a commitment to look into yourself, as well, and not put the joint struggles onto their shoulders alone. For this scenario where we are involved with the issue, there is couples therapy to help with joint communication. Often people find it helpful to be in both couples and individual therapy since the focus of each is different.
It’s worthwhile to acknowledge that even if we are involved in the issue, there is still a possibility that our partner is struggling to a point that can be unhealthy (or, you’re in your own therapy and they still won’t consider entering therapy). It’s possible that our partner may need more support or help managing emotions or behaviors (e.g., reacting angrily to situations very quickly, which could indicate high stress, or other possibilities; drinking heavily or cutting as a way of dealing with arguments; etc.).
If this is the case, treat the situation much like the friend who we see can use help. If we’re involved in the conflict, it may take bringing in a friend or family member of theirs. Never bring up the possibility of the other needing therapy during a conflict! There’s really no chance that will go well.
In the end, there isn’t a sure-fire way to talk your partner into therapy, which is why it can be a frustrating task. In order to create change, a person has to desire change or want help. However, we can always offer encouragement and a little push or guidance towards help when it’s needed. Feel free to show your partner or friend this post. Remember, no one is immune to needing some assistance with life, including ourselves.
Counseling session photo available from Shutterstock
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Last reviewed: 27 Aug 2012