When commitment feels rare and everyone’s lonely, Change of Heart is a Valentine's Week investigation of what makes relationships so hard—and how they can be better.
It can be hard enough to convince yourself to see a therapist, but getting another person—who has their own needs, desires, and comfort level with talking to a professional about personal problems—to go with you to couples therapy can be even more difficult. There is still a lot of shame associated with couples therapy and what it means about your relationship, and going requires spending time, energy, and money to do something that might feel uncomfortable in the moment.
Expressing your needs out loud, or realizing and admitting that you have expectations for how you want to be treated or how you want your life to look can be really hard to do. Can’t we just do molly or mushrooms together and then talk about feelings (with the sort-of aim of not actually talking and just painting over the problem yet again)? But good old-fashioned couples therapy can be transformative, a relatively small investment that may pay off in all of your interpersonal relationships for years to come.
If you’re worried that your significant other will interpret the words “couples therapy” as a death knell, or just be fairly resistant to the idea, here’s how to talk to them about it.
You don’t have to wait for things to be “bad enough” to propose couples therapy—simply wanting to go is reason enough.
Even though couples therapy is often depicted as a last resort, Rosara Torrisi, a certified sex therapist based in New York, told VICE that you don’t have to wait until you’re at a breaking point to start. She said if you’ve tried Googling or reading books about the issue you’ve been having and nothing is really helping, that might be a signal to consider couples therapy—“if you're struggling and you keep struggling; if you've tried to find solutions, and either you found solutions and they worked for a little bit, and then didn’t keep going; or you really haven't been able to find a solution.” A therapist isn’t there to declare a “winner” in an argument; they can simply help you work through the problem, and hold you accountable as you make changes.
Torrisi also said therapy is a good option when a couple feels like they are having a problem and don’t know how to fix it, but do know they want to stay together—i.e., when something is starting to feel like a dealbreaker, but you don’t want it to be. “That's a great time to say, ‘I think we need more support than just the two of us,’” Torrisi said.
She also recommended considering couples therapy even if you don’t have a major problem to deal with. “Earlier is when we have the potential to make greater changes that can forestall a more serious problem developing,” she said. So you could treat it more like preventative healthcare and start going when you move in together or get engaged, for example.
As tempting as it might be, don’t broach the topic during an argument.
Torrisi said that when you bring up the idea of couples therapy to your partner might be more important than what you ultimately say—and during a fight is probably the worst possible time. “A fight is when people are slinging cheap shots with the purpose of hurting each other,” she said. “So if you’re in the middle of doing that with each other, it’s not a good moment to bring up, ‘We should go to couples therapy.’ Because then it’s like a weapon, and that's not cool.” She said talking about couples therapy when you’re angry can lead to your partner’s getting defensive, which will ultimately make it harder to convince them to do it. So even if you are feeling really sad or stuck or frustrated, Torrisi said to “find a time when things feel kind of calm, for at least a moment.”
Instead of making your case by listing all the things that are wrong with your relationship or partner, talk about what’s working.
You’re more likely to get a good reaction if you propose going to therapy in the context of your love and appreciation for your partner—and avoid anything that implies “you’re broken and you need fixing.” “We don’t, for whatever reason, think of therapy as actually being supportive and enhancing,” Torrisi said (even though it is those things). “So make sure that as you’re talking about it, you’re aware of how your words are coming across.”
“I like the idea of sandwiching information so that somebody feels loved and supported,” Torrisi said. So, you might say something like this:
“I really love our relationship and where we are overall, but I think we both know [how we talk to each other during arguments/our different views on money/our conversations about boundaries with our families] is causing some issues, and I’m wondering if couples therapy might be helpful for us. I love our relationship and I love you, and I want to stay together; I think couples therapy could be a really good tool for us that would make our relationship better in the long run.”
When you’re coming from such a positive place, Torrisi said, “it's harder for a person to respond with, ‘Are you crazy? Are you out of your mind? No way. I'm never doing that. You hate me. You don't love me.’”
Torrisi said that some folks might not want to go to couples therapy because they don’t think their relationship is “That Bad,” or they worry the suggestion means the two of you are on the verge of a breakup. “They want that reassurance,” she said. “So give them reassurance—’No, it really isn't that bad, and I don't want it to get that bad.’”
Be prepared to compromise if your partner is resistant to the idea.
Torrisi suggested asking a resistant partner if they would be willing to try just one session, and promise that if they absolutely hate it, you don’t have to go back. “It might be a little bit of negotiating—and not negotiating like seeing who wins, but having an actual conversation about how to make this as comfortable as possible for each other,” she said.
If you’re really sure you want to try couples therapy and your partner is really hesitant, Torrisi said you should ask them why, specifically, they don’t want to go—and then enlist their help to try to find solutions they are comfortable with.
Torrisi said that people often resist couples therapy for cultural reasons. “‘My family doesn't do therapy, ‘men don't do therapy,’ ‘it's a girl thing,’ ‘it's a white people thing,’” are some of the common reasons she said she hears. In that case, offer alternatives: “Would you want to be in charge of picking out a therapist? Would you want a therapist of color? Would you want a male therapist?”
If they are still really opposed to the idea of couples therapy, a couples workbook (or even the right YouTube videos) could be a good alternative.
Torrisi said that workbooks can be a very good option for people who are really resistant (or who don’t have the time/money to go to therapy). Workbooks are essentially self-help, and while they won’t offer the same experience that talking with a couples therapist would, they can be an effective compromise—or simply a good place to start.
Torrisi recommended Getting the Love You Want Workbook and An Emotionally Focused Workbook for Couples for couples in general, and We Do: Saying Yes to a Relationship of Depth, True Connection, and Enduring Love and The Marriage Counseling Workbook: 8 Steps to a Strong and Lasting Relationship for those who want something marriage-specific. And if you want to do some work on yourself on your own, she suggested The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook and Self-Therapy Workbook.
Torrisi is also a huge fan of “anything by John and Julie Gottman.” “You can watch videos by them, you can read books, you can listen to audiobooks... they're just great,” she said. “So if your partner is super opposed to therapy, but would be willing to do workbooks or watch YouTube videos with you or whatever, then like, OK, let's do that.”
Torrisi said going this route can actually lead people to couples therapy eventually—and that’s not a bad thing. “[People] come to me and they say, ‘Well, we've done these workbooks, and they were really great. We learned a lot about each other, but we weren't able to actually implement it because it didn't make sense for our lives,’” she said.
And remember that if your partner isn’t amenable to couples therapy, going to individual therapy might be worth your time.
Even though couples therapy might be ideal for big relationship issues, individual therapy still has a lot of benefits, and is worth considering if you’re not already doing it. “You're not going to be able to solve everything in a relationship as one person [in individual therapy],” she said. “But it takes two to tango. If one person starts dancing the salsa, this relationship is going to change. If one person is doing the work, that might be what the relationship needs.” And if going to individual therapy helps your relationship improve, that’s a good thing—it doesn’t mean you are broken or were “the problem” all along. If the relationship is changing for the better and you feel good about it, that’s all that matters.
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Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People, coming May 2020. Follow her on Twitter.