When marriage takes a turn in the wrong direction, righting it is often beyond a couple’s forte. If you’re the one recognizing the slippery slope, you may already know that correcting it is going to require outside help. But knowing how to talk with your spouse about marriage counseling is going to be your first hurdle.
While there are no absolutes regarding who is more willing to go to counseling, there are some gender-based tendencies.
Women, in general, are more comfortable talking about their feelings. No surprise there.
Not feeling that they can talk about their feelings within their marriages is perhaps a reason they are comfortable talking to a therapist. The yearning to feel heard — without indifference, dismissal, judgment, or being “fixed” — is a powerful motivator.
The tendency for men to try to “fix” the source of a woman’s negative feelings — or downplay them altogether — can be defeating for women.
We hear it all the time in the therapeutic setting: I’m not asking him to fix me! I’m asking him to listen. If he would just listen to and validate my feelings, I could solve my own problems.”
(Unless, of course, those problems involve her husband and the marriage. Then she becomes locked out of effecting change, at least in a positive, healthy, cooperative way.)
Meanwhile, the husband is confounded by the need for so much emotion and talking when the “solution” is so obvious…to him.
It’s the relationship version of “journey vs. destination,” “process vs. results.”
And neither is all right or all wrong. But, if your relationship needs help and you don’t know how to talk with your spouse about marriage counseling, where do you start? It can be like needing help to get the help you need.
Advice for talking with your spouse about marriage counseling is similar to advice for communicating with your spouse without fighting. It begins and ends with intention, awareness, compassion, listening, and commitment.
Your ability to get the results you want is dependent, in large part, on how you “dish it up.” What you say, how you say it, the positive or negative spin you put on it – all will influence your spouse’s reception and response.
Before going into specifics about how to talk with your spouse about marriage counseling, one point is extremely important to make:
Individual therapy is not sufficient to deal with marital problems. Even more potentially dangerous for the marriage is for each spouse to get a different individual therapist.
There are simply too many revelations that happen only in the context of both spouses being together and communicating in front of a therapist.
Better yet, couples counseling with a husband-wife therapy team levels the playing field from a gender perspective. It also allows the couple in therapy to witness, absorb, and practice healthy communication skills modeled by the therapist team.
A lot of factors can influence how comfortable you feel talking with your spouse about going to marriage counseling.
Things like infidelity, lack of communication, addictions, and stark differences in acceptance and communication of emotions can make broaching the topic difficult.
Keep in mind, as well, that different people, especially different genders, have different styles, inhibitions, and proclivities. Men are often determined to fix their own problems. “I don’t need a stranger to fix our problems. And I don’t feel comfortable paying a lot of money to air our dirty laundry to someone we don’t know.”
Put yourself in the shoes of your spouse. Imagine what they might think, feel, and fear upon hearing you want to go to marriage counseling.
Perhaps they may perceive blame or criticism or disapproval. Perhaps there may be fear that a bomb will be dropped on them once in the “safety” of a therapist’s office.
Keep these possibilities in mind as you approach the topic.
Before attempting to talk with your spouse, take some time to research different therapists and therapy formats.
Make a list of several that sound like good possibilities. Male, female, traditional therapy, marriage retreats.
First, tell your spouse you would like to talk about something important regarding your relationship. Ask if there is a preferred time and place for talking, and honor that by clearing your schedule and any distractions.
Lead with and constantly refer back to your intention: “I want us to gain the skills and insights to help our marriage be the best it can be.”
When you open the conversation, affirm your love for your spouse and your marriage. When you begin talking about how your relationship hasn’t been what it can and should be, avoid any blame. This isn’t about “fixing” your spouse or even yourself.
It’s about getting help to do for your marriage what the two of you have not been able to do.
If your spouse resists, patiently ask what his or her objections are…and listen.
Don’t judge, defend, roll your eyes, or argue. Just listen. For this part of the conversation, your role is to listen, validate, support, and affirm.
Ask your spouse if there are certain things that would make them more comfortable. A certain kind of therapist? Specific education level? Male/female? Specific therapy style? Published author?
Mention that you have done a little research to get familiar with what is available and may be agreeable to both of you. Would they be willing to at least go to a first session so that both of you can be heard?
If even the idea of a first session gets resistance, suggest a phone call with a therapist you both agree on.
The message you are trying to convey is that you want to see your marriage thrive. And you want both of you to feel safe and comfortable as you work on your relationship.
After you have listened attentively to your spouse, state the reasons that this is so important to you. And explain how it would affect you, and therefore your relationship, if s/he doesn’t go.
Avoid, at all costs, the temptation to use marriage counseling as an ultimatum for your relationship — unless it actually is. That’s a bluff or manipulation you can’t take back.
If going to marriage counseling is, in your mind, the last straw for your relationship, make that clear in a respectful, non-threatening way.
But only if and after your spouse has repeatedly refused to participate. “If you’re not willing to even explore this option with me, I don’t know if I will be able to continue in our marriage.”
Hopefully these tips for how to talk with your spouse about marriage counseling will save you from any ultimatums.
When presented in a positive light with concern for your mutual happiness and well-being, the invitation to marriage counseling can be life-changing.
You don’t have to solve your problems in this conversation. You just need to know that both of you want to solve them and are willing to do whatever it takes…together.
Mary Ellen Goggin offers relationship coaching for individuals and collaborates with her partner Dr. Jerry Duberstein to offer private couples retreats. To learn more about working with Mary Ellen, schedule a ½ hour complimentary consultation.