Your spouse is going through some stuff (aren’t we all?) and it’s taking a toll on the relationship. It’s never a bad idea to seek outside help from a therapist, but it’s one thing to do it yourself and another to suggest it to someone else. Fortunately, we spoke to clinical psychologist Dr. Bethany Cook and got some expert advice on how to get your spouse into therapy (plus, the mistakes most likely to derail the conversation).
How to Get Your Spouse Into Therapy, According to a Clinical Psychologist
1. Do Suggest Going to Therapy for the Health of the Family
If you and your spouse have kids, it’s A-OK to approach the subject by saying “we need to go to therapy for the children.” Per the expert, this line can be effective—after all, the welfare of one’s children is one of the strongest motivators around—and it’s also 100 percent true, since the whole family system does indeed feel the strain when one or both of the adults in the relationship aren't taking care of their mental health.
That said, the ‘we’ in this statement is critical, because it invokes a team spirit and avoids a scenario in which your spouse feels singled out or maligned as a parent. At the end of the day, “parenting is hard AF and it takes skills to navigate as a team. Therapy is there to help people build those skills, and I’ve never met a family who wouldn’t benefit from that,” says Dr. Cook.
2. Don’t Be Judgmental
The fastest way to turn your spouse off therapy is by triggering defensiveness—and because mental health issues are so stigmatized, this can be very easy to do. Needless to say, any request for a spouse to enter therapy that includes pointed character attacks is bound to fail. (For example: “All you do is bum around these days. You should really see a therapist.”)
Dr. Cook explains that “many people don’t seek help because they fear others will view them as ‘weak’ or ‘broken,’ but if it's suggested in a kind and loving way, it removes stigma and stands a chance at getting through.” As such, it’s wise to wait for a calm moment when you and your partner are feeling emotionally connected, so that your request comes from a place of genuine caring, rather than frustration.
3. Do Use Clear and Honest Communication
You’re probably not surprised to learn that you can’t persuade a partner into therapy with insults. What you might not have realized is that, no matter how pure your intentions or gentle your delivery, saying too much can seriously backfire as well. When broaching the subject with your spouse, resist the urge to play armchair psychologist by doling out advice or offering up speculative diagnoses. You’re not a professional, and your partner probably doesn’t want to be picked apart by you. Instead, stick to simple and direct statements (said in a non-judgmental tone, of course) like: “Hey, I think therapy could really help with [insert specific behavior here].” Bottom line: Be clear and honest, but keep it short and sweet.
4. Don’t Make Threats or Give Ultimatums
Threats and ultimatums can take many forms, but they’re always a bad idea. When it comes to getting your partner to go see a licensed mental health professional, here are some threats you’ll want to avoid:
- “If you don’t go to therapy, I’m done with this relationship!” It’s not uncommon to express such a sentiment when you’re unhappy with your relationship—but in many cases, the person issuing the ultimatum doesn’t really want to separate at all, and is simply desperate for change. Alas, you can’t strong arm someone into changing. “This line is probably the one most likely to initially get an SO to agree to seeing a therapist. However, ultimatums don’t work in the long run and often backfire because independent motivation is missing from the equation.”
- “I’m not doing [insert desired thing] until you get into therapy!” And in case you were wondering, saying to your spouse “I will do [insert desired thing] for you, if you go to therapy,” is just as counterproductive. These statements involve threatening to withhold something your partner values (food, sex, money, the promise to attend an event together) and/or using it as a bribe. “Such threats are similar to the big break-up ultimatum in that they can elicit quick compliance (your SO attends one session), but the commitment fizzles out just as fast,” says Dr. Cook.
- “If you don’t go to therapy, I’m telling [insert name of important person] about [insert problematic behavior].” If you’re considering scaring your partner into therapy by threatening to tell a boss, relative, cherished friend about your spouse’s panic attacks, infidelity, mood swings (what have you)…don’t do it. Threats are generally not advised, but this kind is slightly different in that it’s essentially emotional blackmail. Dr. Cook explains: “Threatening to exploit someone else’s mental health struggles to achieve a desired result (i.e., your spouse starting therapy) will only erode trust and further damage your relationship. From a therapist’s perspective, it’s like trying to build a house on air—no foundation—when clients come in under what can only be described as duress.”
5. Do Lead by Example
If your spouse is stubbornly opposed to therapy and clear, honest and loving communication hasn’t done the trick, the best solution might be to drop the conversation and do your own work instead. Indeed, Dr. Cook urges folks in this situation to go to therapy themselves: “You will start changing how you interact with [your partner] through the natural process of positive self-growth. Then, when your SO notices how you’ve changed, you can respond by saying that you’ve changed because you feel happier and are making choices that improve your mental health. This conversation will occur naturally and may inspire your spouse to follow your lead. But even if it doesn’t, it will empower you to make informed decisions about the future of the relationship.”