Josh Killam, LPC
How to Talk to Your Partner about Going to Therapy
This question came up recently, and I was curious to explore it more. As the issue of mental health has spread over the past few years widely, it seems more and more people are exploring therapy for mental health. I am grateful that many see the benefits of what the psychotherapy field can offer to our society. I can think back on my first time in therapy, the nervousness, the fear of rejection or shame. I had doubts about whether or not it would work, coupled with "what if the therapist rejects me?". Starting therapy can feel daunting; it is often the last choice for many. It'sIt's not like we decide to go to therapy because everything in our life is going swell. Often, it is because we are uncertain about life and ourselves—uncertainty coupled with feelings of hopelessness and sadness. It'sIt's hard to say we can look forward to talking about our crippling anxiety.
However, those who have taken the leap, courageous leap, and have seen the benefits want to share the message with friends and loved ones. This is a natural course of empathy. It is hard to see a loved one struggle and to feel as if you know what might help them with their ailment. It'sIt's only natural to want to push and persuade them to go to and spill their guts on some mental health guru's couch. You start telling your significant other, friends, and coworkers about self-awareness and how you have learned to attend to your needs and emotions."It worked for me! Of course, it will do the same for you!"
If you have explored therapy, you have most likely seen the benefits of emotional self-exploration. Feeling lighter, finding joy, and discovering meaning in your life are just a few discoveries you might find. Improving interpersonal relationships through intuitive listening and self-awareness is another perk that tends to show up. The expectation might be that your life and relationships should and would get better; however, at first, it might seem like things just get worse, especially in intimate relationships. A thing that usually happens when someone has been to therapy is that they become more aware of the parts of their life that are out of place. Typically, the "you should go to therapy conversation" begins with your partner.
Intimate relationships are often the first place you notice that need attention. For many reasons, but mainly because relationships are the most prominent emotional lightning rods in life. A trope I often tell my clients when they start working with me is, "be mindful of yourself; it might feel like things get worse before they get better." This is partly due to learning to see what in your life needs attention. You often don't know how much you are suffering until you understand how and where to look. And like the wonderful partner you are, you point the finger at your partner to say, "you're the problem now."
As the partner who has been in therapy, you are starting to see friction and stressors at home. You identify your emotional triggers in the relationship and how your partner is unable to listen to you, or you recognize when you feel unheard. It is only natural that the thought "if only they would go to therapy" starts to pass through your mind. Suddenly, you find yourself making rude and off-putting comments about how they should just go to therapy. This is often when my individual clients with partners who are not in therapy start bringing up their partner in their own therapy.
I tend to see the partner who has been in therapy use therapy as a weapon to communicate their hurt feelings rather than as a supportive tool to help the other and the relationship. And because your message carries a hint of self-righteousness because you have done your work! You struggle to see how you're doing the opposite of what you intended but instead turn therapy into something to dislike. You use shaming language rather than compassionate understanding. You question their motives for not going to therapy as if it is something they are doing to you. Then, rather than expressing your feelings, you blame the other for not choosing therapy as if them not going to therapy is the cause of your hurt feelings.
One thing to note, you are responsible for your feelings, and sending the message that your partner is to blame will only push them farther from your goal. Now, how do you get your partner to go to therapy? You start by accepting that you can't make them go. It is not your job, nor is it your choice. Spend time on this idea. Work to accept it because it is not an easy idea to accept in a relationship; you do not have agency over your partner. Once you have accepted that it is not your job to get them to go to therapy, you might see clearly what your job is.
What is your job? To identify and communicate your needs and emotions effectively. When your feelings are sincere and honest, and you aim your intention to express how you are feeling in the relationship and what you need from the relationship. You allow your partner an opportunity to see and hear you, rather than pointing the finger and shaming them from your mental health pedestal (we all do this, by the way). A trick to communicating with your significant other is to start with "I feel" and avoid leading with "you." If you have worked with me in couples therapy, you know this rule too well.
I want to take you back to your first therapy session. The nerves, the fear, and the overwhelm come from deciding to go to therapy. You are sitting in the waiting room or in front of your computer, waiting for the Zoom meeting to start. The pit in your stomach, lump in your throat, and the anxious thought, "what am I going to talk about?". Now, bottle up all those feelings and allow yourself to empathize with your partner. Recognize how they might feel when they are faced with the choice to pursue emotional excavation. Work to foster a sense of compassionate understanding for their position. Then practice delivering this message in a compassionate and understanding way. This, coupled with "how you feel in the relationship," will do wonders to help them towards therapy.
I will end with this. If we need help, we know we need help. Having someone shame us into the realization rather than supporting our insecurities only harms the intended goal. So, as the partner who has been in therapy, use some of those self-awareness skills and practice mindful listening and effective emotional communication—most of all, practice patience. Good Luck.