Your Partner Badly Needs Therapy–What Now?
I’m not one of those therapists who thinks everyone should go to therapy. Some people value the benefits of lower anxiety or better work performance. They use therapy to recover from trauma and be okay in the world. For others, it’s not their cup of tea. They may feel they need panic attacks or severe depression and want to hold onto their trauma.
But, what do you do when it’s your partner who badly needs therapy?
Your Partner Needs To Actively Participate In Seeking Therapy
If your partner badly needs therapy, offer to go with them. Do research on finding a therapist or getting a referral. However, your partner needs to be the one to make the appointment. It’s important to set a limit on how much you will help your partner get to therapy because it simply never works out for someone to be dragged to therapy.
There’s an idea in therapy called a mandated client–one that is required to attend therapy as a result of a legal entanglement, a child abuse allegation, an incident of acting out or using drugs in the context of work. In this case, what’s compelling the individual to attend therapy is some outside force. A parent or romantic partner can–well-intentioned or not–compel an individual toward therapy in ways that supersede their desire for help. It just rarely works because of one of the most fundamental realities of therapy: if therapy is going to work, you are going to have to participate in building it.
What About An Ultimatum?
If you’re approaching your partner with an ultimatum, it’s best to do so in a manner that addresses their behavior. Say, “I’m not okay with X behavior. I’ve tried to work with it, but I can’t. I need you to work on it and I don’t see that happening. If you don’t and it doesn’t change, I might be out.”
The focus should be on the behavior as opposed to the intervention for a few reasons: First, it’s less controlling to say, “I am not cool with X” than to prescribe the treatment. It’s more respectful to allow someone to do the work of getting help to change themselves and, if they seek therapy, they’ll have more ownership in that process from the start.
Addressing a behavior is also harder to dismiss. Asserting that someone should go to therapy is too easily seen as a manipulation or a predilection, even. Finally, insisting your partner work on his or her temper or depression is something that affects you personally. You actually have a stake in their behavior.
How could this type of ultimatum be helpful for a partner in need of therapy? If someone is prone to change but needs a shove, it can be the best thing for them. It’s not loving to tolerate hurtful behavior in a partner, but it’s also not loving to tolerate a partner who is unhappy or riddled with anxiety. We ought to challenge those we love to be better people–to us and for themselves.
Couples Therapy (That May Transition Into Individual Therapy) Can Be A Good Option For Both Partners
When suggesting both you and your partner try couples therapy, therapy becomes a lived experience as opposed to an idea pieced together from movies or fears. It’s a way of going with your partner, as well as having some skin in the game yourself. There’s a willingness expressed by putting oneself in the hot seat too.
And maybe you can slyly leave the room to transition into some individual therapy for your partner. I should be clear–I don’t think this needs to be manipulative or a lie. It happens that way sometimes, and that’s fine with me. But, one can also say, “Hey, I’m worried about you. Let’s work on that together.”
Couples therapy is also less threatening than offering to “guest star” in an individual therapy session. Most importantly, if there is a wish that your partner may transition into their own therapy, that can’t happen with your individual therapist. A couples therapist doesn’t have a relationship with one or the other person. It’s also made clear in couples therapy that the focus is on the relationship.
What If, After Everything, He or She Just Won’t Go?
If after all your efforts, your partner just won’t go, you might need to see a therapist yourself (if you aren’t already). There are a few ways this could go: You could get some more sophisticated help in winning your partner over to the process. You could make some changes in your own life that may help your partner see the benefits of this growth. Or you might discover that the needs of the relationship are too much for you–that living with someone who is struggling with unmanaged trauma, untreated depression or constant anxiety isn’t working and that you need to get out of the relationship.