Bringing up a serious or emotional conversation within any relationship—romantic, platonic, or familial—isn't easy. Even more intimidating is broaching the topic of therapy or counseling with your partner. Despite the fact that therapy can be immensely helpful to both individuals and couples, there are still many stigmas around the concept, which can make it difficult for both partners to feel ready and willing to have a conversation about seeking professional help. If you're thinking about having this conversation with your spouse or partner, there are ways to bring it up so that everyone feels comfortable.
Dr. Sherrie Sims Allen of the Allen Group stresses the importance of using couple's training (i.e. therapy or counseling) to learn a shared language that allows partners to communicate about challenges. "[The] best couples are ones who do our relationship training and are able to do the deep dive at the beginning of the relationship when there is more love than conflict," she explains.
Meet the Expert
Sherrie Sims Allen, Ph.D., is a depth psychologist, a relationship strategist, and a certified Myers-Briggs practitioner at The Allen Group.
If you find that you and your partner are going around in circles with the same recurring issues, and feel unable to find a solution, that is a telltale sign that it's time to seek help. Here, we speak to Dr. Sims Allen about how best to approach and navigate the delicate conversations around couples counseling—for both unmarried and married partners.
When You're Not Married
Depending on whether you and your partner have tied the knot, the approach to this conversation may be a little different. And it's important to note that lots of couples explore therapy—known as premarital counseling—before marriage or even before getting engaged. "Start by acknowledging how much you appreciate your partner’s gifts and talents that they are bringing to the relationship," recommends Dr. Sims Allen. "Then share why pre-marital [counseling] or couple’s training, doing couple’s work together, is important to you. Speak from the standpoint of your shared values, or your intention to bring your best selves to the relationship and how to do that through couple’s relationship training."
After you've talked about why exploring counseling is important to you, Dr. Sims Allen suggests sharing your intention for wanting to do the work as a couple. "Offer your partner the details of the work you would like to do with a therapist, counselor, coach, or trainer," she says. "[Then] ask your partner when you can circle back to them to talk about taking the program. Give your partner time to think things through." This last part is very important—there's no need to rush this conversation.
When You Are Married
"Tell [your partner] why couple’s relationship training is important to you and the relationship, and why it matters," suggests Dr. Sims Allen. "Maybe, briefly, bring up an example of where you two have had a breakdown and couldn’t solve it, but you know that if you had more relationship tools you would be able to use them when you hit a ditch in your relationship. When you bring up the matter of some relationship training then it’s important that you have done some research and can offer suggestions for your partner to research further," she says.
Of course, it's very important to remind your partner how important your marriage is to you and why you are committed that working together to learn new communication skills will empower both the relationship as well as you both, as individuals.
When Your Partner Isn't Interested in Counseling
If you bring up the idea of counseling and your partner isn't receptive, try not to get discouraged right away. "If you bring up the subject and your partner declines, then it’s important for you to fully listen to why your partner [says] no," explains Dr. Sims Allen. "After you have fully understood their side of the issue, then offer your view, which might include you going to therapy or counseling and working on yourself, first, before asking your partner to do work with you as a couple."
She explains that even when one person is working on the relationship, it can still positively change the dynamics of the couplehood and uplevel the relationship. "Having two people working on the relationship is a home run, but one person can move the needle, also."
Remember to Take Your Time
No matter the situation, keep in mind that this process will take time. "Remember, a conversation like couple’s work requires time and patience to make sure you are both in alignment for new changes," says Dr. Sims Allen. "Change in general can be difficult and asking for change as a couple can occur as a threat to the relationship or fear. Easy does it," she advises. "Go gently."