It’s estimated that about 30 percent of couples who come in for therapy are “mixed-agenda” couples. This means that one partner is more enthusiastic about working on the relationship than the other. Often—but certainly not always—the male partner is more resistant. There are a lot of cliches about why this might be true: Men don’t like to talk about their feelings, men are more concerned about the cost of therapy, or men are more sensitive to the idea that the therapist may “take sides.”
In my more than ten years of experience as a marriage counselor, I have found that it almost doesn’t matter why one partner is resistant to therapy. What matters is that the resistance makes therapeutic progress difficult. Therapy simply doesn’t work when both partners aren’t committed to some common goal. But how do you aim at a common destination when your starting points are so far apart? I have a few ideas.
Try committing to at least three meetings.
When it comes to therapy in particular, let’s call it what it is. It’s a meeting. The purpose of the meeting is to discern if and how a therapist can be of help. When I encounter resistant partners in an early meeting, I usually encourage them to lower their expectations. We’re definitely not going to fix anything in fifty minutes. But we might be able to fix something in a month. The purpose of the first meeting is to establish rapport. If it feels like a good fit, I’ll often ask couples to give it thirty days. Let’s meet consistently for a short time. If it doesn’t work, no harm, no foul.
The point is, going to a therapy session doesn’t mean you’re signing up for a lifetime of therapy. You’re in control. You’re not committing to years of forced conversation. Just a meeting. I do think it’s helpful to commit to something once rapport is established. Try it on. Try committing to at least three meetings. I think the strategy of “at least three times” works in lots of places: trying out a new show, searching for a church, creating a new exercise habit. Establish a short-term goal, and live into it. You might be surprised at what you discover.
Introduce a new vocabulary into your relationship.
What if, however, you’re totally opposed to therapy? If it’s a non-starter, consider alternatives. There’s no shortage of relationship resources, that’s for sure. Consider reading a book together. I wrote one, but I also recommend What Makes Love Last by Dr. John Gottman. I’m also newly obsessed with The Course of Love by Alain de Botton. His book is a novel, but it’s as articulate about relationship dynamics as any book I’ve ever read. No matter what book you choose, your goal is to introduce a new vocabulary into your relationship. If you’re not going to commit to therapy, at least allow a new kind of conversation to creep in and create change. Any of these books could help create that opportunity. There are also online and in-person workshops that can help change the inertia in a relationship. If it’s not a book, perhaps it’s an experience.
If not therapy, what? If not now, when?
I am absolutely sure that therapy isn’t for everyone. That’s not to say it’s not for men. I’ve seen plenty of women who are resistant to meeting with a counselor. There’s no shame in that.
If you or your partner are resistant, try exploring that and coming up with a viable path forward together. That can sometimes be as healing as whatever you end up doing (or not doing). If it’s not therapy or a book or an experience, what are you willing to try? What feels less scary, less costly, less vulnerable? Or if it’s not now, then when? Would you be willing to try therapy in a few months . . . like after your big deadline this spring? Would you be willing to save for a workshop later this year?
No matter where your relationship is, it can be better. Are you interested in making it better? If so, then you need to do the work of overcoming your resistance. A relationship is only as healthy or as happy as the least healthy or least happy partner. Listen to that. Hear it.
Therapy is a commitment and an investment. It can be expensive. But it begs the question of whether you can afford not to go. Maybe you can. Maybe a book or a seminar is the answer for you. It’s unlikely that “nothing” is the answer. If you do nothing, you can expect nothing to change. Certainly it won’t change for better.
Photo Credit: Brittni Willie