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When Your Partner Needs Therapy — But Won’t Go

How to deal with a person who’s reluctant to address issues…

Jenna had finally found the man of her dreams. Well, almost. Her boyfriend, Chad, was a creative director for a New York ad agency. With a great sense of humor to match his sense of adventure, Chad was wonderful to be around…except when his anger erupted.

“Chad and I were moving toward marriage,” Jenna said, “and I couldn’t imagine finding another man I’d love more. But he had an explosive temper. Little things would set him off, and he would get so out of control that I got really scared.”

Jenna gently broached the subject of therapy, making sure not to come across as judgmental or “motherly.” A trained counselor could help him manage his anger more constructively. Chad flatly refused. “No way,” he declared. “I’m not going to a shrink. Ain’t gonna happen.”

And then there’s Derek, whose girlfriend of eighteen months, Tina, was a successful web designer and free spirit—who also avoided conflict like the plague. Any time the slightest disagreement arose, Tina would check out, either refusing to get into it or by leaving the room altogether. “Nothing ever got resolved,” Derek said. “When any tension came up, she would withdraw. I knew we needed to learn how to talk through our differences, or we’d be in big trouble down the road.” Derek suggested seeing a couples’ counselor; Tina stalled, then made excuses for not going, then finally refused.

Jenna and Derek face a daunting dilemma. They’re both in love with their partners, but can’t get them to address their troublesome issues in therapy. What can be done if you’re in a serious, committed relationship with someone who has problems but won’t address them with a counselor? There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for dealing with this predicament, but for starters keep in mind these principles:

Realize that people don’t change unless they want to. As much as you want your partner to seek help for his or her issues, you simply can’t make someone change. You can’t muster motivation on another person’s behalf. Every therapist will tell you that individuals must be self-motivated if real, lasting change is going to occur.

Know that nagging will get you nowhere. When we see someone we love struggling with problems, we want to help—and that desire to help can sometimes cause us to nag and nudge, plead and prod. Doing so will only leave you and your partner frustrated.

Seek to understand the reason for resistance. It might be that your partner has never been to therapy and is apprehensive about “spilling my guts to a total stranger.” It could be that the person wants to avoid the pain involved in confronting a problem—after all, most genuine change comes with discomfort. Or perhaps the individual is in denial, unwilling or unable to see the severity of the issue as you do. Understanding WHY the person is resistant may help you know how best to deal with it.

Explain your concerns calmly and compassionately. Since nagging isn’t the answer, you’ll have a better chance of success if you rationally and empathetically discuss what you observe in your partner’s behavior and your belief that therapy will help. Pick the right time and place, then explain your point of view.

Lead by example. Go to therapy yourself and tell your partner what you’re learning and how you’re growing. This isn’t intended to be manipulative or coercive. Receive the benefit of counseling for your own issues (hey, we’ve all got them), and then live out the positive results. Your partner might just be intrigued.

Determine your personal boundaries and hold them. You need to be perfectly clear about what you can and cannot live with. Is your partner’s problem a deal breaker for you? If so, then a refusal to see a therapist may be cause to break up. Determine your standards, communicate them to your partner—and then have the courage to abide by them. Given a dose of “tough love” and firm boundaries, your beloved may choose to enter therapy rather than jeopardize the relationship.

Your long-term happiness and stability are too important to soft-sell or sidestep this topic. Love your partner…but also love yourself enough to know when resistance is going to be an insurmountable relationship roadblock.