”You two should go to couples therapy!”
Anyone who has confessed to having problems in their marriage has probably heard these words shouted at them by well-meaning friends and family who want to help.
I’m sure that, for many couples, going to therapy together is an appropriate first step toward healing their marriage. But what about the couples who just can’t seem to get there? When I share about my marriage separation, and our eventual reconciliation, people always ask if we went to couples therapy. I explain that we chose to do individual therapy instead of couples therapy—both of us pursuing therapy on our own with individual therapists (here are some reasons why I think some couples should choose individual rather than couples therapy). It is almost daily that I get asked: what do I do if my spouse refuses therapy?
My sample size is, admittedly, rather small, but something I’ve found of interest is that there is a pretty even split between husbands and wives asking this question. It seems, at least to me, that the issue of refusing therapy isn’t a gendered one. Both men and women can be averse in equal measure to going to therapy. Spouses of these therapy-refusing partners naturally feel frustrated and helpless, wondering how they will ever resolve the problems in their marriage if they don’t seek professional help. I always feel for those spouses. How lonely, how despairing it must feel to have a partner who won’t do such a small thing toward healing the marriage.
Whenever I am asked this question, I always answer the same way: You go to therapy on your own, whether they choose to go or not.
The way I see it, there are no downsides to going to therapy on your own, even if your partner refuses. In fact, there are really just a handful of possible outcomes if you seek therapy and they don’t. And, to me at least, all of them are pretty good:
(A) going to therapy helps you heal, and as you become more healed, your partner becomes curious and decides to go to therapy, too
(B) going to therapy helps you heal, and your partner still refuses to go, but you keep working on yourself and discover that you can be happy in the marriage anyway
(C) going to therapy helps you heal, and your partner still refuses to go, so you decide to leave and find happiness on your own.
As long as you are doing the hard work in therapy, you will heal and grow. Things will start becoming clearer to you, and you’ll be better able to make the right decisions for yourself. Most importantly, you’ll be at peace with those decisions.
It does require patience. For me, it took almost two years of being in therapy alone, without my husband attending any type of therapy, for me to come to any clear conclusions about what to do. After spending all that time with my therapist, working through my feelings and confronting the problems in my marriage (albeit, without my husband there), I finally gained some clarity. I told my husband I wanted a separation, and I moved out.
I grieved, of course. But I felt at peace with my decision.
After I left, my husband decided to finally get therapy on his own. The separation was the wake-up call he needed, and he dove head-first into his work of healing. For six months, he and I both continued in individual therapy. We shared with each other what we were learning about ourselves and about our marriage. And, with time, we found our way back to each other.
That might not be the path everyone gets to take. Some marriages really are just beyond repair, and that’s okay. What I want you to take away from this article is that you don’t have to feel helpless just because your spouse won’t go to couples therapy with you. You go. Get your healing. Do the work for yourself, even if your spouse won’t do the same. With time, you’ll find your answers. And by then, you’ll be in a healthy and healed enough place to embrace those answers with grace, no matter what they end up being.
Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.