Nervous About Bringing Up Marriage Counseling

Your How-To Guide

The #1 reason requests for marriage counseling don’t work is that the one asking is ambivalent about doing it.  Sometimes it’s an unconscious ploy/threat to get the other’s attention about making changes as opposed to a serious wish for outside help.

  1. Do your research first
  • Know what the resources are: where you can find a good marriage counselor, or who you can ask to help you find one.
  • Know what you can afford: On average, couples therapy lasts 12 sessions but it can be longer if you’re going for deep, sustaining change. Some insurers cover marriage therapy and some don’t.  Some therapists take insurance and some don’t.  Per session rates vary tremendously across the country. Keep in mind that a really good marriage therapist is likely to be more affordable in the long run than a mediocre therapist who isn’t helpful.
  1. Pick the right time to bring it up
  • Not during a fight
  • Not right after a fight
  • Not when you’re being cold and distant
  • Not after a great period of time
  • Instead: a calm moment and a middle-of-the-road time in your relationship
  1. How to broach the subject
  • Do it directly rather than after a litany of complaints or problems.
  • At a time when a conversation is possible; begin by getting your spouse’s attention
    • “I’d like to bring up an idea.”
    • “I’d like to talk about something.”
  • Soft start up: Give the context that’s it’s been on your mind and then make the request, like the following examples:
  • “I’ve been thinking about our relationship a lot recently and want to bring up the idea of doing some marriage counseling.”
  • “Heather has been telling me how much better she and Don are doing after going to a marriage counselor, and I think that might be helpful for us.”
  • “I know we’ve talked about marriage counseling in the past, and I’d like to talk about it again.”
  • “I know we’ve had marriage counseling before. I’d like to talk about doing it again.”
  • Be prepared for caution, defensiveness, and pushback
    • Chances are this is upsetting news to your spouse; you’re out ahead.
  • Pushback #1: Challenging questions, such as: “Do you think we have such a bad relationship?” or “What are so unhappy about?” or “Why would you want to air our problems in
    front a stranger?”
    • Don’t answer the questions because they are not really questions: they are expressions of worry, anger, or fear. Instead, invite your spouse to say what’s on his/her mind: “Tell me what you’re thinking about my bringing up marriage counseling.”
  • Then just listen and try clarifying their concerns, staying calm and non-defensive: “I can understand that this feels out of the blue and that you think I’m saying everything is wrong with our marriage. That’s not how I feel and I can explain where I’m coming from if we can keep talking about this.”
  • If you get a repeat of the challenging questions, calmly ask again for an agreement to have a serious conversation. “I want to know how you feel and I want to say how I feel.
    First I want to explain why I brought this up.  Can I do that?”
  • Keep you tone mild but persistent. What you’re doing here is trying to create the grounds for a real conversation instead of taking the bait of defending why you brought up
    the subject.
  • Pushback #2: Immediate counter arguments such as “We don’t have that many problems,” “I don’t want to talk to a stranger about our problems,” “Counseling won’t work,” “I don’t have time for it,” or “We can’t afford it.”
  • Let your spouse know you’ve heard their concerns: “I understand why you are
    concerned about….”
  • Don’t ask for elaboration now because you haven’t yet had a chance to describe your feelings and your reasons, and their objections might not be as strong after you do.
    Just acknowledge what you’ve heard, after which he/she might go on and elaborate a bit.  Repeat that you hear the concerns but don’t try to counter them.  You goal is to defuse things a bit so you can continue saying what you hope to say.
  • Then ask if your spouse is willing to hear you out on why you think marriage counseling is a good idea.
  • If you get a yes, explain your reasons for marriage counseling [see below]. If you
    get interrupted, ask her/him to hear you out first.
  • If you get a repetition of objections or anger that you brought it up, just repeat your request to be heard out.  Again: don’t get into an argument before you’ve been able to explain yourself; it will go nowhere. You are trying to set the groundwork for a serious conversation before having the conversation.
  • If your spouse is very upset and can’t/won’t give you space to explain yourself without interrupting, try reassurance (“I love you and want our marriage to be better; that’s why
    I am bring this up. I know this is upsetting. I’m just asking you to let me say what’s on my mind first.”)
  • If that doesn’t work, back out of the conversation and say that you’ll bring it up at a
    better time. (And make sure you do.)
  • How to explain your reasons for seeking marriage counseling
    • Begin with an expression of your love and commitment (“I love you and want our marriage to be strong.”) You have to believe this, of course, but in any case, say the most positive things you really feel.
  • Express your worries for the marriage “I’m worried about us. It feels to me that [fill in your concerns: we have been drifting part…arguing for a long time…fighting about so many thing…had such odds over the children…not having sex for such long periods…arguing about your drinking….]
  • Notice that the focus is on relationship issues, not on complaints about your spouse’s behavior. You are saying “we” and “us,” and not “you.”
  • If you get interrupted about the particulars, ask if you can keep talking to get out what you want to say. Don’t take up any of the particulars at this point, or things will devolve and you will not have a chance to speak from your heart without defensiveness.
  • Express your fears if you don’t get help and things get worse. (“I know all couples have problems. I’m so worried that if we don’t make things better, they’ll get worse. I’m really scared that I will lose hope someday and that our marriage will suffer. I don’t want to lose you or what we have, but I don’t think we’ve been good at dealing with our problems by ourselves. That’s why I think we need help.”
  • Now say that you know you are part of the problem and have to change. (“I know that I’m a real part of our problems and that I have to change. I want to be a better wife/husband to you, and I don’t know how to do it. I know I need help, and I’m asking you to get help with me for the sake of our marriage and our family.”
  • Finish: “Okay, that’s what I wanted to get off my chest. I’m grateful to you for letting me say it. How are you feeling about this?’
  • Listen, try to better understand your spouse’s concerns and fears (see next section); respond as you can; and clarify your feelings and thinking.
  • If a “yes” does not emerge from this conversation, ask your spouse if he/she is willing to think about and talk again. Most spouses will agree to talk again, and may be relieved that you didn’t give an ultimatum.
  • If you get a brick wall: “I’m against the idea and won’t talk about it again”—then you have two options: a) accept this as bluster and bring up the topic again at a calmer moment; or b) say that not talking about it again is not an option you can live with without losing heart for your spouse and the marriage—and that you will bring it up again.
  1. Don’t give up if you get turned down
  • Your spouse is probably scared about entering marriage counseling, as you may be as well.
    Sometimes fear comes out at first as anger and rejection.
  • You can be sure that your spouse will not forget this conversation, and will ruminate about it.
  • In a few weeks, bring it up again. And then a few weeks after that.  Share your feelings of concern for your marriage, and ask for a chance to try marriage counseling.  Do your homework to have someone in mind to see.  Most spouses will eventually go along. 

The idea of going to marriage counseling can feel stressful. You want to make sure you are getting the right help. Learn more in our Owner's Guide to Marriage Counseling.