Every week, Dear Prudence answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. Relationship counseling: What is a good way to bring up relationship counseling? My partner of nine years and I have fallen into some patterns that I would like to address as we are hoping to have children soon and I want to be able to model a healthy relationship from the start. (Neither of us really had this with our own parents.) We love each other dearly and are completely committed to each other, but I can be critical, he can be defensive, and, as you can imagine, this affects our communication sometimes. Because of previous careless comments, he often hears criticism where I haven’t intended it and his feelings become hurt; then he struggles to talk about his feelings, I feel like I’m haranguing him if I ask too many questions, and sometimes it’s easier not to talk things through when we should.
(I think if I were reading this letter I might assume “classic uncommunicative man, classic woman making too many excuses.” Obviously without giving you all the details of our relationship and personalities, it is difficult to demonstrate that this is not the case, but I promise it’s not! I want to work on my communication just as much as I want him to work on his.)
My question is how to address this with him honestly, compassionately, and patiently. I am pretty sure that bringing up the phrase relationship counseling will scare him—he is sensitive, might feel insecure, and think I want to leave the relationship or that I am giving him an ultimatum, which I am not. Do you have any ideas or scripts I could try?
A: I don’t think this is the sort of situation that calls for a script to pre-empt the response you think he’s likeliest to have. It’s one thing for him to be scared if you say, “I want to go to couples counseling together. What do you think of the idea?” It’s fine for him to be sensitive, or to experience a moment of insecurity, or need a little time to collect himself and figure out what he’s feeling. What you need is not to so carefully program the conversation that he doesn’t blench or run away—what you need is for your partner to move past his initial emotional response and have a difficult conversation with you from start to finish. If your partner freaks out so thoroughly at the mere mention of couples counseling that he refuses to believe it’s anything other than an ultimatum, the problem isn’t that you’ve failed to raise the issue sensitively or carefully enough—it’s that your partner shuts down and emotionally evaporates in order to avoid conflict.
All you want to say to your partner is that you’d like to find a couples counselor so you two can find better ways to address routine, garden-variety marital misunderstandings. You don’t have to say “Don’t worry, I’m not leaving you” or “Don’t worry, this isn’t an ultimatum” because you’re already not doing either of those things. It’s important to you, not an abrupt, out-of-nowhere demand you’re about to throw in his face while you pack your bags and give him 24 hours to respond. I think the way you raised the issue in this letter is perfectly honest, compassionate, and patient, and you should tell him exactly what you told me. If he panics, you can offer him some reassurance, but don’t apologize for raising the issue or make it your first priority to make him feel better. If you two have this conversation and he’s dead-set against it, my next suggestion to you would be to seek out an individual therapist that you can see by yourself. It would be best if you could convince your husband to see someone with you, but you don’t have to forgo therapy altogether just because he refuses.
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