This is probably the most difficult professional question I ever had to answer. It is never a question when it comes to individual therapy. There is no possible situation where it is too late for individual therapy or personal counselling. However, there is one situation where it is too late for marriage counselling or couples therapy.
The answer is relatively simple. If your partner says that he or she is unwilling to continue the relationship then couples therapy will not help. If your partner says that she or he is ambivalent about staying in the relationship then couples therapy is very appropriate and may be quite effective. Please note that there is a big difference between your partner being ambivalent about continuing the relationship and being unwilling. Let me distinguish between the two situations.
An ambivalent partner is contemplating. There is one part of them that wants to stay in the relationship while the other part wants to leave. The part that wants to stay may be stronger or weaker but it is still present. Your spouse may be saying things like “I want to stay and work on the relationship but I am concerned that the issues will resurface”. They may also say that they need to see more significant changes before they can make a decision to stay. Please note that the part “I want to stay and work on the relationship” is critical. If they simply say “I am concerned that the issues will resurface” without saying that there is a part of them that wants to stay, it does not necessarily indicate ambivalence. You need to hear some verbal confirmation of wanting to stay in order to tell for certain that your partner is ambivalent.
Is it too late for marriage counselling?
An unwilling partner is no longer contemplating. They probably contemplated in the past whether they shared it with you or not. Most people complain about the issues before deciding to leave. Some contemplate silently and announce their decision to leave when they are certain and ready to make the move. Regardless of how they came to the decision, an unwilling partner is probably past couples therapy.
It is understandable that the partner who wants to save the relationship is frustrated, scared, and very anxious about the situation. They are willing to do anything to keep their spouse. This partner is usually making all the changes. However, the unwilling partner continues to keep the distance and any attempt to pursue end up in more distance or simply going in circles.
Pursuing partner, the one who wants to save the relationship, tries the last resort – they offer marriage counselling or couples therapy. Unwilling partner initially says no but, under pressure and driven by guilt, agree to come to a session. The pursuing partner is suddenly hopeful. They think that if they succeed bringing their unwilling spouse to couples therapy then the therapist will do his or her magic and fix the relationship. It is very logical to think that way. Unfortunately, some things in life are logical but inaccurate. The “magic” of couples therapy only works on ambivalent partners. Needless to say, when both partners are willing to stay in the relationship and engage in couples therapy, the magic is even stronger.
If you are reading this, most likely you are the partner who is doing research on how to save your relationship. You are the one who is frustrated, scared and anxious. What should you do?
1. Assess the situation realistically. Ask your partner directly “Have you made up your mind 100% or is there a small part of you that wants to stay?”, “Are you contemplating or have you decided for certain?”, “Is there even a small part of you that wants to genuinely try working on the relationship?”
Listen to the answer very carefully. Remove all the wishful thinking and assess what your partner is saying. You are looking for a verbal confirmation of that small part that wants to stay and make changes. You will be strongly motivated to hear something that they are not saying. You may misinterpret the ambivalence in their voice for their ambivalence about leaving. No! The ambivalence in their voice is the guilt of leaving you.
There is a tricky and a relatively common answer of “I don’t know”. This may be easily misinterpreted for ambivalence. If your question is direct like “Have you made up your mind 100% or is there a small part of you that wants to stay?” and the answer is “I don’t know” it probably indicates unwillingness, not ambivalence.
2. Take the situation in your own hands. This can be a game changer for you. Despite the initial sting of pain that comes with the realization that they made up their mind to leave, you just increased your chances of turning things around.
If you realized that your partner is truly unwilling, do not book couples therapy! To be blunt, it will be a waste of your time and money. It can actually make things worse because, if you succeed in somehow bringing your partner in for a session, they may have a negative experience if an inexperienced therapist tries to involve them in the process of couples counselling. This may push them even further away from you and give you an even deeper sense of hopelessness. If an experienced therapist assesses the situation and acknowledges your partner’s desire to leave, which would be an ethical thing to do, you will be disappointed with the outcome of the session because you are probably hoping the therapist would use their “magic” to keep them in the relationship.
Instead, book an individual consultation with a specialist. You can read another article in the blog on how to tell a specialist from a generalist. Present your situation to the specialist in detail. Make sure to ask your partner the above questions prior to your appointment with the specialist. Depending on your specific situation, a specialist may give you recommendations that will increase your chances of bringing your partner back. Remember, if your partner is truly unwilling, even with the recommendations your chances are not very strong. They may improve significantly though.
On the positive side, if you asked the direct question and the result of your assessment is that your partner is ambivalent, not unwilling, then by all means book an appointment together as a couple. The hope is, of course, that your partner repeats the ambivalent answers in the therapist’s office as opposed to presenting unwilling answers. If that happens, do not come back for a second session as a couple. Accept that the partner is more unwilling than ambivalent and see the specialist individually for further recommendations. I cannot overemphasise this point enough. The presence of an unwilling partner in the therapist’s office does not increase your chances of saving the relationship! Your consultation with a specialist alone does increase your chances.
I want to finish by acknowledging the difficult situation you are in right now. You are probably going through the most stressful part of your life. Intuitively, you believe that bringing your unwilling partner to water will increase their chances of drinking it, so to speak. However, as the saying goes “You can lead the horse to water but you can’t make it drink”. Unwilling partners will not “drink”, ambivalent ones will because deep inside they want to. The best course of action with an unwilling partner is for you to work with a specialist alone. If the tide turns and your partner starts contemplating, then it is time to bring them to couples therapy.