This has to be one of the most common questions I get emailed about. Turns out, if you can take a little time to understand why men or women react differently to the idea of counseling, then you can dial in your approach to help you and your spouse get the help you need!
Researchers estimate that at any point in time, in America, around 20% of marriages will be experiencing significant distress[i]. That’s a lot! It speaks to how much of our struggle is hidden from sight and from family, In fact, 28% of divorcing couples do not confide in family members about their marital problems prior to divorcing. And 63% of divorcees do not attend any kind of relationship counseling prior to divorce. Further, couples who do seek help wait an average of six years before doing so[ii].
That needs to change: there’s help available. Unfortunately, popular media has made divorce appear cheap and easy and they fail to disclose the real emotional, relational, spiritual and financial costs of divorce.
So today we’re going to be talking about how to get your spouse into marriage counseling. This isn’t just an ad for our own virtual counseling agency but a research-based discussion about how to overcome this challenge effectively without being manipulative or sneaky.
Why Do Couples NOT Seek Help?
First, there are practical concerns: things like feeling there is a lack of time and money. Sometimes it is just a lack of awareness that good help can be had. And, in some cases, if you’re in a rural area there may seem to be a lack of available services. Although the increasing number of virtual agencies such as hours has done a lot to fill that need.
Second, there’s often a stigma around seeking help for your marriage. Especially for men. Men tend to act more self-reliant and more in control and so we’re less inclined to seek help regarding emotional issues. Researchers note that typical masculine beliefs such as self-reliance and emotional suppression are negatively correlated to a willingness to get help. So the stronger those things are in a guy’s character, the less willing he will be to get help. Typically.
One study even found that most men would only consider marital counseling appropriate in situations relating to divorce or abuse[iii]. Obviously, we think there’s a lot of other reasons you’d want to consider counseling: hopefully before you get to a place where divorce is on the table.
Of course, women are not immune to stigma either. Seeking marriage counseling can be seen as an admission that your marriage is failing. That’s a difficult admission. That requires you to recognize the seriousness of your problems and open yourself up to scrutiny. Some even fear that getting counseling may be dangerous to the relationship: by admitting how serious the problems are, you may feel that you are signaling the end of the relationship[iv]. So taking that step towards counseling is certainly courageous.
There are other variables too. Women are much more likely to want to seek help than men. Interestingly, older couples are generally more willing to seek external help. That fits what I see in my practice: I think the statistic is that half of divorces (not marriages) occur in the first 7 years of marriage. I rarely see couples in counseling in the single digits of their marriage. And yet, that’s a great time to do counseling: taking the step of spotting your challenges early and getting help before they become massive issues can save you a lot of trouble later on down the line.
There are also socioeconomic factors: couples who are more well off, and couples who are more highly educated are more likely to seek marriage counseling, presumably due to being more aware of the benefits it can offer, and having the financial resources to utilize it. Of course, money doesn’t have to be a limitation: learning to budget and making this a priority in your spending can help you overcome any financial barriers. Your marriage is definitely worth investing in!
Stages of Help Seeking
So let’s say one of you is keen to give marriage counseling a try, and your spouse is a little reluctant. I think it’s worth noting that there are stages people go through when seeking help. If you know what the stages are, you may see your spouse’s indifference to counseling as merely a timing issue. That’s a possibility, right?
The three stages are:
- Problem recognition: realizing that the marriage has problems that need resolving.
- Treatment consideration: deciding whether to look for counseling
- Treatment seeking: looking for help and considering different types of help
On average, women complete all three steps more quickly than men do, so often the wife is ready to enter marriage counseling before her husband[v]. So if your husband is engaged with this process and is actually thinking about the need for help, it may be wise to give him time and space to work through each step, and just recognize that it may take him longer.
Looking After Your Chronically Ill Spouse.. And Yourself
Once again we’ve created a bonus guide for our much-appreciated supporters. This one steps you through the tasks and equips you with the specific communication skills you need for this topic in order to help get your spouse on board for marriage therapy. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Try to Intervene Early
I’m always the guy who, when the car is making some odd noise, is hoping it will just go away on its own. I live in denial of the “problem recognition” stage for too long!
I think that happens around the counseling issue too. Of course, couples are often most motivated to seek marriage counseling when their distress is highest and their relationship satisfaction is lowest. This is because high marital distress is a strong motivator to get help, and until distress is high other issues may act as barriers to desiring help.
Further, many couples only attempt counseling once divorce is something they are seriously considering[vi], and when their levels of hope for the marriage are at their lowest[vii]. While that is very motivating it is also a more challenging starting point.
I would encourage even healthy, happy marriages, that it would be good to chat to your spouse on an upbeat day when you guys are getting along well and agree that counseling is something you’ll both commit to being open to. Open to when one spouse asks for it, and open to starting one before things get really tough.
See, motivating your spouse to enter counseling earlier, before the marriage develops serious problems, makes restoring the marriage much easier. One way of doing this could be looking for less intensive forms of help which are more focused on supporting marriages, rather than helping couples who are already very distressed.
For example, a study in 2005[viii] developed an intervention called the “Marriage Check-up” designed for couples who were at risk of developing marital problems but were not yet in high levels of distress. They found that by advertising the course as being educational and “available to all married couples interested in learning about their marriage”, and making no mention of distress or conflict, they were able to attract a large number of at-risk couples who would otherwise not have considered marriage counseling.
That’s one way to move towards counseling in a more step-wise fashion rather than just taking a big leap. We offer a similar checkup at OnlyYouForever.
Another takeaway from this point is that if one spouse is trying to motivate his/her husband/wife into counseling, the way you phrase the request may be important. Talking about “learning about our marriage” and “checking-up on how things are going” and “learning new skills” rather than saying “we need help” or viewing counseling as a last resort may provide more motivation and get you into counseling before serious problems develop[ix].
Finally, we need to talk a little about understanding how to create and foster motivation.
To begin with, one simple observation is that people are more willing to attend counseling if they are made aware that the challenges they are facing are common[x]. This helps reduce the perceived social stigma around getting help.
I know a lot of church and ministry leaders listen to our show: please, talk about getting counseling as a normal experience of human growth and development. The more we can normalize this, the lower the barrier to entry for others who have not yet tried working with a professional counselor.
Knowledge of Counseling Services
A study in 1991[xi] found that knowledge of the services available to couples, and prior experience of these services, were linked to higher motivation to seek counseling help.
Many couples who are not motivated to get external help are simply unaware of the types of help available, or unaware of what counseling might involve. In this study, 21% of men and 29% of women had never heard of marriage counseling. So simply helping your spouse become more aware of counseling services can help them decide to seek help. Our episode on how marriage counseling works would be a good start.
Pay Attention to Attitudes and Expectations
Expectations are also a huge part of this. A study in 2007[xii] found that an individual’s expectations of what marital counseling will be like, and how useful it will be, are the strongest predictor of how willing they are to attend. So it is important to manage expectations. There are several factors within this:
Some individuals (often men) feel that asking for help in any situation is a sign of weakness, and self-reliance is better. This is linked to the stigma around seeking professional help with your marriage. Challenging this belief and helping them see that things would be better if they were willing to seek help can begin to resolve this.
At some core level, we all understand this. In fact, I think that probably every superhero movie has in it a character who is a guide for the superhero. If I’m going to be a superhero husband, it’s reasonable to consider that I am going to need a guide.
Then there are expectations of what will happen: individuals may be fearful of going to counseling due to fearing that they will be “blamed” or judged for their marital problems, or due to not having any idea what it will be like and fearing the unknown. Helping your spouse understand what marital counseling involves, and encouraging them that it is a safe place to work through their issues, may help overcome this barrier[xiii].
Expectations of usefulness: thinking that marital counseling won’t help is also a likely barrier to wanting to attend. Explaining how the counseling process works or pointing to research about its effectiveness may help overcome this, too. Again, there are a handful of marriage therapy modalities that have proven efficacy. We use one of these modalities in our practice.
Fear of expressing emotion: people who feel uncomfortable about expressing their emotions during marital therapy are less motivated to attend. Often it is men who fall into this category, due to being less comfortable with emotional expression. That’s understandable.
One thing that I have found particularly useful in this area is pointing out that more and more workplace research shows that the most successful entrepreneurs, leaders and employees are those who have strong emotional intelligence. One of the great spin-off benefits of marital counseling is that you really develop your emotional intelligence. A lot of men can resonate with that kind of thinking. It’s not an ability that you either were born with or not: it is a skill to be learned. It just takes a little psychoeducation and some practice.
So I hope we’ve given you a lot to think about here. If you are listening today you probably long for the day that your spouse will be willing to go to marriage counseling with you. Our prayer is that that day would come soon.
Whether you find a therapist locally or choose the more convenient option of working with a virtual agency of expert therapists like ours, we hope that you guys both choose to make the wise choice to renew and (if necessary) rebuild the marriage relationship you have.
[i] James V. Cordova, Christina B. Gee, and Lisa Z. Warren, “Emotional Skillfulness in Marriage: Intimacy as a Mediator of the Relationship Between Emotional Skillfulness and Marital Satisfaction,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 24, no. 2 (March 2005): 218–35.
[ii] Aimee K. Hubbard, “Relationship Help-Seeking and the Health Belief Model: How the Perception of Threats and Expectations Are Associated with Help-Seeking Behavior” (Thesis, Kansas State University, 2017), http://krex.k-state.edu/dspace/handle/2097/38198.
[v] Brian D. Doss et al., “Marital Therapy, Retreats, and Books: The Who, What, When, and Why of Relationship Help-Seeking,” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 35, no. 1 (January 2009): 18–29.
[vi] Hubbard, “Relationship Help-Seeking and the Health Belief Model.”
[vii] Rachel Anne Uffelman, “Moderation of the Relation between Distress and Help-Seeking Intentions: An Application of Hope Theory” (University of Akron, 2005).
[viii] Cordova, Gee, and Warren, “Emotional Skillfulness in Marriage.”
[ix] Cordova, Gee, and Warren.
[x] David L. Vogel et al., “The Role of Outcome Expectations and Attitudes on Decisions to Seek Professional Help,” Journal of Counseling Psychology 52, no. 4 (2005): 459–70, https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0220.127.116.119.
[xi] Gary L. Bowen and Jack M. Richman, “The Willingness of Spouses to Seek Marriage and Family Counseling Services,” Journal of Primary Prevention 11, no. 4 (June 1, 1991): 277–93, https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01325165.
[xii] Vogel et al., “The Role of Outcome Expectations and Attitudes on Decisions to Seek Professional Help.”
[xiii] Vogel et al.