Why You Can't Force a Spouse into Counseling

The phone calls pour from women asking if I will work with their husband. I get it. These women are desperate for change. They’ve struggled emotionally for years and now, sensing a glimmer of hope, send their husband to me for counseling. 

“He has refused to go to counseling for years,” a woman told me recently. “I’m done if he doesn’t follow through with you and he knows it. This seems to have lit a fire under him. Plus, I’ve told him he has to figure it out. I’m tired of telling him what to change.”

This woman, like countless others, is desperate for ray of hope. She hopes beyond hope that he will lean into the counseling, read the books and embrace counseling, leading to the changes she seeks. 

“I think he just might see you,” she continued. “I’ve threatened him that I might leave if he doesn’t do this. Do you think you can bring some change to our marriage?” 

“Is he motivated to change?” I ask her. 

“No,” she said emphatically. “He resents having to go to counseling. He’s doing it so I’ll get off his back. But, even so, do you think it could help?”

The answer to her question is complex. It isn’t a simple “yes” or “no.” Many issues need to be considered. 

How do I explain to her a most difficult truth: A man sent to counseling, without some element of internal motivation and absent significant input from his mate, will likely end poorly. Why? Because of several reasons that I will expand upon here:

First, external motivation alone rarely brings about change. While I am a strong advocate for insisting on change, and setting hard and fast boundaries leading to that counseling, that insistence alone is not likely to lead to the change many women seek. Being “forced” to go to counseling, and doing so only because she has forced him to do it, is not a good plan.

Second, external motivation leads to resentment and complaining. Externally motivated counseling alone, because someone has said it must be done, becomes intertwined with resentment, complaining and near endless blame-shifting. Furthermore, think about it---what will he likely talk about if he goes to counseling without her significant input and at least partial participation? Most often he will complain about her and how he feels mistreated. He will focus on what his wife has done that he has found hurtful. He will not, without significant help, be able to see and impact what is in his “shadow side’” that he denies.

Third, there must be a shift to internal motivation. So, for counseling to be effective he must make the shift from external to internal motivation. In short, he must decide that counseling holds some value for him, if only at first make necessary character changes to save his marriage. He cannot go “because she told me to.” He cannot go out of resentment and passive-aggression. He must own that he has a “shadow side” that causes problems and want to understand and change these dark places in his character. The wise counselor will quickly see that attitude and insist upon a shift in order for counseling to be effective.

Fourth, counseling must include the mate and be collaborative. While I can fully appreciate that women are tired of doing the heavy lifting when it comes to counseling and relational change, sending him to counseling and expecting him to “get it” and understand all that needs to change without some assistance is not likely to work. Does that mean I want her to hold his hand and walk him into the counseling office, nudging him all the way to make changes? Absolutely not. But, she must be willing to participate to some extent so the counselor knows both sides of the story. Most important, the counselor must know the hidden aspects of his character issues so they can be addressed in counseling.

Finally, he must ultimately find intrinsic value in the counseling and stay with it because he appreciates the positive change. Again, a shift must ultimately occur for him to embrace counseling. The wise and gifted counselor will straddle the fence of gaining rapport with the man while also making it clear that uncomfortable topics must be addressed. Dysfunctional attitudes, thought patterns and behaviors must be held in the light, explored and replaced with healthy thinking and behavior, and this will likely be a strenuous and lengthy journey, albeit also very rewarding. 

So, if you’re looking for change from your mate, don’t simply send him to counseling. Do your research and lock arms with him, insisting on him embracing change while making it clear you’re doing so because you love him and want the change to bring health to you both, as well as to your marriage.

This intervention process is not easy. If you would like further help making changes in your life, we are here for you. Please send responses to me at [email protected] and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on our website and learn about our Personal and Marriage Intensives as well as our newly formed Subscription Group, Thrive, for women struggling from emotional abuse. 

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/jacoblund

Dr. David Hawkins, MBA, MSW, MA, PhD, is a clinical psychologist who has helped bring healing to thousands of marriages and individuals since he began his work in 1976. Dr. Hawkins is passionate about working with couples in crisis and offering them ways of healing their wounds and finding their way back to being passionately in love with each other.

Over the past ten years, Dr. Hawkins has become a leader in the field of treatment for narcissism and emotional abuse within relationships. He has developed several programs for treatment of men dealing with these issues and the women who love them. Dr. Hawkins is also a speaker & trainer for the American Association of Christian Counselors and writes for Crosswalk.com, CBN.org, and iBelieve.com. He is a weekly guest on Moody Radio and Faith Radio and is a best-selling author of over thirty books.



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