Very often I get contacted by people who are concerned about their loved ones and want them to engage in counselling. While I empathise with everyone who wants to help their family member or spouse, it is important to pause and think before putting your loved on under pressure.

Question from Sam (pseudonym): “I need my spouse to go to counselling because I think they have a problem. How can I help them to seek counselling?”

As a spouse, a parent or a friend you may see from the outside a problem that your loved one might not be able to see. Maybe they drink more than usual, or restrict their eating quite significantly. Or they have waves of emotions that concern you. While this may be valid observations of yours, it is important to understand whether your loved one sees it as a problem too. Your subjective experience might be different from your loved ones experience. When you start telling them, they need help you inadvertently invalidate their experience. While it is tempting to become an “agent” for your loved one and arrange a session for them with a therapist, I suggest you pause and here is why:

If you take action on behalf of a loved one, you may disempower them

If someone is depressed, sad, anxious or otherwise having a hard time, taking action on their behalf can feel disempowering to them. Your loved one might not be even interested in therapy and they are trying to please you by speaking to a therapist you have chosen for them. This can exasperate their sense of powerlessness and they can feel worse. They might even think therapy isn’t for them because they tried it out of a courtesy for you and they didn’t get what they needed. Instead listen to your loved one and respect they may not want therapy. It’s good to tell them your personal experience of therapy and how it helped you, while respecting it could be different for them. Finding the right therapist needs self-agency. If you take that away by pressuring your loved one, it is likely they feel worse.

Listen empathically and respond in I statements

If you start sentences with “you are x”, you may put your loved on the back foot and they may feel blamed by you. No one likes to feel blamed and it often activates (rightly) defensive responses. Instead try to listen what is going on for them. Tell them about how you feel in response to them with I-statements. For example, you loved one might say: “I am feeling down and I don’t think anyone can help me with this”. Instead of saying “You need help” try something along the lines of: “I hear you feel down. I don’t know how I can help, but want to. What might be helpful to you right now?” Try to communicate your reality, your need to help. Hold in mind the help you want to offer may not be what they need. What works well for you, might be not right for them. Give them a chance to express their needs. Support their self-agency, their choices and their personal power.

If your loved one is pressuring you to attend therapy

Most therapists who have a busy practice tend to decline requests by “agents” who are trying to organise a session for their partner, since it would compromise your confidentiality, self-agency and the therapist’s professional boundaries. They know that people who are put under pressure are extremely difficult to engage in therapy. I still get many enquiries from concerned spouses and family members wanting to help their loved one and while I empathise with their need to help, I can tell from my experience it won’t work unless you are ready to engage on your own terms. If you thought about therapy, but you feel unsure, please contact me directly via email, text message or phone call when you feel ready. We can discuss your concerns directly and it is more likely you will benefit from therapy.

There are exceptions

If your loved one is really unwell and they no longer can think clearly, they may need you to help them. It’s best to go through your GP or a specialist clinic in this instance, because there might be also medical aspects that need attention. Please also note, clients with addiction or eating disorder may need the loving support of their loved ones to access therapy until they enter treatment. Depending on the severity, it’s good to seek out specialist services and/or clinics who can help with in-depth treatment.

If you have a similar question

Please drop me an email. Your question might be relevant to other people who are looking for therapy but didn’t have the courage to contact a therapist yet.