You both likely come from families in which resolving marital conflict wasn’t modeled well, and so your parents either “never fought” or fought in a way that felt frightening or destructive. In some families, too, when people say “We need to talk,” they really mean “You need to listen while I complain about you.” People who grow up in families like these tend to want to keep the peace in their relationships, but what they get instead is distance, loneliness, and resentment.
So how can you approach your partner about going to see a therapist together to unravel this pattern between you? You’ll need to respond differently to his retreat in the face of difficult topics by setting a boundary. Note that there’s a difference between a boundary and an ultimatum. A boundary is about setting a limit for yourself. An ultimatum is about controlling someone else by insisting that they change.
You’ve already issued an ultimatum by telling him that if he doesn’t change, you’re going to give him an ultimatum. But that hasn’t helped because (a) ultimatums rarely work and (b) you’ve never followed through. Instead, a boundary is both kind and firm (meaning delivered with love and confidence rather than anger and wishy-washiness), and clearly states the limit you’re setting for yourself.
In this case, it might go something like, “I love you so much, and it’s upsetting to see you get so anxious when I bring up certain topics. But I also want us to have an intimate and long-lasting relationship, and a relationship in which we can’t talk about basic life issues, or even more difficult things, won’t be fulfilling for either of us. It won’t allow us to be close to each other or feel truly safe with each other if so much is floating unsaid in the air between us. I can’t be responsible for your anxiety—I don’t create it, and I’m not here to fix it. That’s up to you. But no matter what you do about that, I need us to get help with our communication in order for me to feel confident that we can be a happy couple, which is what I very much want for us.”
If he shuts down this conversation before you’re able to finish, you can keep your boundary in one of two ways. First, you can set up an appointment with a couples therapist and email him the time and place, and write concisely in that same email what you attempted to explain when he panicked. (He may find absorbing something he can read at his own pace easier than something you say to him in real time in a room together.) In couples therapy, you both will experience a way of having these conversations that feels connecting rather than acrimonious, which in turn will make him less anxious about having them going forward.
And if he says he won’t go to the appointment, or refuses to acknowledge your email, you can make an appointment for your own therapy, which will not only preserve your boundary of getting help with the communication problem (at least your role in it), but also help you learn how to set and maintain boundaries in your relationships, a lesson that sounds long overdue.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.