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Auntie SparkNotes: How Can I Get My Boyfriend to Try Therapy?

Hi Auntie,
Me and my boyfriend “Tim” are currently in our fourth year of college. This is my last yea,r but he has to take another year due to poor academic outcomes in the past year or so. We’ve only been dating for a few weeks, but I’ve known him since the end of third year. We’ve had some major ups and downs both before and during our time dating (think: screaming, crying, arguing) but we have both worked really hard to get through it and we are now closer than ever.

My issue is that Tim has serious depression (which is what I inferred to be the cause of his academic history) and refuses to try counselling. He is already on antidepressants but I feel like they are only a mild solution to a deeper issue. I also have depression (though not as serious as his) and I have gone to counseling for a couple of years now which has helped me immensely. I know that each person is different therefore treatment is effective only sometimes, but hear me out: when Tim gets into a super depressive mode (feeling completely hopeless, like he’s a terrible person, hates himself etc), I do my best to calm and reassure him. This is sometimes involving (or followed by) a simpler version of what my counselor has taught me over the years (e.g. healthier coping mechanisms). I don’t go out of my way to lecture him while he’s in a funk, but I’ve noticed that by lightly mentioning some of these theories and exercising them with him helps. In more casual, calmer conversations, I’ve also explained to him what my counselor and I talk about in a session and the important takes I get from it which also seems to help him.

Auntie, he is the most incredible person I’ve ever met and it hurts me to see him so depressed and watch him tell himself how horrible of a person he is when he’s not. I think counseling could really help him, especially when it comes from a capable professional instead of me (who’s going through a much more mild version of what he’s going through). How can I get him to at least try counseling or another form of therapy in addition to medication?

Alas, Sparkler, that’s the bad news: you can’t. Not just in this case, but as a general rule, “getting” other people to deal with their problems the way you would personally prefer is a losing proposition. The whole pesky notion of personal autonomy always gets in the way, y’know? Tim has the right to make his own choices when it comes to treating his depression, and even if you’re correct in guessing that he’d benefit from seeing a therapist (more on this in a second), it still wouldn’t be right to try to pressure or coerce him into it.

The other thing, of course, is that you are not necessarily correct—which I am telling you not to make you feel bad, but because confirmation bias makes it awfully easy to overplay your hand in cases like this. For instance: therapy has been very helpful for you, and that’s a wonderful thing! But your personal stake in its benefits also might predispose you to, for instance, see therapy as a superior form of treatment and antidepressants as a mere “mild solution” by comparison. (They’re not.) And while it’s great that your boyfriend is receptive when you tell him about what you’ve learned in therapy, all that really tells you is that he finds hearing about those techniques helpful in one limited context. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t also benefit from a formal relationship with a qualified counselor, but you can’t draw that conclusion based on your interactions alone, and that would be true even if he wanted to see a therapist.

Which, of course, he doesn’t—which brings us back to the part where he’s allowed to decide that he doesn’t.

That being said, the pesky notion of personal autonomy applies to you, too, which means that just as Tim gets to decide how he deals with his depression, you get to decide how you deal with your frustration at (what you see as) his lackluster commitment to getting better. And if you still see it that way—if his choices bother you so much that you not only can’t condone them, but can’t respect his right to make them—then that might ultimately be a good reason for both of you to go your separate ways. (That is, a reason apart from the fact that your relationship is only a few weeks old, yet already plagued by screaming, crying, and other assorted signs of unhealthy drama… which is, uh, not encouraging.)

On the other hand, maybe thinking about this a little will lead you to the conclusion that your boyfriend is making an effort to treat his depression, and that being willing to try matters more than the particulars of how he does it. Maybe you’ll even find that you can support him in the approach he’s chosen, despite it not being what you would choose. So give it some thought, and see where you end up.

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