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Dr. Ellyn Bader

The Couples Institute


Thanks a lot to those of you who took time to write your thoughts about the transcript I last posted. You were processing many of the issues involved.

I picked this couple because they demonstrate many traits that are common in intensity avoiding and conflict avoiding couples. As I sat in the session with them, I could viscerally feel how disengaged they had become. I knew they would not change from insight alone! I asked myself:


About a year ago, I wrote a series of newsletters dissecting one session with a particular couple. It seemed to motivate readers to exchange ideas on the blog. I’d like to revisit that format and ask you to think developmentally along with me.

Suppose this is a new couple that has come to see you. They’ve been married for 12 years after dating for 3 years and have 3 children ages 11, 8 and 6. They report feeling disengaged. They say they can handle logistics well, but there is no emotional or sexual intimacy. You teach them the Initiator-Inquirer process early in therapy and soon after you ask the wife to initiate.

I’d like you to read how it begins, consider my direction with the couple and describe what you are learning about them. In a couple of weeks, I will take you deeper into this session.


Couples fight for many reasons. Yet, at the heart of most fights are violated expectations.

There is a significant difference between expectations and desires and it is this difference that causes much painful struggling in couples relationships. Expectations have a “should” quality implied about them. For example, "My partner should do X. It’s just the right thing to do. Therefore I have permission to be passive without putting much effort into helping bring those expectations into being."

However, when someone really desires something and especially if they want it quite fiercely, they will activate themselves to obtain it. Desire alone is not sufficient to realize the harvest, but it kindles effort.

Too often when couples are fighting, one partner is saying they want an outcome or they wish for something, but what they really mean is,  “I expect my partner will comply with my expectation, without my exerting any effort." Of course, it is never expressed that way!

It can challenge us as therapists to confront this passivity. Here is one way you might bring the passivity to a client’s attention....



As 2011 draws to a close, I thought I’d share with you a few of the useful things I learned at the NICABM Conference on Health and Immunity. I enjoy this conference so much because it exposes me to so many interesting perspectives beyond the psychotherapy world. 

Many therapists are drawn to doing psychotherapy in order to be helpers and also because we enjoy the closeness with our clients. Individual therapy can be calming and comfortable. It feels good and we often like the experience of providing support and unconditional positive regard to our clients.

I don’t mean to imply that individual therapy is without its difficult confrontations. But in individual therapy, our clients can titrate how slowly or quickly they inform us about their “dark side”. In couples work, the other partner may dump the worst aspects of their spouse on us in the first session.  And things escalate quickly because, after all, who is able to be openly, vulnerably accountable for their own behavior under these conditions?

In couples therapy you will likely witness partners being brutal or very self-centered with each other. You may have to face how vicious a client can actually be. You will be called upon to make difficult confrontations. And these can be scary!

New Ways to Create Collaboration for Severely Distressed Couples

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October is here. Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas all quickly tumble into the family, creating stress for couples. School has been underway long enough for kids’ schedules, the demands of various activities, and homework challenges to create additional stress. Couples start fighting much more than they did in the summer months. Their lack of ability to collaborate effectively becomes apparent. Perhaps they call a therapist or perhaps they wait even longer.

Too frequently they wait until their problems have become chronic. John Gottman says, "People wait an average of 6 years to get any couples counseling after distress" (Notarius). And now with worldwide intense economic pressures, couples wait even longer.

As a result, you and I are often confronted in early sessions with high-distress couples with chronic problems. And they have deeply hurt one another!

How often do you talk to your couples about joy, resilience and gratitude? Three weeks in Africa taught me that I certainly don't talk about these topics enough.

I am on a Lufthansa flight flying back to my world after deliberately removing myself from it for the last 23 days. I have not seen clients or even thought about sessions. I had no access to email or telephone. I could write to you about the adventure and drama of the wildebeest migration, or about the monogamous dik dik (Africa's smallest antelope) or the flight response of the impala when they sense danger from the nearby lion, or how the wildebeest rely on zebras to help determine safety. But above all else I was deeply touched by the resilience and spirit of the people I met, and that is what I am writing about.



We continue to review The Great Attachment Debate, a series of interviews published in Psychology Networker.  I wrote about the first three experts in last month’s blog post. This time I will summarize the contributions of Dr. David Schnarch, Sue Johnson, and Dr. Alan Schore and invite readers to share their views.


I really enjoyed and felt enlivened by David Schnarch's presentation and felt like a professional "prayer" was answered as I have struggled in the past decade with the direction couples therapy was going with the dominance of attachment, neurobiology and EFT focus as THE ANSWER, the ONE TRUE path to helping clients become whole, satisfied and intimate beings and partners.

While the attachment research has been an asset to clinicians, where I find myself confused and perplexed is when the research on attachment is applied to clinical interpretations of what a resilient, loving adult relationship is and should be. Maybe it’s me, but so often I hear at these conferences the call to help our clients create the pristine, secure attachment with their significant other that they “should have had” or “needed” with their primary caregiver.

I am of the belief that human beings and all beings always have the opportunity to evolve or change, and sometimes not at our own initiation. That is the nature of existing or co-existing. We are influenced by factors both within and outside of ourselves. To this end I have always believed that the original attachment bond is certainly important to the social, emotional and psychological aspects of the infant, but like so many systems in the human and other parts of nature, there is overlap in the system designed to ensure survival. Thinking along these lines, I believe that any of us who do not receive optimal bonding have innumerable opportunities in our lifetimes to change, repair or replace that bonding, and that the choice is the most reliable when it begins with ourselves.

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