Ellyn Bader

couple in therapyConfrontation skills did not come naturally to me. When I was growing up, if I had issues with my sister or my mother, my father sent me to my room  saying, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

As a therapist, it took concerted effort for me to learn how to be nice and make effective confrontations at the same time. I had to learn how to make incisive confrontations or watch couples repeat the same negative patterns over and over.

To be effective, you must be able to hold up a mirror so that partners can see (and recognize non-defensively) what they are doing and how they are getting in their own way. And perhaps most important of all, you must induce the optimal level of anxiety into your confrontations so partners become motivated to change without even realizing you've confronted them.

So, as we begin our mini-workshop on confrontation, let’s define confrontation. I found my favorite definition of confrontation in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.

Confrontation is a technique used in therapy to recognize shortcomings and their possible consequences.

In other words, in a confrontation you describe where each partner is stuck, showing them how they are preventing the growth of their relationship and then providing a way out.

Join me now and watch this 9-minute video to discover:

  • The 6 types of confrontation
  • The cycle of confrontation that takes place in almost every couples therapy session

Click here to download your handout, The 6 Types of Confrontation.


Act Now

  1. In the comment section below, please tell me how knowing these six different types of confrontation might be helpful for you, or share your reactions to the video.
  2. In my online training program, The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy: Integrating Attachment, Differentiation and Neuroscience, you’ll see clinical videos that show even more about confrontation. Click Developmental Model to read about the training program.

A Colleague’s Comment on Training with Ellyn Bader

“Ellyn’s online clinical training has enabled me to be even more confident in my couples work. I have participated in various trainings focused on couples therapy, but I have found her developmental framework and training to be exceptional.”  
Cathy Marakovits, LCSW, Marietta, GA

This blog post is from a 5 day “mini-workshop” on confrontation.  Click for Day 2: Confrontation Transcript: Indecision after Infidelity, Click for Day 3: Confrontation Video: Challenging HypocrisyClick for Day 4: Confrontation Options: Financial Irresponsibility, Click for Day 5: Confrontation Transcript: Disrupting Hidden Symbiosis 


Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy.

Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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  1. I found this clear and and highly useful and very interesting. It give the therapist the courage to do name the elephant or the grasshopper in the room . It gives ways to do this as a response to the existing situation and communications at the moment. I love it and and find it so supportive, informative and validating. It is good for us to remember that according to most of the definitions of the word we are dealing with grown-ups and and we can find ways of calling a spade a spade so the digging can commence . .I regret that at this Moment I am not working with any couples and hope to be soon

  2. I found the descriptions of the six types of confrontations clarifying. It is good to know what I am doing with the understanding of why I am doing it and for what purpose. The examples were most useful. Having tools to access what type of confrontation and when it would be most effective to utilize one of them gives me a frame so that I feel more of a sense of effacy. thank you.

  3. Dear Ellyn, first of all thank you. And I have two questions. Will first live session be available as a recording as I have missed it?

    Secondly, will you please speak some about situation when confrontation “does not go well” – evokes defensiveness, etc.

    Thank you very much!

  4. I love how you say that couples therapy is about confrontation. In teaching new therapists, I can help them see that this may be part of why they think they won’t like couples work. By framing it as a therapeutic intervention that we will use in many kinds of therapy, they can also see that it is done with consideration and meaning. Thanks!

  5. Hi Ellyn,
    Thank you for your information-rich presentation…. entering us into the realm of confrontation! I appreciated getting the sense of a landscape of ways that confrontation can be worked – and experienced. I also loved the feedback you offered to Ellen – suggesting it can be helpful to open a confrontational dialogue with … “the reason I am doing this is …..”- it seems to give the possibility of presenting the ‘event’ with an uplifting purpose and proposing that there can/will be positive outcomes embedded in what looks like difficulties. This is a big shift from the dread I usually feel at the mere mention of word ‘confrontation’.
    PS…. I would like to echo Glynis’ comment about the background music. I really wanted to sink into what you were saying and imagine myself inside the methods you were exploring… for me the music was overstimulating and agitating; preventing me from the deep listening I wanted to be engaged in.
    Thanks again for your generosity in sharing your caring expertise, looking forward to the next steps!!

  6. Thank you Ellyn (and everyone else who has commented) for the wonderful learning opportunity. I am currently working with a couple who seems constantly engaged in a negative cycle of anger and communication. I am looking forward to using gentle confrontation to help them break this cycle. Also, as you suggest using the various types of confrontation systematically within a session (or sessions), I think the 6 types of confrontation are also an excellent way to learn and practice. I believe it will be less daunting for me to start with a gentle confrontation and, as my skills develop, work my way up to a bombshell if, and when, appropriate. Thank you again!

  7. Ellyn, Thanks for sharing your expertise on this topic. It is so helpful and as you say, it is absolutely necessary to learn to do in order to an effective couples therapist. If we are not confronting partners they will continue to repeat unhealthy patterns without knowing it or without any way to change it. I especially enjoyed your description of the cycle – and how much thought must go in to making an effective confrontation. It is a good reminder that confrontation is not shooting from the hip in a reactive way, but is a well-planned, well executed intervention. Looking forward to the rest of the workshop.

  8. Just the reframe of how beautifully effective confrontation can be increases my courage to enact more of it in session. Understanding and defining the types of equips me.

    I also like just this bite-size nugget to take in today.

  9. Hi Ellyn, Thank you for your accessibility both in video form and note form as well as personally.
    It seems that 1pm California time on Thursday is 8am Melbourne time on Friday. I hope this is right, I’ll tune in then!

  10. I really appreciate the clarity you have delivered about confrontation, and the wisdom you have in the field. Thank you for sharing! I look forward to more in the next few days.

  11. Valuable information Ellyn – – thank you. Seems I do some of this already, but did not have a name for it. It is helpful to be able to utilize the structure you provide, however. Provides the challenge of being more intentional with the technique. It’s also nice to know that it is a “good” thing to apply confrontation at various times in the session. I no longer have to question if it is helpful to do so. Wonder how I could evaluate how effective this is in my sessions (e.g., including in my client evaluations)?

  12. Thank you, Ellyn. As always your concrete explanation is so very helpful. I too would vote to not have the music playing in the background going forward. Your style of teaching makes the topic clear. I appreciate that. I’m always grateful for your generosity.

  13. I imagine you’ll cover this in the calls, but — if I’ve moved too quickly up at the confrontation scale and have lost a connection with one or both people, how do I repair? Do I simply go back to the earlier levels of confrontation? Your note at the bottom of the handout seemed to indicate that. I’d also love a bit more discussion between you and Pete on the testing phase of the sessions. Thanks — looking forward to the live calls. I always learn lots, and the role playing helps.

  14. Just finished watching Video 1. I was relieved to hear you say that over time these types of confrontation become internalized and flow within us as therapists more fluidly.
    It made be think of a couple with whom I was working today. I wanted the wife to begin to consider something but knew she would feel judged. So, I turned toward her husband and raised the issue in the form of a question and he was able to consider it and from this the wife was able to enter into a very important reciprocal conversation. Indirect confrontation.
    Thanks so much. tomorrow I have a client until 1:30–so I shall join in then.

  15. Thanks so much Ellyn for this clear and succinct description of using confrontation. I am doing the training so this is a very useful addition to my learning and I’m really pleased because the live call is at a time I can listen from Melbourne Australia!

  16. Thank you Ellyn. I have been perplexed in sessions when one partner verbally attacks the other and when I intervene, I have gotten accused of having no empathy for the attacking partner. It makes sense that an empathic confrontation of naming some of the underlying feelings to the attack would be very helpful in deescalating the situation as well as in maintaining/strengthening the therapeutic connection.

  17. Thanks Ellyn for sharing on the different levels of confrontation and the positive motivation behind rather than proving someone wrong. I think it is important to confront when necessary and find it rather challenging to do so with male client (Asian). Thank you for the examples on how to confront in a positively directional manner.

  18. Understanding and applying these types of confrontations for therapeutic effect, is essential to working with any couple. Without fully understanding the nature of confrontation and ways of confrontation, the effectiveness of a therapist helping couples navigate difficult problems is greatly lessened. Thanks Ellen.

  19. Ellyn, Thanks as always for sharing your expertise. I have recommended this mini-workshop to several other therapists
    . I really find it useful to think through confrontation in these categories and building categories and building on types of confrontations.

  20. Many thanks, Ellyn, for this video and your very succinct description of the types of confrontation. I found it affirming of my ability to confront, which I don’t always find easy to do, and also I really value the distinctions you name here, as I haven’t thought about the differences before now, though I use the different types often.

  21. Thank Ellyn
    Very clear explanation on confrontation and its types. It is fun to recognize what you are doing in a session and what are the options. I appreciate your support in helping us in our skills as therapists

  22. Thank Ellen, that was very helpful. There are times we all need to confront our couples this helps me pay more attention to when and what type I use.


  23. Hello, thanks Ellyn, for outlining clearly, specific types of confrontation and your cycle for processing. You have added to my repertoire.. i am still believing that only when I feel the specific new current with the couple and them as individuals, then, is the opportunity for determining the specific strategy to be used.

  24. Thank you for the video on confrontation. It really helps to be able to identify the different types. Very informative, and love the handouts!!

  25. Ellen-Please remember that when you confront another person (your mother), it usually works best to tell them the motive you have for making the confrontation. You can start by saying, “I want to talk to you about X subject, and the reason I am doing this now is ______. Hope that helps you a little bit. Good luck.

  26. Naming the six types of confrontation were very helpful. Even educating couples themselves about the six types of confrontations can be helpful for them when they tried to talk about topics at home. I’m looking forward to attending your life session on Thursday. Thank you for providing this education to us as therapist.

  27. Thank you for sharing this information, as a beginning practitioner being able to find useful and easy to understand information from experienced practitioners is very useful in helping me increase my skills. Again thank you for providing this workshop.

  28. Thank you Ellyn for a thought provoking video on Confrontation. Although I am not a Couples Therapist, The way you described the different types of Confrontation and the Confrontation Cycle is very interesting and helpful.
    I imagine this needs cultivating of skills to practice for best outcome.
    Food for thought.

    Checking out what time the sessions will be for UK time???

  29. Hi, at this time I am mainly interested in the topic of confrontation not so much to use it as a therapist but because I feel it is time to confront my mother about my life in regards to sexual abuse that happened when I was a small infant and child. I think there were a few things that could help me stick with what I want to express. At the same time I know that my situation is very particular and I have little hope that a confrontation will change anything as it might with someone who comes to therapy and wants to change.

  30. I often do soft and empathic confrontation. Recently I did a bombshell with a gay male couple three years into their relationship. We all survived and moved to a deeper level of healing as one is a sexual abuse survivor who was unfaithful and the other is new to relating to a man and has been bullied and ostracized in his youth. The confrontation got them out of their thinking and verbalizong into deep emotional processing.

  31. Maggie-Thanks for checking about the live sessions. They will be similar but not the same. We will use different case examples that come in to do the role plays. The educational part will be the same. And we will answer participants questions so those will probably be different.

  32. Thank you so much Ellyn for providing this great resource! Just a gentle suggestion – the background music is a distraction from the power of what you are saying, which needs no embellishment.

  33. Really enjoyed the video, and especially the PDF that went along with it that gave examples of the different confrontation types and responses. I am so glad that you value empathic and ‘soft’ methods of responding. This is always my first step, and when a client/couple know that you as a therapist both understand and accept them, then they become more open to looking at the aspects of their behaviour that challenge their self-concept, that they have to defend. Then you can use more direct and challenging confrontations. Looking forward to the rest of the series.
    Could I just confirm, that the ‘Live’ session is the same on both dates? I’m in Scotland and trying to work out which session would be best, and if I have to do both of them?
    Many thanks.

  34. Excellent review of problem solving, solution seeking approach to confrontation at effective levels. Thank you for your insights and skill.

  35. I found your description and naming of these types of confrontation was immensely helpful. Wonderful video and material. Thank you Ellyn.

  36. Thanks Ellyn, once again, for being generous in sharing your expertise with everyone. I appreciate you languaging the distinctions among the various styles of confrontation. There are always many forks in the road when making a decision about which confrontation to use. Experience helps in learning to discern.

  37. Very useful information and much to think about. I like the way you divided out the levels of congregation we can use to agitate our couples toward healthy growth.

  38. Charles-Thanks for checking.The first live workshop is at 1pm California time on Wednesday and the second one is at 6pm California time on Thursday. They will be somewhere between 60 and 90 minutes depending on how many questions we get from participants.

  39. I just watched your video on 6 types of confrontation. I liked it. Are all the live sessions of this mini-workshop at 1 pm California time, & 1-hour long? Dr.Charles Hershkowitz, Brussels, Belgium, presently in sunny Nice, France on vacation.

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