Ellyn Bader

Each year I mentor a small group of therapists to help them set goals for their business and clinical skills. I often ask them to assess themselves by being brutally honest about their ability on a variety of criteria that I believe make for strength and effectiveness as a couples therapist. I am including some of these here so you too can assess yourself.

Couples Therapist Self­-Assessment

First, read the following statements and respond with a simple yes or no. Later, come back and use a 1­-7 on a continuum from very strong to very weak.

Early Sessions with Couples:

__ I have a plan when I talk to potential clients on the telephone.

__I intervene on the phone in a way that gets partners thinking in new and different ways even before their first session.

__I get a beginning sense of the couple’s developmental stage on the telephone.

__I am able to assess the couple's developmental stage in the first or second session.

__I have a basic set of questions I use in my first sessions.

__I develop interventions based on the couple’s developmental stage.

__I take time to educate my clients about what will be required of them in couples therapy.

__I carefully work towards each partner setting accountable self-­motivated goals.

__I listen and confront partners whose primary motivation is for the other one to change.

__I look for and identify symbiotic beliefs that are inhibiting individual or couple development.

As this self-assessment survey suggests, there are 10 distinct skills that enter into early sessions.

Honestly assessing yourself in these areas will help you focus on the new strengths you would like to acquire as a couples therapist.

I used to think that first sessions were easy to do. Over the many years I have worked with couples, I’ve learned that there are so many pitfalls in first sessions.

What are some good ways to build new skills.

  • If you are working with your own consultation group, you can select 1­-2 of these areas and suggest your group focus on these for a few weeks. You can role play cases or ask colleagues to share highlights of sessions that have gone well in the areas where you’d like to grow.
  • If you are not in a training or consult group, assess your first sessions. What went well in your most positive sessions and where did you feel stuck? What could you have improved? When you have a particularly difficult session, ask yourself what went wrong. 
  • Then, plan to start the next session with a statement about what you wish you had done differently the week before. For example, “Last week I don't think I was clear enough about what it will take for the two of you to change these patterns. Let’s back up and talk more about what real change will require from each of you.” Even if you never actually use the statement with the couple, the awareness and clarity can be very helpful.
  • Order a copy of the High Impact Couples Therapy program.

By the time you complete working through this resource, you will:

  • Learn how to start therapy before the couple arrives for the first interview.
  • Recognize and implement five essential elements in the first interview.
  • Incorporate vision setting as a mechanism to shift couples away from
    destructive/blaming cycles and into more positive outcomes.
  • Learn to use therapist self­-definition as a leverage for change.

If you would like to see more couples in your practice – and be better equipped to handle even the most difficult couples – this is a resource that will support your growth.

High Impact Couples Therapy

Whatever you do, I encourage you to find a system that helps you develop your skills.

Your work in the world is far too important to leave these things to chance.


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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A Glossary of Terms that are sometimes Confusing

Couples Therapy is a counseling procedure that seeks to improve the adjustment of two people who have created an interdependent relationship. There are no standard procedures to help two people improve their adjustments to each other. Generally, a more experienced therapist will offer more perspectives and tools to a couple. Length of treatment will depend on severity of problems, motivation and skills of the therapist. A couple can be dating, living together, married or separating and may be gay, lesbian or heterosexual.

Marriage Therapy is a term often used interchangeably with marriage counseling. The term marriage implies two people have created a union sanctioned by a government or religious institution. The methods used in marriage counseling, marriage therapy and couples therapy are interchangeable and depend more on the specific challenges of each unique couple.

Psychotherapy is one or more processes to help improve psychological and emotional functioning. Examples are psychoanalysis, cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, Gestalt therapy, Transactional Analysis, Rational-Emotive therapy, or group therapy. Many forms of psychotherapy are blends of different approaches. For example, newer forms of psychotherapy called energy psychology draw upon recent advances in brain and neuroscience. These approaches often build on cognitive behavioral methods.

Clinical Psychologist. After graduating from college, it usually takes about five years of graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Psycholgy. It then requires an additional two years of supervision and passing a written (and often) an oral exam. There are a few states that allow psychologists to prescribe medications (with additional training) but that is uncommon.

Psychiatrist. After graduation from medical school, there is a generally a 4-year psychiatric residency. After the completion of this training, psychiatrists must pass an exam issued by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to obtain certification and legally practice in the field. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications.

Clinical Social Worker. This profession usually requires two years of study after obtaining an undergraduate degree. While specific licensure requirements vary by state, most require clinical social workers to obtain 3,000 hours or 2 years of supervised clinical experience, after obtaining a Masters degree. Social workers can also specialize in diverse fields such as human services management, social welfare analysis, community organizing, social and community development, and social and political research.

Marriage and Family Therapist. Obtaining this license requires a Masters degree which takes approximately two years of post graduate study. The license also requires 3000 hours of supervised work and passing written exams.

The Couples Institute. We have assembled a group of top notch therapists at The Couples Institute. Whatever marriage help or marriage advice you are looking for, we are here to serve you. While most other therapists see only a few couples a week, we specialize in marriage and couples relationships, working to develop and bring you the most current and effective approaches to couples therapy. For more information about couples therapy or marriage counseling, see our couples therapy section.