Ellyn Bader

Unhappy couple in therapyMoving along in our series on confrontation, I wanted to share a series of confrontations  made by my husband, Peter Pearson, during a 90-minute session with a couple facing indecision after infidelity.

Observe how his confrontations move from softer to more intense.

Jeff and Julie came for their first session after being married for 40 years. Jeff was in the midst of an affair and Julie was very depressed. Jeff was severely conflicted. Should he stay married or go with Clara, his new love?  He was also “shopping” for therapists and had already been to several.

Jeff was approaching his indecision from a passive, but painful position. In the following sequence, my husband Peter gradually intensified his confrontations.

We pick up about 40 minutes into the session after Pete has been empathic with each partner and inquired a lot about their situation.

Pete:So Jeff, why are you here?
Jeff gives a long tangential response that is not an answer to the question.
Pete:Jeff, I’ll ask again, why are you here?
Jeff again gives a long response about his indecision.
Pete:Have you considered that if you don’t make the decision, your wife may make it for you?
Jeff:[laughs nervously] And both women could make it for me.
Pete:In that case, let me lean on you a little harder. You know that you have a decision to make. Why are you here? And where do I fit into the struggle that is within you?
Jeff talks more about his indecision and how it is agonizing to decide.
Pete:You are really split. Do you realize that staying split is both a problem and a solution?
Jeff:[looks startled] Do you mean being so indecisive serves me somehow?
Pete:Yes, as soon as you decide, one part of you will feel enormous regret, despair, depression and grief. For now, it is more tolerable to respond to both sides than it is to decide, take action and then feel regret and depression from making a painful choice.
Jeff:There are so many good things about both of them.
Pete:That is right. You are stuck in an approach-approach and an avoidance-avoidance conflict. Should you go with Miss America or Miss Universe? Do you realize that staying stuck is your way to try to balance that pleasure-pain dilemma?
Jeff continues to look more startled and Pete goes on….
Pete:The interesting thing is this. Even a  blinding flash of insight won’t take away your painful choice.
Jeff:I can’t decide. But if I don’t decide, I think I will implode.
Pete:I don’t think so. Let’s just say if we get real now, no matter what you do, a part of you is going to feel bad and there is no way we can finesse it.
Jeff agrees.
Session is winding down. Pete asks whether they want to come back.
Pete:So, I know you are checking out several therapists. And as you are shopping for therapists, please remember that all I can offer you is pain.
Pete asks again if they want to come back. Jeff tries to shift the decision to his wife. Pete refuses to accept this. Jeff and Julie decide to go out for breakfast to discuss it together and decide.
Jeff called Pete three days later and asked for another session saying, “I selected you because you took me on.”

 

Act Now

  1. In the comment section below, please list any of Pete's interventions you recognize as 1) soft, 2) empathic, 3) gentle, but tough, 4) indirect, 5) hard/tough or 6) bombshell. Or write about what you find useful in reading how the confrontations evolved.
  2. In my online training program, Developmental Model of Couples Therapy: Integrating Attachment, Differentiation and Neuroscience, we frequently use transcripts like the one on this page to demonstrate interactions between therapists and couples, and to discuss pressure points for confrontation and growth. To learn more about the program, click Developmental Model.

This blog post is from a 5 day “mini-workshop” on confrontation. Click for Day 1: Confrontation Video: 6 Types of Confrontation and How the Cycle of Confrontation Unfolds

About 

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’m not a couple’s therapist, but I do badly need and want to learn the art of confrontation. As all people are in relationship, I beleive the same principles apply. I wonder if you, Pete and Ellen would be willing to do a brief course on confrontation, for anyone working in the therapy field?
    In my training – 4 years, the whole emphasis was on attunement, rupture and repair. Never was confrontation, addressed, and certainly not that it was ok to increase anxiety for the client. I dont know what its like in the US, but this left me feeling sadly ill equipped and undertrained for addressing the reality of this work.
    I have followed the Masterson approach, and from that got an understanding of separation/ individuation, as well as the need to confront. But I feel I still need the actual growth in these areas to have the confidence, and know how in myself to do it.

  2. Thank you for all your comments and noticing the different levels of confrontation.
    The overall arc of the session was to help him move from a symbiotic position (I don’t want to be accountable/responsible for my affair choice) to a more differentiated position of facing the consequences of his action and dealing with them from a non passive position.

    These kinds of confrontation experiences are learned over time and from multiple resources. I certainly could not do this just by attending a conference, workshop, reading a book etc.

    These kinds of sessions go beyond theory and technique – I need the necessary starch in my backbone to do this kind of work.

    This approach came from a lot of trial and error and being in ongoing training programs to get feedback on where i was missing the boat – a lot like what you are getting in this training 🙂
    Stay Steady
    Pete

  3. I see a couple where they are both avoidantly attached and the man in this couple is strongly that way. He wants a relationships, but he is in that pain-pain dilemma. If he lets her in it hurts, if he keeps her out that loneliness is painful. Additionally, he has a severe chronic pain condition. I find myself confronting the pain-pain-pain dilemma of his life and his relationship. Having this example of the use of several types of confrontation is very helpful.

  4. As I met with an individual client who feels stuck and torn in many areas of life, I was able to use Pete’s observation that any choice he makes will involve pain, and that the agonizing was serving to keep the deeper pain at bay. It was a reminder to me as a therapist that life is hard, there are often no easy choices, and that I cannot make life easy for clients. I must allow them to confront and struggle with their own issues.

  5. Asking why are you here for the second time was soft. Pointing out that if you dont make the decision your wife will was gbt. Reiterating that he has as a decision to make and asking where he(therapist) fits into it is gbt because he’s keeping him focused on problem and that he is in therapists office for a reason. Therapist is empathic when he tells patient that he is split. Telling patient his indecisiveness is a problem and a solution in that it helps patient avoid pain is empathic and gbt. Telling patient that insight won’t avoid pain is hard/tough because he is directing him to the reality of his situation. Telling patient that all he can offer is pain and asking if he wants to come back is also hard/tough because he insists that patient stays focused on issue at hand and also on the decision he must make now, which is whether or not to come back to see this therapist.

    I agree with Katrina’s observation about the Miss Universe being an indirect confrontation

    Great interventions!!!

  6. Asking why are you here for the second time was soft. Pointing out that if you dont make the decision your wife will was gbt. Reiterating that he has as a decision to make and asking where he(therapist) fits into it is gbt because he’s keeping him focused on problem and that he is in therapists office for a reason. Therapist is empathic when he tells patient that he is split. Telling patient his indecisiveness is a problem and a solution in that it helps patient avoid pain is empathic and gbt. Telling patient that insight won’t avoid pain is hard/tough because he is directing him to the reality of his situation. Telling patient that all he can offer is pain and asking if he wants to come back is also hard/tough because he insists that patient stays focused on issue at hand and also on the decision he must make now, which is whether or not to come back to see this therapist.

    Great interventions!!!

  7. I found this very thought provoking for myself and masterfully handled by Pete. Well scripted in Pete’s mind as to how he engages and challenges the client. The bombshell moment was so truthful there is definitely pain no matter what the decision

  8. What I found useful in reading how the confrontation evolved relates to work I did with a man whose marriage was on the rocks because he was addicted to his toxic and highly abusive family of origin, and was pressuring his wife to conform. He wanted to take his children to visit them. Staying stuck was his way to try to balance that pain-pain dilemma (“pleasure” did not enter into this equation). Reading this script confirmed for me the value of my confrontation to him (began as gentle then ended with a bombshell). Later there was couple work with him and his wife. After a few years of therapy, he ended up separating from his (fairly dangerous) parents and expanding his family with his wife. It was a complex case but what helped was being trauma-informed via some research I did. Here is the link: https://minerva-access.unimelb.edu.au/handle/11343/37852 This script involving Peter’s style helped confirm that I was on the right track at the time. I sort of wonder how different it would have been having a female in Peter’s shoes?
    Thank you Peter and Ellyn!

  9. I found it interesting and informative that we pick up the session when Pete has done 40 minutes of empathic listening. That tells me that in order to put the hard/tough question to Jeff (“So why are you here?”), Pete had established some kind of relationship with the couple and communicated that he genuinely cares about them. The context of that tough confrontation was a teaching moment for me.

  10. I was waiting for the start with Zoom.Us on my screen and properly signed in, at 10 pm here in France which = 1 pm in California. Nothing happened. I tried all sorts of settings. I’m not experienced with webinar technology but I think I prepared this one, which I was looking forward to a lot, right. Quite a let-down. Enlighten me please. Charles Hershkowitz

  11. Aprreciated the way Pete holds Jeff to account and not squirm away right from the start on “why are you here” to the soft confrontation of realisation that indecision may mean his wife will make the decision through to the reality of hard tough confrontation – “even a blinding flash of insight won’t take away the painful choice”. Holding Jeff to that reality gives informed consent to the treatment process which I think is another essential skill in our work – thanks for the clear example

  12. As John Gottman said, “If people could watch an early session after an affair, they would never have an affair. It is too much trouble.”

    • Response to Catherine’s comment by Gottman;

      Unfortunately in reality, people do have affairs within marriages despite the pain it causes. And it’s all even more painful when unhappy marriages represent contracted pain.

      With that said, Pete’s work really illustrates the responsibility that an unfaithful partner must take for their actions and making a decision about their marriage. The very skillful use of the confrontation skills didn’t let the husband avoid his responsibility and required respect for his wife that is key for the possibility of resolving a marital crisis.

      As an MFT in training I really appreciate this session!!

  13. The opening question at minute 40 is a pretty tough confrontation of Jeff, calling out his ambivalence. I imagine this was done in a more gentle tough way, followed by repeating the question in a hard/tough manner, not letting Jeff wiggle out of answering the question. Jeff seems to go to deep reflection, admitting that either or both women could decide for him. Pete follows with a softer confrontation, naming the split and providing information/education about how Jeff’s ambivalence helps him avoid the intense pain of making a decision. Pete ramps up a bit again to a tougher confrontation by indicating that no matter what Jeff decides, part of him will hurt. I appreciate katrina’s comment above about the indirect confrontation of Miss Universe vs Miss America. That is a subtle move that could be like a life-line to the depressed wife. Pete’s comment to Jeff that his wife may make the decision for him could also be seen as an indirect confrontation, reminding/empowering the wife that she has choice here too and does not have to wait to be “chosen”.

  14. This was so juicy – I found myself so enthralled with how Pete handled this fellow, and like a very good novel, can’t wait to turn the page. I say this because it’s masterful to make such interventions that don’t give pat answers, but push this client to think for himself. I also loved the clear and direct way that Pete laid out what he was facing – most of us therapists aren’t trained to be that ‘real’ – “as soon as you decide, one part of you will feel l enormous regret, despair, depression and grief.” That is powerful and also, in my opinion, provides a developmental assist, in that it tells this person that he can and must face his own self, but not alone. Pete is there for him if he is up for the challenge. Great modelling here.

    • I enjoyed seeing how skillfully Pete flowed with what was happening in the session, holding Jeff accountable with empathy and honesty. The exchange does not feel formulaic, but is clearly intentional. Something to aspire to!

  15. The aside “do you want Miss Universe or Miss America” could be an indirect confrontation to Julie reminding her of her power and worth despite her depressed state. The series of confrontation saying that the choice of female will be painful (and even choosing a therapist will offer pain) together make a hard tough confrontation.

  16. I think that an Empathic confrontation can be when Pete says “you are really split …”
    And a bombshell intervention could be the last one when he mentions that the couple is “shopping” therapies and that “all he can offer is pain”.
    I found it helpful and clear, but though.

  17. I felt that pointing out that Jeff’s avoidance of making a decision was both a problem and a solution, was helpful because becoming more aware of what he is avoiding is likely to help Jeff to move towards making a decision, rather than have it made for him.

  18. It’s often interesting to see that when the therapist (Pete) is clear about what he can and can not provide the client (Jeff) “all I can offer is pain”, implying that Pete will not taylor his approach to make Jeff feel better about himself/his quandary, and when Pete is clear he doesn’t “need ” jeff in his practice (go shop!), the focus then remains directly on Jeff. Paradoxically, that focus, while clearly uncomfortable for Jeff, factored into Jeff’s decision to return. Lots going on!

  19. The ‘gentle but tough’ certainly came in when Pete asked him a second time why he’s here. I like how he didn’t get side-tracked by Jeff’s tangential response. I think this was also the case with the ‘let me lean on you a little harder’ intervention.The second confrontation in this dialogue was ‘soft’, I think, starting with ‘have you considered..’ I like that one! The ‘hard/tough’ confrontation comes at the end when Pete tells him very strongly and directly what he will let himself in for if her returns! And the interesting thing in all of this is that none of the confrontations come across as unkind or harsh. I imagine Jeff felt some relief at the cards being laid on the table, seeing as HE wasn’ t doing it himself!! Very illustrative piece.

  20. It seems that, despite repeatedly confronting, Pete never does get an answer to his question of “where do I fit in to your struggle?” Maybe that comes in the next session

  21. “Have you considered that if you don’t make the decision, your wife may make it for you?” – seems like an indirect confrontation (amongst other things) directed towards the wife?

  22. Pete kept making sure all roads led back to Jeff, a position which Jeff doesn’t want to assume. He’d rather be avoidant and passive.
    Perfect. Also, Pete is right on when he tells Jeff that no matter what he decides, he will be in pain. Get a grip Jeff. Your life, your choice. Pete has him where he needs him to be – looking in the mirror.

    • I love how Pete addresses Jeff’s “stuckness” as the issue instead of the content of the decision. In a Hard/Tough confrontation, Pete clearly names the real dilemma as Jeff’s stuckness and how this allows him to avoid the pain. The bombshell of “I can only offer you pain” is brilliant as it once again clearly names that the issue for Jeff is facing the pain that his actions/decisions have brought him to. But it also demonstrates that Pete is more than willing and capable to go to this very painful place with Jeff.

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