Ellyn Bader

couple in therapy confronting hypocrisyWith certain presenting problems, it’s obvious that some confrontation will be required. For example, the denial associated with drugs, alcohol or gambling addiction will inevitably require confrontation from either you or the spouse.

Also, the major lies and deceptions that happen with infidelity are often obvious in calling for confrontation.

However, there are some more subtle patterns, like symbiosis and regression, that also take skillful confrontation. Long ago I realized it would be impossible to do successful couples work without confronting the consequences of these behaviors. Without becoming skillful at disrupting symbiosis and recognizing and challenging regression, couples work will just skim the surface.

Another one of these subtle patterns that takes skillful confrontation is what I call a “hypocritical bind.” This occurs when one partner demands something from the other that the partner making the demand is unwilling or unable to give.

Tough hypocritical binds have usually become entrenched over time and are not dismantled overnight.

The longer an intense hypocritical bind has dominated a relationship, the more difficult it will be to change the patterns that support it.

Join me now and watch this video.  In it I define hypocrisy and describe 4 types of hypocrisy with examples of each. After the video you’ll see three steps for confronting hypocrisy.

As you can see, there is an art to confronting hypocrisy. The goal is to describe the bind clearly, promote self-reflection and instigate action.

You can begin just by listening carefully and looking for hypocrisies in your early sessions.

Look for the areas where one partner repeatedly feels angry and repeatedly concludes the same negative attribute about the other.

Ask yourself if you are seeing one partner demand something that they are unwilling or unable to give.

Effectively confronting hypocrisy takes the following three steps.

Step 1
Identify the hypocrisy to yourself.
Be sure you are clear what it is. See if you can imagine how the client might put it into words. The client is likely to verbalize only the first part of the bind. You might see something in their repetitive behavior that reveals the hidden part. For example:

  • I want unconditional love, but I won’t give it.
  • I want to be happy, but don’t bother me with your requests or desires to be happy.
  • I’ll go to therapy, but only if we focus on what’s bothering me and overlook what is bothering you.

Step 2
Next, gently describe the dilemma you see without making the client wrong.
For example, “You seem to be very involved when we talk about what is bothering you, but I notice you seem to disengage or quickly change the subject when your husband brings up what is bothering him. Are you aware of that pattern?”

Partners often  deflect and smoothly shift the topic away from what you’ve said. It will take pointing out the hypocrisy in more than one way without making the client wrong, because they usually won’t act on key insights immediately.

Step 3
Look for a way to confront and describe the hypocrisy without putting yourself into the confrontation.

If you confront in a judgmental or parental way, it will create a struggle between you and the client. This will divert the energy away from the client’s looking at him/herself.

Sometimes it helps to describe different aspects or parts of the person that are in conflict.

For example, you might say, “One part of you wants desperately to be loved unconditionally while another part of you seems to be stubborn and refuses to give the same to your partner. How do you make sense of that?”

Many partners in struggling relationships rationalize their lack of accountability and their minimal efforts while excusing themselves for acting in ways that devalue their partners.

Our desire to avoid feeling anxious or insecure may lead us to shy away from confronting hypocrisy. Sadly, everyone loses when we “wimp out.”

My next lesson in this “mini-workshop” will give you seven ways to confront financial irresponsibility.


A Colleague’s Comment on Training with Ellyn Bader

“I have been in private practice for over 35 years. I spent years studying psychoanalytic theory and technique. I committed to diligently attending Ellyn's online classes and studying the wonderful handouts that attendees receive. I have learned from the best about how to conceptualize and analyze individuals and couples. Ellyn and Pete will challenge you – right off the bat – to think differently than you currently are. They do it in a way that is stimulating, insightful, and warm and caring and direct, all at the same time. Participation with Ellyn in both Developmental Model online programs has changed the direction of my life, personally and professionally.”
Deborah Hecker, Ph.D., Washington, D.C.

Act Now

  1. Please comment below. Think about your own cases. Did reading this help you make sense of some hypocrisy you heard this week? If so, how? I look forward to reading your observations.
  2. My online training program, Developmental Model of Couples Therapy: Integrating Attachment, Differentiation and Neuroscience, has an entire lesson and library of recorded calls on techniques such as Gestalt 2-chair work and the Initiator-Inquirer process to help clients see and understand these hidden parts of themselves. For more information click here.

This blog post is from a 5 day “mini-workshop” on confrontation. Click Day 1: Confrontation Video: 6 Types of Confrontation and How the Cycle of Confrontation Unfolds , Click Day 2: Confrontation Transcript: Indecision after Infidelity 




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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Please Comment ↴

  1. Hi Ellyn,

    Is there a PDF version of the text? Otherwise I can copy and paste.

    Appreciating it all.

  2. Thank you all for this discussion. I do like it when different sides of an issue can be discussed out front-Adult to Adult.
    I made this video prior to the contentiousness of this election. However, I do oppose rigid thinking whether it is liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. And I have at times spoken about both sides. My career is about helping people reach across the divide of difficult differences to discuss and respect one another. I don’t believe in differences being hidden. So i will use examples at times like RL and I welcome the kind of response you are speaking about. With other professionals I choose to represent what I think and then engage in dialogue.

  3. Thanks for this topic and discussion, Ellyn. Very useful and I hope to stay committed to practicing noticing and confronting these pretty toxic defenses and patterns, without coming across as judgmental. This is where, for me, examples of your language is helpful.
    Regarding the political comments, for me it would have been helpful to give a concrete example of a public figure’s actual behavior and/or comments. Without that, it does feel like name calling. And though I’m not an RL fan, it was a bit jarring.

  4. Truly surprised by the two reactions – calling to censor using Rush Limbaugh as an example – & to keep political allusions out of a training. The example was apt for illustrating the type of hypocrisy and one-sided thinking. Truly surprised as he was so apt to illustrate the point. Does anyone not agree with that aptness? Seems we are grown-ups and can bring politics into our discussions and is even a responsibility to call something like it is. Trainings are not therapy sessions.
    I especially liked how you again offer a way to keep one’s self, as therapist, out of the struggle, Ellyn – as the other side of the argument (becoming positioned as judge or parent). I fell into that again last night with a client regressing. Your point that when we do that, we interfere with the client’s growth and self-reflections, is well made. The words you offer to present as two sides of the client and asking them how they make sense of it or deal with it is very helpful.

  5. Thanks Ellyn. I found the categorisation of the 4 types really useful. I realise that the more “intellectual” a couple is the tougher to deal with and the more the confrontation opportunities slip pass or gets challenged.

  6. Ellyn,
    As always, I appreciate your expert teachings in couples work! I’ve admired you for years and love it when you and Pete take the time to share your knowledge with our community of professionals. That said, I only request you consider leaving out any political/bias examples! Our country is already so sadly divided and your political example (as in this clip) sends a negative vibe in an otherwise positive message. It would just be nice to not experience such a perception/comment during trainings. As it is, many of us have clients still traumatized over the political split, and/or we have peers on different sides of the political arena driving wedges in what was once a caring supportive haven. I for one would appreciate not be blind sided by such examples during a training, and I’m not even a R.L. fan, yet it just didn’t sit well with me.
    So I ask you to please be more mindfully sensitive to your entire professional audience (as if they were clients) and consider using more neutral examples in the future.
    Just my two cents!❤

  7. Ellyn,
    I’m curious to see how clients respond to confrontation re: their hypocrisy. In your experience, does the confrontation, such as observing a pattern or a conflict and asking the client how they make sense of it, result in insight? How do you respond if client becomes more defensive?

  8. Excellent! Just watched the video. Your definition of hypocrisy and the description of the four types just turned on a light bulb and will allow for greater clarity in my work with couples. A true gift for which I thank you.

  9. Ellyn, I love this mini-workshop! Thanks a lot for this opportunity. I have a new couple where the wife complains of her husband’s rudeness and unempathic behavior while her way of talking about him is extremely devaluing. At the end of the first session, she refused to attend conjoint sessions and wanted me to just fix him, claiming that during their long marriage she had withstood a lot of pain, and it’s her turn now. I will be seeing both of them individually hoping to strengthen my alliance with them and to prepare them for couples therapy. The guidelines you provided make a lot of sense to me. I am looking forward to trying them to effectively address the wife’s hypocrisy “without making the client wrong”.

  10. I really am enjoying both of your videos. I felt your definition of the four different types of the hypocrisy in couples therapy was extremely helpful.There is one very tough couple in particular I have worked with for a few years and they may have left therapy at this point but I have talked about them in consultation a million times and now you have given me a much more useful way to view what happens. It’s interesting I have a new couple now and I can see I am confronting each of them more and it feels great!!!Thank you!

  11. Ellen, The minute you made it political by bringing up Rush Limbaugh, I was done watching. Not a choice and won’t mean a lot of people who dont listen to him. Please keep politics out of trainings.

  12. I have a couple where this is going on, she demands he change his behavior (he hangs up on her), but she cannot see that her calling him over and over (10 times in a row) demanding that he talk with her is part of the problem. In therapy she sits with her arms crossed and says she cannot be with him if he won’t meet her demands. Now she is threatening to leave therapy if I don’t fix him. So she’s actually trying to put me in the same bind. I certainly have challenged the hypocrisy’s of this, but I may be losing them because I am finding it difficult to like her and maintain objectivity.

    • Ellen, I like the way you (re) defined hypocrisy as another form of deflection from the juicier issues beneath. While not always, and sometimes not often, I have found teaching (drilling?) the couple deep listening skills along with objective and accurate reflection can help the deflector to go a layer or two deeper when they feel “seen, known, heard, gotten” . When this works, it allows me not to have to be the confronter (sounds wimpy i know) and lets the process drive the work. AND sometimes, some good old fashioned (well crafted) confrontation IS what’s needed. . Thx for your work

  13. Kramer versus Kramer starred Dustin Hofman and Meryl Streep (not Dianne Keaton) – trivia (I did listen attentively!)

  14. The movie buff in me cannot help but observe that Kramer vs. Kramer starred Meryl Streep, not Diane Keaton.
    These hypocritical binds are common in the couples that I have seen and they always leave me wondering how to address them. On the one hand, I can see the offensive purpose it serves for one partner but on the other hand, I can see the damage the bind is doing to the couple. I have always felt it is tricky to confront these issues with couples. Thank you for deconstructing how to do it effectively.