Ellyn Bader

couples therapy confrontation transcript, disrupting hidden symbiosisTherapists who train with me know to look for symbiosis and understand how symbiosis impedes the tremendous growth potential that exists in any couples relationship.

Sometimes symbiosis is obvious because a couple has been stuck there for a very long time. Other times it is more disguised.

Below you will read a transcript from a session with a couple deciding whether or not to get married. In this couple, the female partner acts as if she is the more mature grounded partner. She is decisive where her boyfriend is anxious and conflicted.

In this session I decided to confront her hidden “stuckness.” She had been dancing around his requests for several weeks.

Ellyn:Let’s regroup a bit today. The two of you came to therapy to make a decision about whether or not to get married. I’d like to review where each of you are now on that decision.
Jack:I am still very undecided. We are so comfortable together and we have a lot of fun. I wish it was an easy decision. But there are some big issues that are unresolved for me.
Ellyn:(To Sarah) Do you feel like you’ve made a decision for sure about whether you want to be in a committed partnership with Jack or not? Are you clear?
Sarah:Yes. I’m very clear. I’ve been clear for a long time.
Ellyn:Your decision is?
Sarah:I am very ready to get married. More than ready.
Ellyn:I’d like to know more about your certainty. Will you say more about your decision? How did you decide? Why are you so certain?
Sarah:He treats me well. He’s different than my ex-husband. He’s attentive and caring. He’s calm. He doesn’t get rattled very easily. He’s honest. I feel like I can trust him.
Ellyn:And that’s extremely important to you?
Sarah:Yes. Especially that he’s caring and not explosive.
Ellyn:It’s a relief that he does not get angry like your ex-husband. You value his solidity and how he takes care of you.
Sarah:Yes, it’s really important, my ex went from being explosive to being dishonest. My last marriage ended in divorce after an affair. I don’t ever want to be in a relationship where there’s a potential for that again.
Ellyn:So, we’ve been talking about what you value and the reassurance you get from being with him.
Sarah:Yes and I don’t think there is anything we can’t work out.
Ellyn:So, we’re talking about you putting both feet in and making a lifetime commitment to Jack. You’ve been with Jack long enough to know what you value.
I wonder how much you’ve thought about the challenges and the fact that he’s been pushing you in some areas that aren’t very comfortable for you.
Sarah:Yes, he’s been doing that. Most of those are not that big. He changes his mind a lot, so I don’t think they are really that big. I think that’s happening already. I wish he would just stop changing his mind. We can solve those things easily later. I’m not really clear what he’s looking for because it keeps on changing.
Ellyn:What are the main areas that you think matter to him? Where do you think he’s going to keep pushing on you to change? Will you reflect for a minute on what you’ve heard him say?
Sarah:Being on time. Keeping commitments.
Ellyn:What kinds of commitments?
Sarah:Money is a big one. But I feel like I have changed in that area. I don’t think he notices that I’m not overspending.
Ellyn:Why does keeping commitments matter to him?
Sarah:So I’m honest.
Ellyn:I think it is more than that. You probably remember from a lot of our past conversations that money has been a traumatic area for him. It’s an area where it’s important to him that you’re able to step up. It’s going to be an ongoing issue for you to understand how much this means to him.
Sarah:I’m never going to measure up because I’ll never earn what he does.
Ellyn:Wait. Stop. You are shifting a bit away from what I’m saying to you. I’m really asking if you realize that if you put both feet in and get married then you’re going to be pushed by him about money until you both sort this out better.
Sarah:Yes. I know he’s going to push me about money. But, I’m not quite sure what more I could do.
Ellyn:You are just scratching the surface. There’s so much more you can learn and do to be an involved partner with him.
Sarah:Tell me what I can learn.
Ellyn:One thing you can learn is more about why this area is scary for him. You can explore his fears and understand them a lot more. You can understand how it affects him when you don’t keep commitments.
When you understand this deeply, you will allow it to impact you more than now.
You’ll learn to negotiate better when spending on expensive purchases. You won’t dance away from conflict on tough spending choices.
You’ll initiate some of the discussions about how you two will divide expenses so you’ll each know what you are providing financially.
I wonder what you’re feeling as I’m saying these things to you?
Sarah:I’m feeling a little defensive with you bringing up my debt.
Ellyn:No, we’re not talking about your debt. We’re talking about the process of how the two of you handle financial issues together going forward.
Sarah:Okay, if not my debt, then what?
Ellyn:Actually I have not mentioned your debt. This isn’t about your debt. This is about you being a whole partner in an area that is very vulnerable for him. It means you learn how to problem solve better with him so that each of you knows what you’re giving.
Because he earns more money and has more assets, this is a complex issue for couples in your situation. However, it means you don’t shy away from figuring this out. It means you both figure out what makes sense based on your income and his income. It means you become able to step up to the plate as a true team player with him in this area.
Ellyn:And while we are talking about tough issues, I’d like to raise one more. Are you aware that if you marry him, he will be asking for some sexual changes, too?
Sarah:Yeah and I’m getting a little frustrated there.
Ellyn:What do you mean?
Sarah:I feel like that’s top priority for him. Honestly, I feel like if our sexual lives were better we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. We would be married. I think it all boils down to that for him.
Ellyn:I don’t think so. I think sex is symbolically the same as money. He’s been the caretaker in his past marriages. This time he’s more cautious. He’s moving slowly so he can be sure he’s marrying somebody who can give to him in ways that really matter to him.
Being with someone kind, caretaking, non-aggressive and honest really matters to you. You don’t ever want another divorce or to be with a husband who is having an affair.
Being with someone financially responsible and affectionate matters to him. He never wants to face another bankruptcy or feel so physically alone.

This session is about the confrontation of symbiosis and the need to focus clearly on Sarah’s inability up until now to focus on her side of the partnership. She has casually and quietly dismissed his concerns. She appears to be the stable, decisive partner. However, her certainty is based in her fantasy of being taken care of without much effort rather than in the reality of who she is choosing and what that will mean for her own growth.

Click here to receive your final handout, Cycle of Confrontation. It’s a good summary to remind you about the cycle of confrontation we’ve been discussing this week.


Act Now

  1. What did you like or not like about how I confronted her issues and inactivity? I’d also love to read any comments you have about this 5-day “mini-workshop.”
  2. In my online training program, Developmental Model of Couples Therapy: Integrating Attachment, Differentiation and Neuroscience, participants use transcripts like this one as well as clinical videos to study couples in action and then learn best ways to intervene and help when couples are stuck in patterns that inhibit growth. For more information about the training program, which opens January 8, click here.

A Colleague’s Comment About Training with Ellyn Bader

“The most exciting part was seeing you work with the therapists. For one, you are so supportive while you help therapists learn how to become more effective. Another other aspect is how much I learn and keep learning every time I see you in action. I think I have a good understanding of things and then—you show me more! Seeing you work with clients in the video was another level of learning because it showed how collaborative you are with clients and the soft touch you use. Seeing you practice differentiation while working with Pete and other professionals and even putting yourself in the hot seat (asking each other unrehearsed questions live on the air with your students listening) is really impressive. You walk the walk.”
Meg Luce, LMFT, Grass Valley, CA

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 , Click Day 3: Confrontation Video: Challenging Hypocrisy, Click Day 4: Confrontation Options: Financial Irresponsibility 



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."

    Find more about me on:
  • googleplus

Tags: , , Forward to a Colleague
  1. Ellyn, thank you for clarifying that. I knew that there had to have been previous sessions in order to get to this point. But, need it to confirm it. So, I should assume that after a secure and knowledgeable understanding of the couples dynamics I may take the liberty to advocate for the partner when given the opportunity.
    I have been a better therapist due to your training. I do advocate for my clients whom I known for a long while, I just needed to have it confirmed. Thanks Again, Ellyn

  2. Edie-This was not a first session. I sat with them many times where he expressed his concerns and had watched her mostly ignore them. He used this as a developmental assist to feel stronger asking her to address the financial issues with him.

  3. Ellyn, I’ve been following the blog and mini course from the beginning. The different confrontational approaches were very helpful. I was a bit taken back by your confrontation with Sarah. I thought at first that it was an individual session as her partner was not addressed or asked about his point of view, or perception. I thought you were defending him or speaking for him. I was a bit confused with your confrontation. I am sure he sat back in his recliner as you spoke on his behind like he were not present. You took it a bit further as he might require more sex as she is spending his money. I just confused. I have learned so much from you and Pete. I just a bit confuse with this style! It sounded to me more as a “warning” and implying that she get her “S” together or lose him. Just being transparnet.

  4. Just a wonderful combination of listening, kindness, comprehension,support and confrontation to promote shifting and changing, an incredibly subtle and complex mix, really inspirational! Thank you.

  5. Ellyn,
    What a great series you have offered here! This transcript is so helpful to see how your confrontations can help Sarah look more honestly at herself. I’m sure as the husband is hearing this, it is validating and clarifying for him. Thank-you for sharing such rich material.

  6. Ellyn,
    This “mini-workshop” is definitely a great workshop! All the information you provided here is extremely useful and thought-provoking. You drew our attention to the essence of couples therapy which is confrontation. I loved learning more about the subtleties of detecting hypocrisy and the art of confrontation. Sincere thanks

  7. Hi. Loved everyone’s insightful comments!

    Thank you so much for this mini-course Ellyn. I am already using some of the principles with both my couples and individuals.

    I feel vulnerable in admitting this, but I found myself experiencing angry countertransference toward Sarah. In thinking about it, I recognize a bit of myself in my relationship with my husband – sometimes wanting to be taken care of without stepping up to my responsibilities.

    I admired the way you confronted her calmly and consistently and recognize that it is really important for me to be acutely aware of my triggers so that I too can respond calmly, clearly and compassionately.

    Always something to work on!

  8. Thank you for this mini-course! I don’t do couples counselling as it’s not my area of expertise but found it useful to put a framework around confrontation styles in relationships.

  9. What I hear in this is the therapists’ responsability to listen and focus really well even as the client tries to change the direction. The underlying issue is to seek an authentic relationship for both. I thought the confrontations were solid and intuitive and I think about all the partner is learning while listening. I also think it will require much work for the client to see herself clearly,,,,,,I wonder how it would be if she took on the partners role and experienced it from his chair? How would that avoidance feel to him? I thought this was really good work. thank you.

  10. Andre-I really love
    “It sounds like you believe that being married will make all these differences melt away, and you two will magically be able to satisfy each other in several ways that you haven’t quite managed yet. I think you can help yourselves by making a lot more progress towards that here and now, which would make a marriage much more likely to succeed. Plus it would reassure Jack that he’s making the right decision in choosing someone who knows how to work through such things.”
    I don’t think that is too strong at all.
    I hope some others will weigh in on your shame question

  11. Ellyn, as always, I enjoyed learning from your master work. Thank you so much for giving us this series! It’s a great adjunct to the training.

    In this case, I especially liked the way you did not follow Sarah down any of her rabbit holes of whether he notices her efforts on spending so far, her shame over her debt, her sudden despair(?) that she could never measure up, or her frustration over his priority on sex. You guided her out of naivety and symbiosis, yet stopped her quickly when she began to meander or collapse, and refocused her on the goal of getting to learn the differentiation needed for a solid relationship.

    I didn’t find your confrontations at all harsh. Following your inspiration, I hope I might have been able to say something like: “It sounds like you believe that being married will make all these differences melt away, and you two will magically be able to satisfy each other in several ways that you haven’t quite managed yet. I think you can help yourselves by making a lot more progress towards that here and now, which would make a marriage much more likely to succeed. Plus it would reassure Jack that he’s making the right decision in choosing someone who knows how to work through such things.” Yet I have the sense that some others here would say that I am too strong?

    You mention in the chart taking into account the gender of the client being focused on. I have been looking lately at Steve Stosny’s ideas about shame being the prime vulnerability for men (whereas it would be fear for women). I wonder if you have noticed that it is trickier to confront men, whose ego may be more brittle?

    For example, Sarah gave a nice opening to you by admitting she didn’t know what else she could do. Some people would instead say “There’s nothing else I can do!” If they were men, that might seem to some to be an unconscious defense against admitting their lack of competence. A response of “There’s so much more you can learn…” might then be seen by them as a challenging correction, and rejected as a further defense to avoid a new shame of having staked a failing proposition.

    In a way, they box themselves in by making definitive statements that may demonstrate confidence (and we have recently seen the adaptive value of the certainty bias in winning elections), but leave themselves no flexibility to adapt.

    I want to say to them, “I’m worried that, by your firmness, you might be painting yourself into a corner here, and blocking yourself from moving towards the quality of relationship that it seems you really want. Would you like to consider a slightly less black and white statement: that you don’t see what else you can do?”

    I would welcome expanding my range of interventions for helping men (and women) without triggering their avoidance of shame.

  12. I think this was framed as a good time to start to confront the wife. I can see the benefit, for sure. I don’t mind the directness. I can see the woman doesn’t want to look at some real issues, and that it spurs her growth/maturity to push her to be more adult and to look at this. Sometimes, I get confused though, because, by confronting the woman to look seriously (and not staying in rescue fantasy) at the needs her future husband has expressed..isn’t the therapist at risk of indirectly supporting husband’s own symbiotic expectations and fantasies? I think my gut instinct would be to do some reality testing about both of their fantasy/assumptions: We do our best to be aware and chose wisely (this requires they not dissociate into fantasy world)…and at the same time, there is no guarantee that all sexual and financial or even fidelity needs will always be perfectly met w/n a long term relationship. How do you balance pushing the woman to be more grow-up…w/out potentially setting up the idea that either one of them should expect to have every need met by another person? Maybe the groundwork for that has already been laid?

  13. Thank you all for engaging with me this week. About this couple, I had seen them for about8-10 sessions. I would not be so sure of the confrontation if I had not seen her ignore his concerns many times. And he had brought the issues up quite a few times. She was maintainaining the symbiosis

  14. I really enjoyed the transcript; Very masterful intervention, and Ellyn’s style is intuitive to me as well. Except maybe I would have been a little afraid to confront her head on so directly – unless there is already a good relationship built. I do confront my couples when I have seen them for at least a few month, and wonder if you can comment, Ellyn, how long of a relationship you had with this couple? My question would be, if it is a first-second-third session or so, would it be clinically sound to confront like that? Could it blow them out of therapy? Or should I not worry about it? Thank you very much for the series!

  15. I love your directness. No nonsense. You skillfully engaged Sarah in the exact spots she needed to be confronted in. Very productive. You helped her so see her avoidant behavior. This is especially important, as making a marital commitment is a serious thing and all of this would have come right to the surface after the “honeymoon.”

  16. When I first read this, i had a slightly different uneasiness with Ellen saying so much to Sarah, as Peter seems a bit ignored in this session and does not get a chance to communicate his side directly to Sarah. However if he is at symbiosis stage, I am guessing that he has already had a lot of time to air his concerns and that Ellen is therefore helplng him via indirect confrontations which sumarise and clarify his position for him (which he has not been able to do for himself thus far).

    • ah yes, just read the handut and stage 4 is decide whether therapist or partner will confront. Ellen has deided that she would better confront than Peter.

  17. I like the fact that you don’t shy away from confronting her. At times, though, you are telling her rather than asking her – which is not my style. I would ask more questions of her, such as, “What do you think needs to happen for him to feel confident that: his needs will be met/he can trust you re money issues/sex and affection will be enough for him/etc.etc.

    • Hi Annie, I don’t know for sure which comments you are referring to, but I wonder if you noticed that Sarah asked Ellen “tell me what I can learn” and later asked Ellen “and then what…”, so my guess is that Sarah was fairly willing to hear Ellen telling her.

Please Comment ↴