Ellyn Bader

Rachel, a student in my Developmental Model training program, posted a common frustration the other day:

I sometimes get exasperated with hostile-angry couples and think, “Why don’t you just grow up?” There is a feeling of being overwhelmed and wanting to give up. Do you have any perspectives on how to keep my head above water?

Rachel nailed it with that exasperated feeling.

One of the most frustrating aspects of working with hostile angry couples is that even your best interventions never seem to hold. You think you’ve made a breakthrough and when they come back next week it’s gone.

Do you blame yourself? Do you blame the partners?

Let’s look at why it’s so hard to get traction with these couples.

One main reason is that partners hold onto belief systems that stifle relationship growth. Some common examples are:

  1. If you really loved me, you would read my mind, know what I want, and give it to me in a timely way. I shouldn’t have to ask.
  2. If you really loved me, you’d make me the center of your universe and give up old significant relationships for me.  Friends and family should always come after me.
  3. If you really loved me, you would want closeness and intimacy when I want closeness and intimacy. You would want it when and how I want it.
  4. If you really loved me, you would change your personality to please me.
  5. I’ve given and given all I can. Now it’s my partner’s turn. I can sit back, do nothing, and wait.

When partners hold steadfastly to these beliefs, they treat their requests for developmental change like they should be easy and effortless behavioral changes.

By the time they come to see you these patterns are predictable and enduring. To interrupt these patterns takes something counter-intuitive.

You must not focus on their problems too soon.

There is such a strong tendency to jump in and focus directly on their problems too fast. But you’ll keep getting pulled into recurring challenges unless you lay a strong foundation first.

Once you know the order in which to do things, you’ll stop feeling like a ping pong ball in the middle of a fierce competition, with partners lunging and swinging at you from both sides. Instead you will know how to chart a clear path forward.

In the articles ahead, I’ll describe more about laying a strong foundation.



In my Developmental Model training program, I teach therapists not to jump into problem-solving too quickly. Instead I teach them how to focus on why the couple is there, increasing their motivation, defining the kind of relationship they want to create and getting self-directed goals. When my program opens up twice a year, it fills up quickly. Word has gotten around that the Developmental Model fills in gaps missing from other training. If you want to be guaranteed a spot, sign up for the waiting list here.


This article is part of a 10 part series.  Read the others at the link below:

#1  7 Traits of the Hostile Angry Couple.

#3  How Assessing Motivation Helps You

#4  The Couples Motivation Equation

#5  Why Trust Is So Fragile

#6  How Do You Build Trust?

#7  What Can Bruce Lee Teach You About Angry Couples?

#8  4 Diagnostic Questions

#9  Going Deeper: Moving from Hostile Symbiosis into Differentiation

#10 What do diets and fighting couples have in common?




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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