Losing Direction: Where Are You Going and What Is Your Roadmap?

We’ve been discussing losing control and losing momentum. Today’s post is about losing direction. It might feel like the same kind of discomfort, but the reason is different. Perhaps you are in the middle of a session and unexpectedly you feel surprised, overwhelmed, or incompetent.

Losing direction happens when your intuition is no longer sufficient. Intuition doesn’t provide the roadmap to lead the couple out of the symbiosis they’ve created.

Flying by the seat of your pants serves you well many times. But if you are really honest with yourself, you know that some couples’ issues are so confusing, some partners are so dominating or some communication patterns are so intertwined, that it is easy to be perplexed about where to go.

You might start a session with an idea about what you want to accomplish and before long find yourself killing time by trying random interventions. You might keep describing the couple’s negative cycle, but feel unable to change it.

This is where the Developmental Model will serve you well. Couples unconsciously create intricate patterns of interaction  that inhibit the growth of each partner and the flourishing of the relationship. Without a deeper awareness of how anxiety inhibits growth, you won’t be able to take couples the whole distance.

The Developmental Model provides that roadmap. It tells you what to do, when to do it and why. It helps you untangle these very stuck patterns. And it gives your clients a way to decide how far they want to go  on their own journey.

When I did a survey earlier this summer, some of your colleagues said, “With clearer direction…”

  1. “I’d be able to create more collaboration between the couple and me.”
  2. “I wouldn't feel so frustrated or be hijacked so often.”
  3. “I wouldn’t feel like I was in the wrong profession.”

The Developmental Model is a comprehensive approach to couples therapy that not only explains the developmental stages, but also describes the problems that typically arise at each stage and the capacities needed to move forward. Among other things, it offers normalizing language to help couples understand their problems and chart their course with you.

With this understanding and collaboration you can gain their permission to:

  • Actively stop them when they repeat old patterns;
  • Confront them when they wander;
  • Encourage them to risk untangling their very debilitating symbiotic communication patterns;
  • Establish individual goals.

Having their permission is essential. It gives you leverage to make strong confrontations and makes it so much easier to say, “Let’s regroup and get back on track.”

  1. Have you ever described the Developmental Stages to your clients? How was it helpful? Please share your experience below.
  2. Find out more about using the Developmental Model as your roadmap by clicking here.

This blog post is from a 9-part series called “Avoid Losing Control, Momentum or Direction in Couples Therapy.” Click here to see the other articles in the series.

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Patrice wolters
Patrice wolters

Hi Ellyn, As usual another clear and consise article. Love them! What I often stop and explain is how there are stages to a couple relationship/ for example I may explain the stages and this seems to reassure the couple and give them hope. I normalize their behavior and often tell people “you are in the challenging Stage ii) stage. This is when couple begin to disagree and have go nowhere fights as they lack some of the sophisticated skills of communication and emotional muscle. You can learn to navigate stage II and bring your marriage to a new level. then I point out their strengths. Sometimes I have each partner share a strength they see in the other.


Patrice – when you say “Sometimes I have each partner share a strength they see in the other.” i love it as it is often a neglected aspect of working with distressed couples.
Sometimes asking their partner, “How can I bring out the best in you?” yields surprising responses -both positive and negative but the insights are valuable.

Deb Hecker
Deb Hecker

Keeping in mind what our frames of references are, in Ellyn’s example, the Developmental Model, can keep us on track. When working with couples’ (and individuals as well), and things get confusing I feel comforted when I remind myself that there are different ways I have learned to conceptualize the confusion – the Developmental Model, transference, defense mechanisms etc. Using these models helps me to eventually figure out what is happening.

Ümit Çetin
Ümit Çetin

The Developmental Model is my primary roadmap. Clients appreciate it when I describe to them where and why they are stuck and what their growing edges are using the lens of the Developmental Model. Its premise that couples universally go through a series of stages and that every stage has its own gifts and difficulties normalizes their struggles, and gives them hope. Since any given problem is conceptualized differently depending on the couple’s developmental stage, this model keeps me on track as I focus on their process, as opposed to getting caught up in the content, by keeping in mind what will be growth-promoting in terms of their failed developmental tasks.

Sue Diamond Potts
Sue Diamond Potts

I almost always explain to couples that relationships go through stages that mirror the stages of child development. I think it helps them to feel that what is happening is ‘normal’ and that, most importantly, there is hope that they can grow past the stage they are stuck at. Often, helping them understand that each partner may be at a different stage, or place within a stage, will begin the process of recognizing they are two separate individuals (differentiation) and do not have to pull to be exactly the same. I usually give them the Stepping Stones brochure to follow along and take home with them for ongoing reference. Having a roadmap and direction for growth is very comforting.

Dian Allen, Ph.D., LMFT, LPCC
Dian Allen, Ph.D., LMFT, LPCC

I appreciate this series, Ellyn. Thank you for your astute and generous guidance!

Lorelle Madden
Lorelle Madden

Having a roadmap works really well. I like the idea of asking each what the other can do to bring out the best in them. Building on strengths even in the middle of conflict can help the couple see that all is not doom and gloom. The Developmental Model is easy to understand as it evolves through stages.

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader 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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