A Fresh Perspective on The Couples Conference

One attraction of The Couples Conference is that in addition to presenting and learning, I am able to connect with colleagues and meet face-to-face for the first time with some of the members of my online training group. One of those therapists wrote an informative summary of the conference that’s also an inspiring message. I am pleased to share it here on our blog. I hope you enjoy this message from Nancy St John, a couples therapist from Ireland who is one of the training assistants in my online program.

I first heard about the Couples Conference five years ago on a monthly training call with Ellyn, and since then I’ve listened with envy from Ireland as each year’s conference was being discussed. I made a decision last year I’d go to the next one. When I mentioned it in my peer group, the U.S. members said they’d be there too, so from this point on I was never sure what I was most excited about – meeting Ellyn, spending time with members of my peer group, or listening to the conference speakers.

The experience was more than I could have hoped for. Meeting my peer group (we’d only talked by phone or Skype previously) felt like a reunion of friends who’d know each other for a very long time. Over the next few days we went just about everywhere together. I also met and spent time with many other wonderful, warm and talented members of Ellyn and Pete’s training and mentoring groups. This is a sample of what I took from the conference:

Dr. Ellyn Bader, Pete Pearson and Judith Anderson conducted a panel discussion on “Why Differentiation Matters.” Ellyn explained that the concept of differentiation is often misunderstood because it is thought of as anti-attachment, when really it’s about defining oneself better, regulating reactivity and tolerating differences between partners. We watched Ellyn work with an angry, put-upon husband who declared he wasn’t sticking around if his wife insisted on going back to work.

Pete explained that the art of therapy is knowing what to say, and drew our attention to how Ellyn shifted the dialogue by not going down the negative path. Instead she chose to zero in on the world of the husband, who made it clear he didn’t see the point in therapy (unless Ellyn could make his wife less selfish). It was inspiring to see how Ellyn set up an Inititor-Inquirer dialogue between the couple and created a space for the husband to share with his wife how pressurised his life already was.

Sue Diamond Potts and Dr. Ellyn Bader presented a rich and detailed workshop on “Addiction and Self-Absorption.” Sue explained that addiction can be categorized as:

  • A primary brain disease;
  • A symptom of post traumatic stress/developmental trauma disorder, or;
  • A systems disorder that is symbiotic in nature.

Addiction keeps the relationship stuck so we have to hold a template for where we want the couple to go and help the addict see how much their addiction is interfering with the quality of their relationship. This is our leverage.

The focus of couples therapy with addicts should not be to minimize, collude with their problem, or suggest it’s a matter of will power instead of a medical condition that needs treatment. Sue urged us to keep the addiction on the table, educate both partners, and ask for collaboration and self-confrontation.

Ellyn explained that the Developmental Model is an extremely effective intervention with addicts at any stage of recovery because self-absorption is so much a part of the makeup of the addict. Addressing this as a core element of their recovery can strengthen their desire for overall change. She identified the challenge of working with self absorbed partners – survival and self absorption will always trump connection with another person. Ellyn demonstrated how to confront self absorption: What I’m about to say is probably going to make you defensive and that’s understandable, but there’s a reason I’m going to do it… Ellyn gives self-absorbed clients homework which involves giving to others, and helps the listening spouse work on not personalizing what is being said: Do you really believe if your spouse was with someone else they’d treat them any differently? Ellyn gave an example of a heavy confrontation for the self absorbed partner: What kind of divorce do you want to get because you are going to live with the consequences for many years to come.

Watching Dr. Ellyn Bader and Pete Pearson work with a couple who longed for intimacy without doing the hard work of differentiation was the highlight of the conference for me. The wife started by complaining about her husband, saying he doesn’t even greet her when she comes home in the evening. Ellyn and Pete demonstrated how to quickly and effectively enter their system so as not allow the wife to act as a victim:

  • When you’re resentful about that how does it leak out?
  • Instead of doing x, is there a part of you that wants him to ask about…?
  • Can you say, “I feel valued and closer to you when you ask about my day.”
  • When you’re hoping he’ll ask you about your day and he doesn’t, and you start acting out, do you hope he will understand?
  • See if you can tell him when he listens what it does to you.
  • It’s hard for you to let him know what you want. You were hurt and pissed and I bet you didn’t know what to do or say.
  • At that moment you wanted x and when he didn’t, you disappear and go away.
  • Tell her in that moment what she could have said so you’d know she wanted a hug.

When the wife began to back pedal Ellyn intervened quickly:

  • It seems like a few minutes ago you were owning what you want.
  • Those are the hardest moments for you to say, “Come here and give me a hug” and you give up.

Pete didn’t let her off the hook either:

  • When you used the word “probably” what do you think you were trying to protect yourself from?
  • You’re in a very delicate area now.
  • Maybe you’re protecting yourself from being raw. Does that feel right?
  • Try to say that without the word “probably.”

Instead of keeping it global Ellyn and Pete got each partner to own their parts and they described everything they saw:

  • You were taking the risk of being seen and what was behind it was feeling embarrassed or ashamed.
  • Would you be able to say: “I didn’t respond in a way I wanted to and I felt ashamed.”
  • The ability to say that is huge. Did you see your husband’s face when you said that?

When both partners were able to say what they wanted Ellyn invited them to practice; taking turns sitting on the couch watching tv, entering the room, greeting each other and giving feedback – No not like that. This is what I want. – over and over until each partner felt what it was like communicating clearly to the other.

Pete Pearson has mastered the art of therapy with highly distressed couples by being direct, imaginative and incisive, and he brings a high level of energy and enthusiasm to his work. When I met Pete I was struck by how warm, humble and gracious he is. He makes everything he does look interesting and I can see how this contributes to his success working with the couples many of us feel like giving up on.

At Pete’s workshop “A New Approach to Start Therapy with Dysfunctional Couples” he explained that couples come in wanting their partner to change when what they really need is self change. He demonstrated how to work with an angry couple: The part of you that decided to be here says what?

Pete explained why he wasn’t going to let them go down a negative route and honored their resistance – Am I asking too much of you right now? He challenged them a lot:

  • How well do you guys know each other?
  • What do you think you do that triggers feelings of being loved, valued and respected?
  • What is your urgency for change – do you want to go fast or slow?
  • How directive can I be?
  • If you go slow you forfeit the right to complain about the pace.
  • There will be times you’ll think I’m taking sides and you’ll be right.

Over the weekend Pete had us making finger circles, seeing how different colors of the same size craft paper can look bigger… or smaller… or bigger… He even performed magic, making lights appear and disappear across the stage. This was his way of delivering an important message – we will argue anything if we trust our senses.

I liked a lot of what Stan Tatkin had to say:

  • Our brains are built for war rather than love.
  • When hurt is not fixed in time it goes into long term memory.
  • There is no choice between my mother and my wife –  if there is my mother loses.
  • Partners project all the time. This is not a problem. The problem is when they don’t accept it.
  • We are purveyors of pain. We have to locate, amplify and leverage their pain.
  • If you’re following the narrative you’re going down the rabbit hole!

Tatkin’s interventions
Cross Questioning: What’s happening that’s made her so afraid? Why do you think he put his head down? Does he always get this edgy?
Cross Comments: He didn’t like that!
Cross Interpreting: Tell your partner if he is hot, warm or cold.
Corralling Questions: So you guys tell each other everything? You have access to each other 24/7? If they are defensive or insecure they take the question literally and respond: Everything? What do you mean everything???

William Doherty, Pat Love, Esther Perel, Alex Katehakis, Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt all gave inspiring presentations and I brought away a lot to experiment with in my own practice.

There are times I struggle with the solitary nature of the work I do so what I most appreciated about being at the conference was the sense of identity I felt, knowing that I am firmly rooted in a supportive community of Couples Institute therapists. I couldn’t ask for more inspirational leaders than Ellyn and Pete. They don’t just teach their theories, they live them in the way they playfully interact with each other, take on board other people’s opinions, in their generosity and in how they make everyone they interact with feel special. I am so very glad I went!

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Ümit Çetin
Ümit Çetin

Hi Nancy,
I love your summary! This is so informative and inspiring, and there is a lot to digest here. Reading this has reactivated my enthusiasm in the Developmental Model once again as I think that differentiation as defined by Bader & Pearson presents a most fertile area in conceptualizing and treating individual, couple, and family dynamics.
Thanks a lot!
Ümit Çetin

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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