A Powerful Exercise to Promote the Work of Differentiation in Couples

Differentiation in Couples

The differentiation stage is, by far, the most difficult for many couples. Helping each partner set self-focused autonomous goals is crucial to their growth as individuals and to push the development of the couple.

In my last blog post, I gave you a glimpse into how I work with couples to tease apart individual goals when their issues are highly entangled and enmeshed. If you missed it, you can find it here.

But sometimes, you as the therapist will assess that a couple’s level of differentiation is so low that you’re going to have to start with them at a very basic, fundamental level.

When a couple operates with each other almost totally out of reactivity, it takes a fair amount of psychoeducation to help them recognize emotions and pay attention to what’s going on in their body. You’ll need to support them beginning to articulate what they’re thinking and feeling.

You’ll also want to help the partners understand that without setting autonomous goals their progress will always be hampered by the least motivated partner.

One exercise I’ve found helpful in working with couples like this is to ask them to brainstorm a list of all the things they’ve seen people do that they know that aren’t helpful or functional in a relationship. I do this on a whiteboard in my office, but you can also do it with a tablet or flip chart.

Some of the things that come up might include: seeing people yell, blame, be nasty, or withdraw. You’ll want to solicit a list that’s as complete as they can give you while also adding some things into it yourself.

Then shift and say, “Now let’s create a list of positive things that you’ve seen. Maybe it’s been in a movie, or on television, or maybe you have a relative who you think is a really great communicator. But what are some of the things that stand out and make you think, ‘Wow, this really helps!’ Or, ‘This is a good way to solve problems in relationships and communication.’ ”

And again, I’ll try to get as many as I can. Some examples are ask questions, be compassionate, don’t take things personally.

For most people the negative list will likely be a lot longer than the positive, but you can feed things into that list as well. In particular, you may want to add to the list some things you think would be good for the two people who are sitting in front of you to work on.

Then after you have the whole list you can say to each partner, “When you look at that list, what's your favorite on the negative list. Like, we all have things that we do, so what's your favorite?”

If the couple seems particularly reticent about owning up to a negative, you might then identify your own favorite. I'll say to people sometimes, “You know, when I'm under stress, I can get really bossy. And so, being bossy would be one for me. What would be true for each of you?”

See if they'll own a negative.

Then give them each a piece of paper and say, “I'm going to be quiet for a couple of minutes and what I want each of you to do is, when you think about yourself – how you aspire to be, or who you want to be as a partner – write down something you'd like to stop doing. And what's something on the positive list that you'd really like to add? It may be something you don't do much of, or you only do a little bit of. What is it you might want to add?”

You’re helping each of them commit to a stop doing and a start doing.

Now your clients may have a hard time making their goals clear and specific. So when they read back to you what they've written, you're still going to have to get clarity about what they’ll each be working toward. You’ll need to be able to see it, and they will need to be able to recognize it when they do it.

An underlying principle to keep in mind is that, if you go into a session to set up individual goals, you will have very little interaction between the two people in that session. It will be you talking to one, and then you to the other. You will be working on circumscribing what makes a difference to each person. Don't feel bad that you're not having them talk to teach other, or that they’re not interacting with one another at this point.

You’re working to help each partner develop clarity and take responsibility for their own personal growth that will, ultimately, contribute toward them flourishing together.
Now I’d like to hear from you.

  1. How much do you focus on specific goals with your couples?
  2. What strategies do you use to break down complex principles into small manageable behaviors for your clients? Please tell me what you’ve found to be useful.

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Cynthia Grieshaber
Cynthia Grieshaber


I really like this exercise. I am reflecting back on couple I just saw that was unable to set those goals. The specificity of this exercise and that way that you interacted with the couple seems like it might have worked better. I will keep this in mind for a next time. Thanks you!


I am currently working with a couple who have decided to separate after being together for 7 years. I will definitely try this exercise with them before they make their final move


Great exercise, thank you Ellyn. Ever since participating in your Developmental Model training I focus even more on specific goals with couples! I begin to ask about, and assess, their ability to identify personal goals from the very first session. It gives me some understanding of their ability to recognize personal responsibility and if they see themselves as an individual within the relationship. If each person can recognize something they are doing, or not doing, that negatively impacts the relationship, this is a good start to working on those small, manageable behaviors. I often start each session by checking in on how each person is then doing with their specific goals.

Steve Kassel
Steve Kassel

I do this with couples while looking at Respiration Rate, Hand Temperature, Sweat Gland Activity, Heart Rate, and Heart Rate Variability. If they can reflect on questions like these with me and not show Sympathetic Arousal, I then have them talk with each other to reduce psychophysiological reactivity. Interpersonal Biofeedback

Sarah Lincoln Pattee
Sarah Lincoln Pattee

At the clinic where I see couples many are highly reactive and emotionally charged; living with the stress of poverty, new recovery and trauma doesn’t help. My interns are often surprised by how little couples know about effective communication, while grad school is teaching them therapy as if they are conducting the New York Philharmonic. I love the simplicity of this exercise and the way it pushes people to ask some basic and vital questions — how do you want to be in this relationship? what would you like to change about yourself? I’m going to pass this on to all my supervisees. Thank you!


Thank you for sharing this. I think it will also be useful in working with individuals who want to change communication styles. Am passing this on to my colleagues.


thank Ellyn. I think that this exercise will be very helpful for me with a couple I have just started working with. In our 2nd session, I realised that they are almost totally undifferentiated! I was going to do individual goal setting with them, but I think now that this would be a good approach to start with.
Thank you

Shelly Hess
Shelly Hess

This is a great exercise to promote ownership Ellyn. Thanks so much for sharing it !

Barbara Griswold
Barbara Griswold

This exercise is so simple. Yet so elegant. Simply elegant!


Thanks Ellyn,
I will comence using this exercise

Bronwyn Simpson
Bronwyn Simpson

HI Ellyn
Thank you for this article. Yes I think identifying individual goals and later couple goals is very important. Before I did your developmental course, I had less idea of the import of this to a lasting passionate relationship, but now I preach differentiation where appropriate in most sessions.
I developed some couple relationship cards many years ago with relationship values on them such as compassion, safety, trust, cooperation etc etc ( about 52 values). These cards are magnetised to sit on my whiteboard.
If couples have fairly good emotional literacy and understanding of positive values then these cards are not necessary.
I like the approach you use above with the couple identifying behaviours that are unhelpful and then perhaps owning one of these that they use, similarly also for a positive behaviour.
I also like to be solution focussed and use that sort of questioning: eg: if you could have the type of relationship which you feel would work for you both into the future, what would it look like? What would you be doing more of or less of? What would your partner be doing more of or less of? etc.
It has been interesting that since completing level one of your developmental course in Feb 2018 I have had some time to practice and integrate the concepts with my previous knowledge and skill base. I was not ready to launch into an advanced course straight after the course, despite some of the obvious benefits ( continued theoretical and practical imput etc). I do feel that the Australian Counselling/Therapy Culture is very different to the United States in that only a very small percentage of people requesting counselling in Australia are customers to long term therapy ( and long term is possibly considered as more than say 12-20 sessions). In fact many people want to achieve results much sooner in say 4-6 sessions. Whilst there are clients who will come regularly ( if they have deep psychological issues or if they are not paying for the sessions), I find that in private practice, this is not the rule. So sometimes when I listened to the presenters on the developmental course talk about couple session number 27 or 35 ( for example), it felt a bit alien to me. But it was all very valuable, as the work was presented in great detail and with critical professional and theoretical reflection. And there were immediate tools which I was able to use. I did recommend the course to other colleagues who do couples counselling here in Victoria, Australia. Cheers Ellyn and Pete, from Bronwyn Simpson Lakes Entrance Australia ( now semi- retired).


Very helpful. Loved the list ideas. So enjoying your conversations with Ellen. You ask great questions and as always she is so clear.
I can see how it is so helpful, especially with angry couples, getting them thinking about themselves and their behaviours and goals before they come.
Thank you


When I tried this exercise for the first time, one of the partners said, “I want to stop feeling bad”. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with that. Any ideas?

Dr. Ellyn Bader
Dr. Ellyn Bader

Wally-That comment is just the beginning. Ask the client what types of things lead to good feelings for him/her. What is he/she currently doing that contributes to feeling bad. I would especially pay attention to patterns of passivity.

Dr. Ellyn Bader
Dr. Ellyn Bader

Thanks Dario-That is a lovely answer of skillfully integrating this into your work.

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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