Ellyn Bader

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.



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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