Ellyn Bader

killdeerHave you heard of the Killdeer? No, it’s not a mammal, but an amazing bird from the sandpiper family. The Killdeer do not build much of a nest. They lay their eggs in a nest on rocky ground areas. This makes them especially vulnerable to predators like foxes. So, the very smart killdeer developed special behavioral adaptations to protect the nest. What could this have to do with skillful confrontation in couples therapy?

When a fox approaches the nest, the mother killdeer acts injured. She gets up and drops her wings into positions that make the bird appear to be hurt and incapable of flying – as if she had a broken wing. Then the bird jumps around and leads the fox or other predator away from the nest by looking like an easy meal.

The bird holds the attention of the fox by moving away from the nest while constantly making noise and feigning injury. Having led the perceived predator far enough from the nest, the bird suddenly gets better, assumes an upright posture and flies away. The fox is left feeling confused and far away from the vulnerable eggs in the nest.

So, you might wonder, what does this story have to do with confrontation in couples therapy? Actually there is a direct parallel. Think of yourself as the fox and a particular client as the killdeer leading you away from their vulnerable core.

Creating accountability for effective self-change is often a challenge. Perhaps a partner does not want to acknowledge how their alcohol use, their laziness, their demanding behavior or rigid thinking affects the other. Or perhaps, you help one partner focus on an individual self-improvement goal and it disappears by the following meeting. Or, after one partner identifies a self-directed goal, they bring up a new complaint about their spouse. Just like the killdeer leading the fox away from the nest, they distract you.

We are just like the fox approaching a killdeer nest, or in this case, a particular partner’s areas of vulnerability. Each partner brings up new problems to take the focus off himself or herself, and leads us away from the “nest”.

Sometimes we run after them, chasing new problems and getting farther and farther away from the most essential areas for their development.

This is not a pathological pattern for couples. In fact, the refocus on new irritants coming from the partner, is actually a self-protective mechanism designed to avoid feeling inadequate, ashamed, afraid or guilty.

A beginning antidote to this problem is to use a very soft confrontation. It is simply saying, “Let’s back up”. You are taking charge, not getting distracted, but instead directing your client to re-focus on their area of vulnerability.

This means you recognize when you are being distracted, and you are willing to say, “let’s back up” several times if necessary. It might sound like this:

Joe: But Maria is so passive aggressive. She shuts down and won’t talk.

Ellyn: (to Joe) Let’s back up. Just before you told me more about Maria, we were talking about how your quick bursts of loud yelling were affecting Maria.

Joe: But her quiet is loud, too.

Ellyn: I understand that her silence is very painful to you. However, today I am asking you to back up and look at how your yelling affects your wife.

Joe: I don’t like to go there.

Ellyn: Why not?

Joe: Because if I am honest with myself, I remember how I felt when my father yelled at me. I don’t like knowing that she feels like I felt.

Of course all confrontations don’t go this smoothly, and I use the example mainly to point out how to keep backing up.

Avoiding the discomfort Joe is feeling when he looks at himself honestly is exactly why partners lead us astray from focusing on their own contribution to relationship distress.

We can be smarter than the fox. Skillful confrontation is an art that can bring partners face to face with their desire to lead us astray. It is a hallmark of a master therapist.

And if you’d like to, see the killdeer in action and enjoy their skill!




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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8 years ago

I see this behavior when I have a family in the room too. It’s amazing how they defend their dysfunction. Joanne

8 years ago

Sometimes the diversions are very, very subtle. Ellyn

8 years ago

I see this in my individual therapy as well, the client keeps wanting to focus on how bad or wrong their spouse is. It is really easily to lose track and get distracted. Thanks for this tidbit of great import!
I’m curious what would be a very, very subtle diversion?

8 years ago

Thanks so much. I would love to share with clients.
Will be sure to mention you are the one who shared this.

A Glossary of Terms that are sometimes Confusing

Couples Therapy is a counseling procedure that seeks to improve the adjustment of two people who have created an interdependent relationship. There are no standard procedures to help two people improve their adjustments to each other. Generally, a more experienced therapist will offer more perspectives and tools to a couple. Length of treatment will depend on severity of problems, motivation and skills of the therapist. A couple can be dating, living together, married or separating and may be gay, lesbian or heterosexual.

Marriage Therapy is a term often used interchangeably with marriage counseling. The term marriage implies two people have created a union sanctioned by a government or religious institution. The methods used in marriage counseling, marriage therapy and couples therapy are interchangeable and depend more on the specific challenges of each unique couple.

Psychotherapy is one or more processes to help improve psychological and emotional functioning. Examples are psychoanalysis, cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, Gestalt therapy, Transactional Analysis, Rational-Emotive therapy, or group therapy. Many forms of psychotherapy are blends of different approaches. For example, newer forms of psychotherapy called energy psychology draw upon recent advances in brain and neuroscience. These approaches often build on cognitive behavioral methods.

Clinical Psychologist. After graduating from college, it usually takes about five years of graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Psycholgy. It then requires an additional two years of supervision and passing a written (and often) an oral exam. There are a few states that allow psychologists to prescribe medications (with additional training) but that is uncommon.

Psychiatrist. After graduation from medical school, there is a generally a 4-year psychiatric residency. After the completion of this training, psychiatrists must pass an exam issued by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to obtain certification and legally practice in the field. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications.

Clinical Social Worker. This profession usually requires two years of study after obtaining an undergraduate degree. While specific licensure requirements vary by state, most require clinical social workers to obtain 3,000 hours or 2 years of supervised clinical experience, after obtaining a Masters degree. Social workers can also specialize in diverse fields such as human services management, social welfare analysis, community organizing, social and community development, and social and political research.

Marriage and Family Therapist. Obtaining this license requires a Masters degree which takes approximately two years of post graduate study. The license also requires 3000 hours of supervised work and passing written exams.

The Couples Institute. We have assembled a group of top notch therapists at The Couples Institute. Whatever marriage help or marriage advice you are looking for, we are here to serve you. While most other therapists see only a few couples a week, we specialize in marriage and couples relationships, working to develop and bring you the most current and effective approaches to couples therapy. For more information about couples therapy or marriage counseling, see our couples therapy section.