Ellyn Bader
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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!

 

 

About 

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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  1. 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?

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