Are You Working Harder Than Your Clients?

Over the years, I’ve talked with many therapists who told me they feel exhausted after seeing certain couples. They describe the sensation of dragging partners along a path that might lead to change, only to find that, in the very next session, they’re starting all over again.

Why and how does this happen? And how can you avoid falling into the trap of overworking with passive or disengaged clients? How do you reset when clients magically hope you’ll do all the work for them? 

The assumptions we make – and some habits to break 

In a recent training session, a therapist raised the question about how to get unstuck when a husband and wife seemed to be leading her in circles.

Neither partner seemed to take responsibility for real progress. “I felt I was dragging them forward, yet getting nowhere,” she told us.

As we unpacked the details of her case, I shared some observations I’ve seen frequently.
As therapists, we can fall into the trap of taking on an unreasonable share of responsibility for meaningful change. This may happen when we are:

  • Assuming it will be easy to motivate an unmotivated partner.Just because a couple has chosen to begin therapy doesn’t mean they’re both fully prepared for the challenges ahead. One partner may be very engaged while the other isn’t – or both may feel reluctant to open up and take risks.
  • Trying to move faster than our clients can go. No matter how brilliantly you present new insights, couples won’t absorb them if they’re not ready. The pace you take in each session must align with both partners’ abilities and levels of self-awareness.
  • Overestimating the level of differentiation. Engaging in therapy requires people to think, act and express themselves. Partners who come into the room with relatively low levels of differentiation will struggle to make progress – and may imagine that all the answers will come from you. 

Bringing new experiences into the room 

This last suggestion is the need to make sure we understand where to meet our clients on the developmental continuum. If we’re failing to see where they actually are, they may feel afraid to share vulnerable feelings. This may lead to two counterproductive patterns:

  • They try to keep things on a cognitive level, which draws you into cognitive explanations that don’t get to the heart of the matter.
  • You find yourself offering many skilled insights, but it doesn’t help because they’re not able to make use of  these ideas yet.

Here are some suggestions you can use to avoid these traps – and the feeling that you’re working way too hard.

Affirm the value of listening and holding space. This enables you to praise the partner who’s sharing and the partner who’s taking it all in, keeping both engaged as you proceed one step at a time. Support self-soothing and not taking things personally.

Then focus first on helping partners build their capacity to differentiate. You might choose an issue that doesn’t make either one feel too vulnerable, but raises some amount of tension between them. Encourage one partner to express what matters to them, without blaming. Support them when they risk initiating their feelings and articulating them clearly. 

As feelings become clearer, ask partners to state them directly to each other. This signals that you’re there to guide them, but not speak for them. You can offer questions, but step back to allow them to form (and hear) the answers. Change happens when clients interact in new ways in the room with you.

Emphasize and underline moments of change. Ask both partners if they can feel the difference between the successful interaction they’ve just had and other times when it was harder to communicate. Tell them you see real progress – and that this is how couples create change together.

Do these struggles and suggestions resonate with you? How have you helped couples engage with the hard work that successful therapy demands? Share your views with us here. 

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Michel Lemieux
Michel Lemieux

When I feel tired or deceived most of the time I realise I was working harder than the clientsl when my work is to get them to work together….

Ana Franco
Ana Franco

Always inspiring. Thankyou.

Elaine Wells
Elaine Wells

I have actually used a fancy “magic wand” sometimes when clients seem unable to think of a goal or a way to move toward it. I light-heartedly say something like, “If you could wave this magic wand, and it would help you to X…Y…Z, how would you like to (think, feel, or act) differently?” Clients seem to enjoy the humor, and the “magic” allows them to escape from rigid patterns that have kept them stuck.

Dr. Jose A Gonzalez LMHC
Dr. Jose A Gonzalez LMHC

Therapists sometimes are exhausted after seeing certain couples or clients as you said. I think that your way of deal with this is excellent. However human mind has a rational and a irrational side, material and spiritual side, and unconscious and conscious side. The first thing to do is assess the client and decide if he or she is ready to go beyond the defensive routine of everyday life or not and work accordingly. If the therapist is spiritual and everyone is, in some way, then always they have the additional Holy Spirit help.

Sam Leong
Sam Leong

Yes, I have learned that when couples get stuck, it is critical to track where they are on the developmental continuum. With couples who become so reactive over a difference in how they processed a recent emotional rupture, it has helped to give them each a notepad and have them take 5-10 minutes to reflect on what they each need from the other. Then asking them to read from this list and check for listening by asking their partner to summarize what they just heard. This slows down their physiological arousal and increases the capacity to hear each other as well as to express their deeper unmet needs.

Wilfred Weeks Jr
Wilfred Weeks Jr

Hi Ellyn:

Thanks for the reminder to stay with what works, especially differentiation!

Debi Jones
Debi Jones

Having read this insightful article, I realise in retrospect, when this experience first happened to me, I had figured it would be far easier than I could ever have anticipated, to motivate an unmotivated spouse to see the potential for growth that was so clear to me. Afterwards, I felt quite burnt by the experience but learnt a valuable lesson en route.

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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