A Strong Start in Couples Therapy: Challenges Faced by Therapists in Early Sessions

A Strong Start in Couples Therapy: Challenges Faced by Therapists in Early Sessions

Couples often come to therapy with high hopes, vulnerability, and a spoken desire for transformation.

They also come with years of pain, hostility, and unresolved issues. Their awareness of what creates change is usually minimal.

3 Paradoxes of Early Sessions
  1.  Clients want change, yet they resist it.
  2. They have big demands from each other and sometimes expect little from themselves.
  3.  They are actively aggressive and simultaneously passive.
A Main Task for You their Therapist: Step Up Strongly and Navigate Complexity

You are immediately challenged when you see the couple’s escalating interactions. The partners pull on you to take sides. You are not a mediator or a relationship supervisor. You must not encourage regression or allow your session to deteriorate. Seeing what partners do to stay stuck and also what they do not do to be effective will provide you with a clear window into how they are perpetuating their pain.

As you spot these openings, describe them descriptively, so you can unleash positive developmental energy. Are you able to help them see where change comes from?

Every Journey Needs a Compass: Guiding the Way

From the first moment, assert control. It is you who will guide the session. Asking vague and open-ended questions like “Why are you here?” gives too much leeway immediately to the pain of each partner coming to see you.

The therapeutic journey is guided by your map, skills, and beliefs about what is possible and the couple’s unique aspirations for their relationship. Understanding their developmental stages will guide you, while their aspirations for a better future will be a motivating force for them.

In our next blog, Pete will talk about building inspiration. Today, I want to describe how you can reveal the couple’s narrative and shine a light demonstrating change is possible.

First Questions: Unveiling the Narrative

In the first session, rather than delving deeply into the problems and reasons for seeking therapy, unravel their narrative:

  • How did they meet?
  • How did they decide to become a couple?
  • How long did their early excitement last?
  • What were their hopes and dreams?

Be sure to maintain a focus on each partner’s individual experience and perspective.

The First Disillusionment: Was It Resolved or Not?

After these questions are fully answered by each partner, then ask about their first disillusionment.

What happened and how did they resolve it?

If it was never resolved, what decisions resulted from that?

The combination of these questions enables you to normalize couples’ challenges and the stages of relationship.

In a recent demonstration interview, I unearthed a disillusionment from the husband. “I thought she would be a high earning lawyer and she chose poverty law.” His decision, “I’m alone bringing in the money to support my family.” He never discussed this with her, but his anger and grief were expressed passive-aggressively for 20 years.

Highlighting Patterns: Addressing Conflict Avoidance

Uncovering unresolved disillusionments provides an easy way to highlight long-term patterns of conflict avoidance. You can show the couple that their avoidance of sharing tender feelings, and facing underlying pain has prevented them from building deeper understanding and connection.

By normalizing how stuck this couple had become through fears of expressing their hopes and dreams, I began to open the path for vulnerability and growth.

Here is an example: “Okay. You were really disappointed when she didn't take the corporate path. And you kind of sold yourself out. And really, very few people come to their marriages with the skills to resolve those disillusionments.You didn't know how to tell her that you really were disappointed, and that disappointment has been sitting with you for a really long time. And she feels it in small, subtle ways. So one of the reasons you're here is to learn how to stop selling yourself out.”

Sitting in the Tension: Embracing Discomfort

You can be the first to voice what they have been afraid to say. For example, “Can you tell your wife that it was scary for you to feel so much financial pressure?”

You can acknowledge the discomfort with conflict and the client’s fear of revealing themselves.

Setting up Dialogue: Fostering Communication

When you encourage direct dialogue on feared topics, you are communicating that vulnerability is not necessarily dangerous.

Sitting in the Tension: Embracing Discomfort

When you acknowledge that discomfort exists within conflict, you are indirectly saying, “I believe in you. I have confidence that you can face what has been hidden and come out on the other side.”

Understanding Their Progression: Mapping the Journey

When you identify where growth has stopped, you can utilize the insights you have gathered to show the couple how progress is possible. You can let them know that developing new capacities will lead them to meaningful change.

Individual Motivation: Cultivating Commitment

When partners see that you are clear about their forward direction, they begin to take actionable steps. You can outline initial steps by delineating what each partner could stop doing and start doing. For example you can ask them to start giving each other one or two positive acknowledgements each day or taking time outs until they have some new skills.

Or, you can ask one partner to stop giving the silent treatment when they don’t know how to express hurt feelings. Instead they might say, “I am sensitive right now. Our interaction was painful, and I would like to discuss it in our next therapy session. I won’t be giving you the silent treatment.”

Looking Forward: Initiating Change

You can probe their individual motivations for creating a better relationship and let them know you have taken many couples on that journey.

Couples therapy when done well leads partners on a journey marked by vulnerability, personal growth, exploration, and the unwavering commitment to rediscover and rekindle the flames of connection. You can be the steady hand that helps them navigate the depths of their relationship and guides them on a transformative journey of healing and connection that they wanted when first coming to see you.

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Thanks Ellyn for this interesting blog. It has further cemented some of the things I watched you do in that video. I like the seating in the tension bit and what I’m learning that I haven’t been doing right is being clear about my clients forward direction. “When partners see that you are clear about their forward direction they begin to take the actionable steps”. That one hit me like a ton of bricks.

Inger Grahn
Inger Grahn

It is always interesting and motivational to read your blogposts, thankyou, Inger, Onsala, Sweden🤓

Deb Hecker
Deb Hecker

Ellyn, you have a talent for making a complex task sound quite manageable. By definition, working with couples can feel overwhelming, but you demystify in such a way that it feels very doable. What would we do without you??

Madge Flynn
Madge Flynn

“Vulnerability is not necessarily dangerous” is a lovely articulation of a vital point!

Gillian Gillette
Gillian Gillette

I had a real “ A-ha” moment of my own watching the demo of looking at the first disillusionment and what skills were missing for the couple to handle the distress and move forward with integrity.

Ada Rosabal de Silva
Ada Rosabal de Silva

Thank you very much.


Thank you for such a clear succinct description of the approach.

Peter Craig
Peter Craig

Brilliantly said! Taking leadership towards guiding couples into a more secure relating process… and embracing them uncovering their (original) disillusionments…very helpful.


Dear Ellyn, I’m a middle school teacher and your newsletter subscriber (since the pandemics I believe). I wish I was a therapist and could join your developmental model courses! I love each of your blog posts and get tons of inspiration for my marriage. Reading about how you teach couples obtain new skills feels like I’m getting them too (chunks of useful language when I feel hurt etc)! I can’t thank you enough, so I’m sending lots of love your way! Martina, Czech Republic

ellyn bader
ellyn bader

Thank you all for your comments. They keep me inspired to keep writing-which is not my real strength.


Excellent tools to consider, in case of stopping the silences and giving vent to the underlying unexplained discomfort. Very ethical, respectful and useful steps to consider in the process to examine arrests and future progress.

D. St Jean Marion
D. St Jean Marion

Dear Doctor Ellyn, (this is more personnel)
This looks like a Master Piece to me! Not only is it very organized but the
material is easy to read and the progression is gradual. Ellyn, you are
too cute! aka Sweet! Congratulations! I am impressed when I read your work!
I continue to purge emails I receive. I plan to keep the best! Most of it is in the
medical field! I spend much time working at my desk. It is very surprising what
we find when we deal with papers! I am sure you know how tedious that work
can be. I am gradually gaining new friends in the Psychology field and I appreciate
the support. I consider myself very lucky in that department. I am 80 years of age now,
I am beginning to question my intentions regarding my goals. The time is
for reflection. Who knows what the universe has to offer next?
I want to wish you well with your New Masterclass. May God bless!

Hyelee Yoon
Hyelee Yoon

This is super helpful thank you! Love how you uncovered that unspoken disillusionment from 20 years ago. So painful, all the unsaid, barely conscious disappointments and hurts that we tend to bury…

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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