Ellyn Bader


This month's newsletter is specifically for you if you use the Initiator-Inquirer process in your work with couples. The Initiator-Inquirer helps partners repair emotional upset while increasing the differentiation in each partner.

Often the therapist is confronted with challenging choice points about which partner to focus on, when it is impossible to work deeply with both partners in a single session.

Common choice points are:

1. Do I work more actively with the Initiator or the Inquirer when both are emotionally distressed?

2. When has an emotional upset occurred for too long in the room? When must the therapist take over for the inquirer?

3. Does the initiating partner experience the inquiring partner as a curious, interested or empathic listener about the emotional upset or is the inquiring partner experienced as being aversive in the here and now? Does this need to change first for any progress to occur?

4. How quickly do I move towards repairing a painful interaction? Would exploration of the roots of the distress be more meaningful than quick repair? Will aiming to create a good feeling be premature? Will it occur at the expense of deepening the client's self awareness?

5. If I move towards empathy and repair, can I use the repair process as a way of increasing either partner's differentiation?

6. What is the best way to help partners confront their own dysfunctional behavior directly with a desire to change it into more constructive behavior the next time?

This month I will describe some helpful general principles for you to use to decide which choice to make.

When starting Initiator-Inquirer work in any session, first be sure each partner has agreed to participate and is aware of the expectations of their role. It is helpful for partners to realize that this process will enable them to resolve stressful interactions between them without escalating into unproductive and heightened emotional intensity. Over time they will become more effective at home and be better able to solve more complex problems, while disengaging from emotionally volatile exchanges.

It is also important that the inquiring partner recognize that their role is facilitative. They will not be “getting needs met” while inquiring. In fact, they are a helper. As such, the more they demonstrate openness, compassion, interest and involvement, the better the process will go. The role of the Inquirer is difficult because it requires the listening partner to ask effective questions and search for points of agreement and empathy, while putting their own frustrations on hold.

Once a couple has started to work in the Initiator-Inquirer format, the therapist listens intently. Your goal is to facilitate the couple working together as long as possible in a positive direction that will repair the current upset or help prevent future unnecessary upsets. You will intervene to keep the conversation moving in a positive direction. Positive outcomes include:

1. The Initiator feeling calmer and being understood
2. The Initiator understanding why the issue is such an emotional trigger for them
3. The Inquirer developing new insight into emotional triggers for their partner
4. The Inquirer stretching themselves to have more empathy or compassion

As the Initiator begins, listen to be sure their statement of the problem is clear. Are they expressing emotions directly? Are they making a specific request of the Inquirer? Give them a chance to express themselves and to muddle along for a short while.

Hopefully, the Inquirer will ask questions for clarification. If the Initiator does not stumble into clarity, and the Inquirer does not intervene, it is time for you to come in and ask the Initiator to re-focus and to re-center themselves on one issue. You also might ask the Inquirer to formulate a question to gain more clarity about what the Initiator is requesting.

If the inquiring partner gives off negative nonverbal cues of impatience, hostility or disinterest, you must work with them first. If they are not emotionally present or showing some curiosity, the session can not proceed productively. In fact, the Inquirer actually becomes an aversive stimulus in the here and now, which only makes the problem worse. You must intervene with this partner first. It is not the Initiator's job to help the Inquirer.

This is a place for the therapist to be a strong advocate for constructive process. If the Inquirer is emotionally unavailable, you will work one on one with them to uncover what is preventing them from being available. Sometimes they are too emotionally aroused themselves and need time to calm down. Sometimes they feel “so wronged” by the other that they will not be able to inquire without first initiating on the same topic. Whatever their reasons are, work actively with this partner until they become emotionally available for interpersonal process. Until this occurs, having the couple talk to each other in the Initiator-Inquirer format will only make things worse and take longer to repair.

If you don't already use the Initiator-Inquirer process, you might be interested in our videotape on the subject. “Neutralize the Anger: Help Couples Stop Fighting and Start Talking” teaches and demonstrates this process that is one of our most widely used techniques. For more information or to order, click  Neutralize the Anger.

Good luck with your own use of the Initiator-Inquirer process. And remember, you can always email us brief questions or share results.


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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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.