Ellyn Bader

Clients who evade your questionsMy recent series, Losing Control, Direction or Momentum in Couples Therapy, stimulated so many comments and notes of appreciation that I’ve been thinking even more about those situations – and what can be done about them.

I started thinking about another common process that results in losing momentum. It’s when one partner blocks and evades communication with you.

Let’s review a possible dialogue.

Here is the situation. Sue tends to be unrelenting in her criticism of Joe.

Today Sue is criticizing and berating Joe for giving their young son cookies.

Joe says he doesn’t do it very often.

Sue continues to harangue him. Imagine that today you decide to address this process she unsuccessfully uses to try to get Joe to change.

Therapist: Sue, if you continue to nag and criticize Joe, what do you think the odds are that he will agree with you and change what he does?

Sue: He doesn’t understand the effects of sugar on kids.

Therapist: Sue, What are the odds Joe will listen to you given the way you are talking to him?

Sue: Giving our son cookies creates an addiction that he will struggle with his entire life.

Therapist: Sue, even if you are correct, what are the chances that Joe is listening to you and will be persuaded by your logic?

Sue: The research on childhood obesity is massive. Sugar is a major culprit.

Therapist: Sue, let me ask you one last time. Do you believe that you will succeed in getting Joe to agree with you?

Sue: The cookies diminish his appetite for healthy meals.

This pattern is frustratingly common in couples therapy. In fact, the more distressed the couple, the more likely they are to give you disconnected and diverted replies to your questions.

How do you understand the problem you are having in the session? What would you do next? How would you respond to either Sue or Joe?

Please comment below. I’ll read all the replies. Then I will describe the thinking behind what I said and why I said it.

Everyone benefits when we become better at creating and sustaining momentum with our clients.


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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Please Comment ↴

  1. I really enjoyed the diverse interventions listed in the comments! I could not imagine hanging onto this question for that long. I’d likely ask for a feeling from each partner, notice together if this is part of their pattern or familiar, and go for some insight from both about their own experiences. There is a lot more context I’d need to direct the work, is this in the middle of session and we are sidetracked from an exercise or important issue? Is this connected to something deeper (ie wonder together what it might be about if it’s not about cookies) opportunity to link or bring unconscious material to surface? Or is it deep enough into the work to guide them to interact?

  2. This is powerful indeed. You seem to have uncovered a wide range of feelings in a short time. Your first intervention called for her to attend to the reality of the here-and-now_”Sue, look at me. (Pause until she does while pointing to my eyes.)” Then you pointed out the parallel process, but only briefly. This was followed by your getting back on track_”Is there any part of you, even a small part of you that is interested in … “. Since Sue still persisted in her dysfunctional process, you acknowledged it and inquired about its significance in her background_”Do you know why it is so essential for you to fix on one point and not drop it, even when you are getting no where?” This, I think, led to a deep affective insight on the part of her. You, then, pointed out the transferential implications and ended the dialogue implicating that the two of you also got closer.
    So, in retsrospect, your first interventions in the first piece of the transcript make a lot more sense. Your transcript demonstrates the careful balance we need to establish between the supportive and anxiety-provoking interventions in order to help our clients experientially identify their growth edge.
    Thanks Ellyn for this rich learning opportunity!

  3. So, here is the continuation of my dialogue with Sue.

    On this particular day, I decided I would stick with Sue.
    I’d seen her do this before and to stick with her demands even when her process clearly was not working with Joe. I hoped to confront her, to understand the unrelenting nature of her process and to discover her willingness to change.

    Me: Sue, look at me. (Pause until she does while pointing to my eyes.)
    You and I are failing to communicate. It is not unlike the communication pattern you have with Joe.

    I ask you a question and your response has little to do with what I asked. I keep asking and you keep side-stepping. Do you know what I mean?

    Sue: OK

    Me: Does that mean yes?

    Sue: Yes

    Me: Now I have another question. Is there any part of you, even a small part of you that is interested in improving how you talk to Joe so you can increase your influence on him about how much sugar your son consumes?

    Sue: He won’t listen to me

    Me: Sue, it is happening again. Your reply was disconnected from my question.

    Sue: We could solve this quickly if he would just listen to me.

    Me: Sue, I think you mean more than listening to you. You’d like him to agree with you and change his behavior. I remember one time you mentioning your stubbornness. Well I am seeing that in full operation now. When you get an idea about how a conversation should go, it is hard to have an impact on you once that train gets moving.

    Do you know why it is so essential for you to fix on one point and not drop it, even when you are getting no where?

    Sue: Probably. When I was a teenager, I told my mother for years that my father had a drinking problem. I was right. She wouldn’t believe me for a longtime. I wish I had been even more forceful.

    Me: What would have happened if you’d been more forceful?

    Sue: When she finally agreed, our relationship got a lot closer. Instead of fighting about it, we supported each other.

    Me: So are you hoping that when Joe agrees with you, your relationship will get a lot closer?

    Sue: Probably, only I hadn’t put it that way. But, we’d be working together.

    Me: We will come back to you and your mom. However, do you realize that Joe operates very differently from your mother? Your desired outcome is commendable, but your process isn’t working. So, I will ask you again, is there any part of you that is interested in improving the process of how you talk to Joe so you can be more impactful with him?

    Sue: Ok, (pause) I mean yes.

    Me: Thank you for listening and responding directly. I think our communication process in here between you and me and between you and Joe is going to get a whole lot better.

    I’d love hearing your reactions to this dialogue and also knowing about any other communications patterns you find that slow momentum in your work.

  4. Great forum here–I like reading what everyone has suggested. My suggestion would be to focus on Sue, asking her to sit for a minute and try to access the inner experience that motivates her to keep doing something that hasn’t worked so many times. for her to experience what is getting her stuck. It has to be some sort of fear-based repetition from the past.

  5. I love the discussion that is happening here. So many of you recognize this common situation. And several of you point out that how you respond depends on the length of time you’ve known the client.
    I’ll summarize here the essence of the approaches written about.
    1. Give voice to her hidden vulnerable feelings and emphasize you know how much she cares about their son.
    2. Trace family of origin antecedents
    3. Model how to communicate the same message in a different way
    4.Ask them to switch roles
    5.Recognize that she is emotionally triggered and intervene to access Adult/ Prefrontal cortext thinking via breathing, and other ways to engage her Adult.
    6. Explain the difference between process and content and see if you can shift her to focus on process rather than the content.
    7. Be curious about her defense is protecting her.
    8. Describe the transference and parallel process between Sue and me and between Joe and Sue
    9. Move the dialogue into process and ask the husband to describe his response.
    10. Pattern interruption interventions such as asking her to write down her concerns/message in a way that does not make him wrong.
    11. Create eye contact and use cross checking interventions.

    I am not even sure I covered them all. This points out how many possibilities there are to make an impact-and even more the importance of us being able to try something and abandon what does not work and increase what does work.

    I’ll post my dialogue with her soon. Thanks again for your involvement!!!

  6. Thanks for this very stimulating discussion. I might say something like, I sense that you must be feeling hurt now as you see that your concerns and fear are not heard by Joe. In other words, I would try to uncover her unexpressed feelings, possibly her fear and pain, at that moment and then get her to state her vulnerability to Joe. She may resist doing this. In that case, I would use the parts language to clarify her intrapsychic conflict.

  7. I admit I his is tough scenario and one I don’t always handle brilliantly. The early sessions while building alliance, I acknowledge the need and motivation behind the nagging behavior. In later sessions, I point out the dance between them and how it isn’t working for them. But in a recent session when the husband was complaining about his wife always making him wrong, i modeled her communicating her same message in a softer, more vulnerable and self-referencing way and asked him if she said it that way, would he have as much problem with it. I did this recently in a session and felt a big shift. I understand that many who nag think their only options are to “grin and bear the other person’s behavior unchallenged” or tirade and “not let him get away with it”. Demonstrating another option begins to open up other possibilities for both in the couple.

  8. I would deepen it. I would probably say something like. Tell me what you are feeling at the moment when you are trying to appeal to Joe and make him understand the importance of this for you.’ I might then ask her ‘And tell Joe about what you notice about your behavior toward him when this situation arises’
    Once she gives the feeling and behaviour, then I might ask Joe to tell her the feeling he is feeling and how he behaves toward her when he feels this feeling. I would then relate this pattern and how this keeps them at an impasse.

  9. After trying to get Sue to answer my questions a couple of times, I would compliment her on the knowledge she has gained and on how well she is caring for her son. Then I would ask her how she thinks Joe is feeling when she gives him all these facts. I may ask them to change roles for a moment to try to understand how the other one is feeling during these exchanges.

  10. I’m really looking forward to reading what you would do Ellen. I have this situation and have finally said to the woman in the couple that we can’t move anywhere unless she stops criticising and attacking her husband and talk about how she feels and suggests something different. I know the couple well in this case and why she is so miserable and unhappy but can see why she pushes her husband away all the time. I am at the end of my tether which is why I said to her that nothing will help now unless she stops doing what you describe above

  11. I would try to bring her thinking brain on line, as it seems her amygdala had hijacked her body, she is attacking her husband sounds like her stress response system has been activated. I might do some breathing with her or try a bottom up approach like asking her about her body sensations.

  12. I don’t believe I would bring the word “nag” into the room. That word would be inflammatory. The flash point in this moment is not the 4th time she says sugar, but the first time. When she first replies about sugar, I would carefully clarify that we are working on process (being heard and understood), not content (sugar is bad). I might use simple words to teach that process and content are two different topics, and that we are using the topic of sugar as a means to create the greater good: to create a loving and effective way of listening and speaking.

  13. I was thinking that until she feels heard that she won’t be able to hear you. So first let you know that you hear her concern about her kids Then you can stress the importance to have him hear this. Let’s talk about ways to do that ..

  14. Many comments are helpful, but this feels like a stalemate. My instinct is to have them reverse roles and then role play each other using the same scenario. Then process what it was like, what they noticed…

  15. I might suggest a dialogue that starts with the word “I”. When you give our child cookies, I feel upset or worried because……That makes it about Sue and not about her husband. It’s her issue, not his, and if she can frame it that way, he might be better able to hear and then they might find a compromise spot. Right now she is just blaming and wanting him to agree with her. Clearly they don’t agree and probably on lots of other things, too. If she is coming from a place of attachment insecurity, feelings will emerge when she tries to change her language and then these can maybe be worked through, or at least noticed. For what’s it’s worth…. Those are my thoughts. Thanks for the challenge.

  16. A problem I find when reading dialogues in print is not being able to sense/feel the mood; the ambience; the non-verbals in the room. Just going by word content alone and addressing that alone seems inadequate, at least for me. Perhaps I’m not experienced enough. Appreciate what we’re attempting to do though.

  17. I think too that Sue may not be ready to hear what Joe has to say – whether how he feels when Sue behaves this way, or how he thinks she is feeling, or even what he knows about her past that may contribute to her current behavior. From the brief conversation above, it would seem to me like Sue is already activated and anything that Joe says, she might only pick up on certain words and the conflict will further escalate.
    If I were the therapist, I might ask Sue to take a moment to take a couple deep breaths, maybe even doing it with her. Then ask her what is going internally for her – feelings and thoughts about constantly having to repeat herself, about being in conflict with her husband, and maybe even about being a mother who is trying very hard to keep her son healthy. Once Sue is able to identify and express her thoughts and feelings, then turn towards Joe and ask him how it is for him to hear Sue say all that.

  18. Thank you all for the input. My first reaction was “Oh my God, how many minutes do we have left”?:) That’s why I’m in this group and I value all of your suggestions. Sometimes just keeping my cool is success!

  19. I think that this therapist maybe trying to assess how much her client (sue) can stretch. Can she shift her focus. Is she able to pull back and reflect. Apparently not! I believe there is an intention to the therapist repeating the question as It may help clarify for the therapist the degree of her differentiation from Joe – this is seems low, so I am not sure that she would be able to hear from joe yet.

    I would choose to stay with her, as this is where she is. BE curious about her level of differentiation of self and work with that. I would like to ask her what it is like for her to have her present her opinion over and over and not have it agreed with, or validated by joe. What thoughts come up for her, what does it feel like, What does this mean to her.etc. Working with her until she softens. I think that only then, when she has a better understanding of herself, and sharing what is driving her persistence that she will be able to move forward.
    Like many of you above have said- Her concern is more than the sugar- even though she may think it is. It is our work to help her express herself more deeply.
    There are some wonderful tools presented by Ellen on this course that I have found so effective in working with couples who are stuck.
    Thank you

  20. I find that opposing the resistance doesn’t work for me, it tends to engender for resistance. Instead, studying what the resistance needs, wants, is afraid of can garner more empathy from the partners about the dilemma the criticizing partner is experiencing. Then turning toward the criticized partner for the impact of the communication styles. Always phrasing this in non-judgmental terms and being in loving presence and curiosity is attitude of the therapist.

  21. Sue, I bet you exhausted and angry from being ignored. Yes, you want Joe align with you but he has his own way. May I now turn to Joe and hear what he wants to share?

  22. I would cross check with Joe, “Joe, where in Sue’s life was she not heard, who invalidated her?” Using him to understand what is beneath the continued attempts to be heard…was it her father, mother, ex-partner? This allows Joe to step forward in understanding Sue’s persistence and she can be seen on a deeper level, potentially healing an attachment wound. Then I would ask Sue “what is more important to you, your relationship or being right about cookies?” This will hold Sue to the relationship rather than her need to protect her son. Kids are considered a management of thirds…the relationship comes first the children second. When the relationship is first then the children will benefit.

    • There is one more piece I would like to add. Before cross examining with Joe, I would direct Sue to take a deep breath and make eye contact with Joe. Allowing her to see him, take in his posture, face, possible tension in the body…and then ask her what she sees…”what do you think Joe is feeling?”. Then I would go into cross checking with Joe. This is an attempt to bring them into new process memory.

  23. I think the intention in your repeating the question to Sue has more to do with assessing whether she can take input from you and shift gears away from her agenda. In other words, can she begin to take in Joe’s experience in a way that would promote her other-differentiation. As others have said, there are probably a few different ways to proceed. Perhaps getting Joe’s feedback would be good for her although part of me wonders if she is open to that at this point. I think I would want to interrupt her escalating tension and say something like, “let’s take a step back for a moment. Sue, I don’t think Joe can hear you right now because he’s feeling attacked. I’d like you to take a few moments and write down on this paper how this issue is affecting you, expressing this to Joe without making him wrong or bad. Would you be willing to try that?”

  24. I had a woman client who was somewhat similar to this, but the comments would be more directly attacking on her husband. The attacks were usually all pervasive, for example he always does this, he never does that. I began to find myself thinking, “I can’t blame him for having had an affair.” The husband sat very slouched on the couch the whole time he was being attacked. I think I tried to work with her by getting him to say what effect her words had on him. I found myself beginning to feel all of the anger that he could not seem to access. I will be interested to see how you managed to get to the more vulnerable feelings in this woman client.

  25. I say “You both love your child and want the best for him/her really badly. You have fierce protective Mama Bear instincts–great!. Your husband is experimenting with nurturance–great! Now you are creating polarization in your couplehood–black/white, right/wrong, good/bad–we see it in politics, etc. If you feed this polarization, you are becomeing a cliche of the miserable couple. Separation is the ultimate polarization. You better do something different, like right now. Go!”

    When they sheepishly say, “well, we dont know what to do…” they re a bit more pliable.

  26. Perhaps, have Joe paraphrase what Sue asserted – so that Sue feels ‘heard’ by him. Then have Sue reciprocate. Then the therapist could ask: “Is it possible that you two need to establish some ‘ground rules’ for sugary snacks? Rules you BOTH can negotiate and agree on?

    • “I should like you to repeat my question in your own words” (Paraphrase is a word that most peaple don’t know). “And afterwards maybe you can answer the question?”
      If she is upset/aroused, propose to do a relaxation moment and/or let her say: ” Deep in my heart I love myself, though I can’t yet change his opinion” (Or better use Heart Assisted Therapy, J. Diepold) And do the same with him.

    • “I should like you to repeat my question in your own words” (Paraphrase is a word that most people don’t know). “And afterwards maybe you can answer the question?”
      If she is upset/aroused, propose to do a relaxation moment and/or let her say: ” Deep in my heart I love myself, though I can’t yet change his opinion” (Or better use Heart Assisted Therapy, J. Diepold) And do the same with him.

  27. I’m an absolute neophyte with zero couples experience. That said, I might offer to Sue that – in this room – the issue is not sugar. It’s the interplay between her and her husband. And that something about the approach she’s relying on seems to be having the opposite of the desired effect. I might see if I could engage her in talking about whatever she knows about that.

    • Excellent discussion.m. I agree with all who independent cate the therapist is doing to Sue what she is doing to Joe. I would ask her how she feels absolutely it my relentless pursuit and who else has treated her that way and who else has stonewalled her. I would encourage each of Joe and Sue to do the inner parts dialects gue.mi would also look for nonverbal movement snot explore with somatic experienced Nguyen and love stent for tone of voice and inquiry re about its impact. I appreciate the house s forum.

  28. I agree with Chris. After validating Sue’s need to be heard on this issue, I would ask Sue if she would like to hear from Joe about how he feels when she criticizes him and about what would make it easier for him to hear what Sue has to say, in terms of content. I would point out that she is clearly not reaching her ‘audience’ in the way she is doing it now, and that it could be less frustrating for both of them if she tried another approach. I’d try to get her on board by exploring what’s in it for her to change what she’s doing in this type of communication.

  29. Sue, As you persist in trying to convince your husband, you have a choice. You can be right or you can be in relationship; you can’t be both. Plus, if your son hears mom criticizing dad, this will be stressful for him, and he may begin to crave cookies as comfort food.

  30. I think I would then switch and address the husband and ask him how Sue’s approach makes him feel. Does he have an opinion, if so what. As it seems the husband falls into child mode, possible passive aggressive because he has lost, or never known how to, have a voice / opinion.

  31. The therapists repeated questions of Sue are not genuine questons. They carry an implied criticism of Sue. So in a way, the therapist is responding to Sue the way Sue is responding to Joe Clearly sue does not feel that Joe gets what she is saying. Joes probably feels the same about her, so I would coach them in an IMAGO process of listening until they each feel validated.

    • I agree with Jim. The repeated question to Sue with implied criticism is just reenacting the pattern with Sue in the husband’s role and the therapist in Sue’s role.

  32. In the IFS model of therapy, every person is holding many fragmented parts that are desperately trying to manage relational experiences in efforts to protect a very vulnerable place, most of the way things are managed is a self preservation mode…one is avoidance. Dick Schwartz encourages a person to be curious about the thought or behavior, to consider ways the ‘defense’ to a point is serving to protect her. Reflecting back what she said, and asking her quote is that right quote? Can help attend to that part that needs acknowledgement but also needs to protect.

  33. It seems Sue only wants herself to be heard regardless of whether Joe want to offer his side of the story. Sue doesn’t expect anything constructive from Joe looking at her attitude and being the one at the centre of everything this will leave both of them exactly where they are now because no one will take time to listen to the other and eventually this relationship will crumble.

  34. I’m thinking the repeated pattern can be used as a teaching example. Both are repeating to be heard and get their desired response.
    Therapist => Sue, Sue=>Joe

  35. I would say “Sue, this is something that is obviously VERY important to you. I can see why you care about this so much because you really want to do your very best to make sure your son is healthy!

    I can imagine it’s very frustrating to not be able to communicate your passion for this in a way that you and Joe can work in partnership.

    Would you be willing to learn a better way to phrase your concerns so that your concerns have the best chance of being heard?”

    I think trying to use language that presents her concerns as understandable and valid and coming from a place of concern and frustration might lower her defensives enough to stop and listen to hear why I have to say.

  36. This is great you are describing an actual dialogue. I would not keep repeating it and say something like “I am aware you did not answer my questions.” if she keeps it up I would say :So why in the world do you not want to answer the question?” Confront her again? Another option might be to say “I am really curious Sue how your parents did not respond to you growing up?? There are lots of options –Will you tell me how you do Not want to answer the questions. Hmm I understand the problem as a woman who keeps pushing you away–Could be a very scared inner child terrified of intimacy and letting anyone in. –I might coach Joe to ask about who criticized her the most growing up and want was the most common criticism.. I think about the problem in one of two ways–1) carrying a highly critical parent in her head 2) She will not let you in–thus I think terror in intimate relations department. Keep up your great work ! love it!! Patrice