Moment by Moment: 6 Developmental Assists to Support Your Work

Developmental Assist ​#​1: How to Sidestep Negativity When Couples Bring Up the Fight of the Week

​In this article we share our 4-step process to create positive dialogue in your next session!

How often do you work with couples that start sessions by launching into the fight of the week? They come in believing that solving the fight will get them where they want to go.

By the end of the session you’ve come to a micro resolution at best. At worst, another week has gone by where you feel ineffective and like your work is falling into the dark pit where couples create fights faster than you can keep up with them.

With these couples, it’s hard to know how to take charge.

Read the first article below for a common example to demonstrate how you can get back in the driver’s seat:

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You:Before we jump into looking at the fight, let’s review a few things first.
Jen, is there something Carlos did this week that you appreciated? Carlos, is there something Jen did this week that you appreciated? I know when you are thinking about a fight it can be hard to remember the good things. Will you each take a few minutes to close your eyes and reflect back on the week? What is something you appreciate?
Jen:He didn’t badmouth me to his parents.
You:That’s a start about something he did not do. Can you remember one positive
thing he said?
John:(long pause) He told his dad that I helped us be on time.
You:(to Jen) Turn to Carlos and tell him directly that you noticed he told his dad that
you helped him be on time. Talk directly to him.
Jen:I think you told your dad that I helped.
You:I want you to keep going and be specific. Can you add just one small thing about why you were glad to hear that?
Jen:I remember thinking you don’t usually say anything positive about me to your
parents. It’s unusual to hear you give me credit for something.
You:So keep this positive, rather than telling Carlos what he doesn’t do. There was
something about Carlos talking directly to his own family and giving you credit
that mattered to you.
Jen:Yeah. You were giving me credit for what I was doing and deferring to me instead of making yourself look good.
You:Jen, you are demonstrating how hard it can be at times to stay with the positive – to share appreciation directly and not bring in some negative part. But just for now say to him, “Here is what I appreciated. Here is what I opened my eyes to see. There was something in how you said that to your parents that touched me.”
Jen:(says with a little hesitation) Yes. You told your parents that I put in energy to get
all of us there on time. I did see you do that. It meant that you could value me and my contribution.
You:So Carlos, even when Jen knew you were going to discuss a fight, she was able
to remember something good that you did. Can you say “thank you for putting your anger aside for a few minutes to notice what I did?”

Here in just a few minutes you have used Developmental Assist #1: Sidestep negativity when couples bring up the fight of the week.

  1. You have started the session by immediately taking a leadership role. You refused to allow the session to begin with anger and hostility.
  2. You did not get derailed by Jen’s reluctance or her negative innuendos. Instead you encouraged Jen to self-reflect much more completely than she ever would have done on her own.
  3. You have uncovered what a positive behavior of Carlos’s symbolized to her.
  4. And most importantly, you have communicated that positive feelings and anger can co-exist, and that anger does not need to have prominence.

All of this resulted from your commitment and ability to sidestep negativity quickly and immediately.

Many partners in hostile/angry relationships do not have sufficient object constancy to remember anything good about their partners when they are angry. By sidestepping the negative, you can bring to light what they would never remember or express without guidance.

If you were to take a “cheat sheet” into your next session with a hostile fighting couple, it might say something like this:

  1. Start by getting partner A to appreciate something about partner B.
  2. Don’t let Partner A include any negative commentary.
  3. Have Partner B appreciate Partner A for their appreciation.
  4. Then reverse roles by asking partner B to remember something positive that partner A did.

In my next article we’ll look at a developmental assist that you can use to help fragile connections grow or even bridge the gap when connection between partners seems lost. We’ll talk about micro-connections and describe how to find them and use them with your couples.

Act Now

Join ​us​ ​for ​our FREE Live webinar "How To Eliminate 5 Common Mistakes in Couples Therapy" to​ ​learn how you​ may be getting​ ​in the way of your clients’ progress and creating extra work for yourself - and how to stop it immediately​!​​ ​Click Here to RSVP for our free webinar on Thursday, September 14 at 6pm​ ​PST or Friday, September 15, at 1pm​ PST.

About Ellyn Bader

Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creators 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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September 5

Developmental Assist #1: Sidestep negativity when couples bring up the fight of the week

September 7

Developmental Assist #2: Protect and build on micro-connections

September 8

Developmental Assist #3: Disrupt symbiosis and support self-definition

September 10

Developmental Assist #4: Clearly encapsulate each partner’s individual issues

September 11

Developmental Assist #5: Help partners stay in differentiation-based tension

September 12

Developmental Assist #6: Support emotional risk-taking by using proactive empathy