Ellyn Bader

Therapists who train with me know that many couples who come to therapy are stuck in symbiotic patterns that impede the growth of each partner and also impede the tremendous growth potential that exists in any committed relationship.

Today I want to share with you a transcript of a couple where the female partner’s symbiotic yearnings have been hidden. In past sessions, the male partner has been attentive to her requests. She has frequently danced away from what matters to him. This couple is trying to decide whether or not to get married. The reason they are stuck has been hidden.

The female partner presents as the more mature grounded partner. She is decisive where her boyfriend is anxious and conflicted. In this session I decided to confront her and expose why they are stuck.

She had been avoiding discussing his requests for several weeks.

Ellyn:Let’s regroup a bit today. The two of you came to therapy to make a decision about whether or not to get married. I’d like to review where each of you are now on that decision.
Jack:I am still very undecided. We are so comfortable together and we have a lot of fun. I wish it was an easy decision. But there are some big issues that are unresolved for me.
Ellyn:(To Sarah) Do you feel like you’ve made a decision for sure about whether you want to be in a committed partnership with Jack or not? Are you clear?
Sarah:Yes. I’m very clear. I’ve been clear for a long time.
Ellyn:Your decision is…?
Sarah:I am very ready to get married. More than ready.
Ellyn:I’d like to know more about your certainty. Will you say more about your decision? How did you decide? Why are you so certain?
Sarah:He treats me well. He’s different than my ex-husband. He’s attentive and caring. He’s calm. He doesn’t get rattled very easily. He’s honest. I feel like I can trust him.
Ellyn:And that’s extremely important to you?
Sarah:Yes. Especially that he’s caring and not explosive.
Ellyn:It’s a relief that he does not get angry like your ex-husband. You value his solidity and how he is caring with you. You feels safe with him.
Sarah:Yes, it’s really important, my ex went from being explosive to being dishonest. My last marriage ended in divorce after an affair. I don’t ever want to be in a relationship where there’s a potential for that again.
Ellyn:So, we’ve been talking about what you value and the reassurance you get from being with him.
Sarah:Yes and I don’t think there is anything we can’t work out.
Ellyn:So, we’re talking about you putting both feet in and making a lifetime commitment to Jack. You’ve been with Jack long enough to know what you value.
I wonder how much you’ve thought about the challenges and the fact that he’s been pushing you in some areas that aren’t very comfortable for you.
Sarah:Yes, he’s been doing that. Most of those are not that big. He changes his mind a lot, so I don’t think they are really that big. I think that’s happening already. I wish he would just stop changing his mind. We can solve those things easily later. I’m not really clear what he’s looking for because it keeps on changing.
Ellyn:And how much do you ask to get clear on what really matters to him? What are the main areas that you think matter to him? Where do you think he’s going to keep pushing on you to change? Will you reflect for a minute on what you’ve heard him say?
Sarah:Being on time. Keeping commitments.
Ellyn:What kinds of commitments?
Sarah:Money is a big one. But I feel like I have changed in that area. I don’t think he notices that I’m not overspending.
Ellyn:Why does keeping commitments matter to him?
Sarah:So I’m honest.
Ellyn:I think it is more than that. You probably remember from a lot of our past conversations that money has been a traumatic area for him. It’s an area where it’s important to him that you’re able to step up. It’s going to be an ongoing issue for you to understand how much this means to him.
Sarah:I’m never going to measure up because I’ll never earn what he does.
Ellyn:Wait. Stop. You are shifting a bit away from what I’m saying to you. I’m really asking if you realize that if you put both feet in and get married then you’re going to be pushed by him about money until you both sort this out better.
Sarah:Yes. I know he’s going to push me about money. But, I’m not quite sure what more I can do.
Ellyn:Actually, it is the opposite of that. You are just scratching the surface. There’s so much more you can learn and do to be an involved partner with him. I think the way you are responding to me right now is part of what makes him anxious about committing.
Jack:(Quiety) You bet.
Sarah:Tell me what I can learn.
Ellyn:One thing you can learn is more about why this area is scary for him. You can explore his fears and understand them a lot more. You can understand how it affects him when you don’t keep financial commitments.
When you understand this deeply, you will allow it to impact you more than now.
You’ll learn to negotiate better when spending on expensive purchases. You won’t dance away from conflict or hide expensive spending choices.
You’ll initiate some of the discussions about how you two will divide expenses so you’ll each know what you are providing financially.
I wonder what you’re feeling as I’m saying these things to you?
Sarah:I’m feeling a little defensive with you bringing up my debt.
Ellyn:I can understand you feeling defensive because I am holding up a challenging picture to you. And no, we’re not talking about your debt. We’re talking about the process of how the two of you handle financial issues together going forward.
Sarah:Okay, if not my debt, then what?
Ellyn:Actually I have not mentioned your debt. This isn’t about your debt. This is about you being a whole partner in an area that is very vulnerable for him. It means you understand why this is traumatic for him. You learn how to problem solve better with him so that each of you knows what you’re contributing financially.
Because he earns more money and has more assets, this is a complex issue for couples in your situation. However, it means you don’t shy away from figuring this out. It means you both figure out what makes sense based on your income and his income. It means you become able to step up to the plate as a true team player with him in this area.
He's been the caretaker in his past marriages. This time he's more cautious. He's moving slowly so he can be sure he's marrying somebody who can give to him in ways that really matter to him.
Being with someone kind, caretaking, non-aggressive and honest really matters to you. You don't every want another divorce or to be with a husband who is having an affair.
Being with someone financially responsible matters to him. He never wants to face another bankruptcy or feel so alone.
How would it be for you if we spend the next couple of sessions seeing if we can make progress on these things?
  1. Your understanding him better
  2. Your learning more about how to partner with him financially – and remember this does not have to do with your debt. It has to do with your involvement where he feels vulnerable.

This session is about the confrontation of symbiosis, Sarah's low level of other-diferentiation, and the need to know if Sarah will activate herself. Up until now, Sarah has been unable to focus on her side of the partnership. She has casually and quietly dismissed his concerns. She appears to be the stable, decisive partner. However, her certainty is based in her fantasy of being taken care of without much effort rather than in the reality of who she is choosing and what that will mean for her own growth.

Please comment below. Did you think I was picking on her? Was I fair? Is it important for them to address this before getting married?


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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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  1. This is really inspiring work. As was mentioned above, just the right amount of, well, everything. I am left wondering what the following sessions and work has been looking like. Warm regards, Abby

  2. Ellyn, I think you the way you confronted her was so skillful and important to her growth, both individually and for the couple. It also helped him to feel supported by you. You went right in there and did not let her slip out of it so that she could see her own part.

  3. Explaining to a partner why it’s important to really understand another partner’s position and support them going deeper is a place I often find difficult. So, this part of the exchange was really helpful for me:

    One thing you can learn is more about why this area is scary for him. You can explore his fears and understand them a lot more. You can understand how it affects him when you don’t keep financial commitments. When you understand this deeply, you will allow it to impact you more than now.

    Thanks for giving me more language around this and more ideas for how to scaffold this stuck place!

    • I felt strangely comforted after reading through this transcript. It was like a lovely dance where, as Ellyn shared, created enough discomfort for Sarah (and maybe Jack, too) that she could look at how she undermined herself without so much discomfort that she dug in her heels and could look no further.
      There was power in this technique as: 1. Jack learned by listening/watching, possibly gaining in his own ability to converse more frankly with his partner, and 2. Sarah gained personal strength as she listened as inquirer while learning how best to engage in positive confrontation.

  4. HI Ellyn, Wonderful example of being fair to the relationship! Your choice in confronting Sarah was a great example of helping her better understand herself to grow both in the relationship and individually.

  5. I loved the persistent and solid way you continued to bring her back to herself instead of the content of what she kept wanting to hide behind. Such inspiring work. I’m guessing he really appreciated you bringing to the table what he had been feeling but unable (or unwilling) to articulate. I can learn so much from the way you kept at it even when she started to get defensive and throw up her arguments. I agree that if she isn’t able to hear this from you – and eventually be motivated to listen more and be curious about HIM, things will not go well for them.

  6. Thanks for providing this case, Ellyn. Sarah may have initially felt you were picking on her. I think that’s what anyone who hasn’t yet learned to differentiate feels when pulled back into being clear and learning to risk stating preferences to another. Confronting her was the fair route to take – it will help her to define what she wants and prefers, aid in her stating that to Jack, help Jack to know whether she “gets” what he is asking and whether she is willing to develop a solution with him that works for them as a couple. If this isn’t worked through prior to marriage, their unspoken expectations will eventually lead to conflict. I’m looking forward to learning more via the webinar.

  7. I am interested in how inspired, uplifted and empowered I feel! I enjoyed the way you lovingly and firmly kept leading her back towards what she habitually avoids attending to. Wonderful modelling. Thank you, Ellyn.

  8. Great session. I was left wondering if the female partner really understood for future disagreements the difference between focusing on the content of his complaints (her spending, her debt, her lateness) and focusing on the process of how how she handles any complaint from him. You kept trying to point it out but I wonder if we need to stop and educate clients more on the difference between content vs. process.

  9. In addition to what everyone else has mentioned, this case vignette highlights one of the strengths of the Bader-Pearson approach, which is calling out the gender-sanctioned assumptions that operate in so many couples and yet work against differentiation. I find in my work it is such a relief for men like Jack to have a (woman) therapist question their wife’s/girlfriend’s vagueness/symbiosis around something as charged with gendered meanings as money. People operate with a lot of vulnerability and inhibition around such gender-coded issues; I can imagine that Jack had some worry that he wouldn’t be valued as much as a “man” if he seemed vulnerable around money with Sarah, so it may have kept him from pressing the point as much as he needed to. Ellyn being an advocate of greater differentiation wherever she sees it, and not taking gendered “sides,” is a huge strength of the model.

  10. Excellent example of how to lead a client into deeper self-reflection with respect to her part in the couple dilemma. I wonder is she experienced an “aha” moment and can start to make changes?

  11. I love this – it is very powerful. Thank you Ellyn for sharing and inspiring us to be more confrontational.
    What I get from this is Ellyn’s confrontation with the avoidance of vulnerability.
    There can be no intimacy (or secure attachment) without vulnerability.
    An in-depth exploration of what ‘money’ means to both of them will expose their vulnerability – and with the therapist’s support have the the potential of helping them differentiate and grow – both individually and in their relationship.

  12. Great work, Ellyn! Rather than using the work confrontation, I prefer Virginia Satir’s word of leveling. I think there are many parts to leveling, which include teasing out the resistances and working toward the client’s self and other awareness of the barriers to being an engaged partner.

  13. This reminds me of the case I struggle the most with these days. The man wants to be “accepted for who he is”. He is the same as your woman. The wife of 20 years now. With 3 children feels lonely and “dropped”. He gets it now. Feels bad. Feels hopeless to change as “I want to be there for you, but I seem to always fail you. its who I am” (highly distracted) and turns towards self (narcissism sweetly mostly).. Ellyn your example helps AND after great progress by him understanding deeply her pain and she letting many things go recognizing change for him will be limited. I still wonder about capacity because like your woman. He has fantasy of “love is exciting” “love is being there for her for things other than when it’s about me” and “love means you accept me as I am”. I’ll be interested in the workshop coming up. Is your woman/my man able to give up fantasy and if so. What is the purpose of holding on. Purpose of the symptom I’m wondering? What do they lose? What must they bear?

  14. I would explore her past and what being financially taken care of means to her. Oftentimes there is a sabotaging part that refuses to take responsibility because money was the major, or sometimes only, form of love she received, and it rebels being an adult.

  15. This is so helpful Ellyn. As always. I can apply it to a couple I am working with now where the male partner seems so clear and he bullies his wife when she can’t articulate her concerns. But so much of her lack of articulation is that when she tries, he doesn’t listen and argues with her. I am going to follow your example in my next session.
    Thank you!

  16. Johanna, Wietske and Elsa-Thank you for your astute comments. As Wietske says, Confrontation is empowering for the person that is being confronted. Confrontation in this case does not seem to be about pulling her apart but to help her grow.
    Effective confrontation is at the line where you create enough discomfort that a person has to look at how they undermine themselves, but not so much discomfort that they did into defensiveness.
    And Johanna, to answer your question, he had been saying things to her in the last 2 sessions that she was squirming away from. I decided to do the onfrontation because I thought it had the most chance of moving our work forward instead of repeating the same go nowhere discussions.
    Johanna-Does this remind you at all of the confrontations we used with your case in training?

  17. Confrontation is empowering for the person that is being confronted. Confrontation in this case does not seem to be about pulling her apart but to help her grow. Uncomfortable and empowering…I want to learn this art…Thanks 🙂

  18. Inspiring work, Ellyn. I especially appreciate when you confront her on how she wiggles away from focusing on herself by shifting focus to 1) she’ll never earn as much as he does and 2) that she is in debt. She presents herself as helpless and powerless, and THAT is why he is reluctant. No wonder he, a man who doesn’t want to be a caretaker, is reluctant to get married. Was it your assessment that he wasn’t willing or able to articulate that himself, and your confrontation was a developmental assist? He clearly recognized and appreciated your help. I’ll see you at the webinar.

  19. You were very very fair. It was great to see you get to important truths about how she was not listening to or caring about this potential life-partner. What an amazing shift in the picture. An essential shift for the relationship to flourish. Fabulous work.
    I’d love to hear a follow-up. Did she become able to hear more than her side?
    It’s clear she – and the relationship – would benefit enormously by listening and growing.

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