Ellyn Bader

In December, I set a daunting task for myself. I volunteered to do a clinical demonstration at the Brief Therapy conference. I have done many demos over the years, but the topic for this one was about confronting negative beliefs and unrelenting projections in couples relationships.

Why is this so challenging in a role play demonstration? When we see clients in our practice, their negative projections have had years to grow and take root. At the conference, I planned to do a role play demonstration with two people who just met and would try to recreate the dynamics of a  long-term very intractable negative projection.

I worried, “What if they seemed artificial? What if they made it too easy?” Or worse, “What if they acted too hostile for me to make any progress?”

Well, the couple created the dynamic of ongoing selfishness in the husband – and away we went. I used the hour to demonstrate as many principles as possible about disrupting chronic negativity. It was challenging because I didn't have a chance to get to know them or make genuine contact with them before working to shift something so chronically destructive.

To create enduring change, these unrelenting negative beliefs or projections must be addressed on multiple levels. For the partner holding the negative belief, it is especially important to create emotionally-based experiences in the room that enable them to experience their partner in a new light.

In fact, partners hold onto their beliefs no matter what their spouse or the therapist says. Webster's dictionary points out part of the problem by defining a belief as “a conviction that something is real and true – whether based on reasoning, prejudice, authority of the source or on our experience. It is
not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof.”

So Webster quickly explains why we can't talk our clients out of their beliefs. No matter how many facts we present, people will recall emotional experiences that oppose any rational thinking. The effect of the emotional experience will always dominate!

Transactional analysis theory has another way to describe this problem. It is called “contaminated thinking.” It is depicted by Adult rational thinking being taken over in part by Parental prejudices or Child-ego state feelings and impulses. In either instance, the rational Adult is blocked out and the Child or Parental beliefs dominate.

To further complicate this dynamic, the Child feelings usually stem from some essential form of self protection. For example, a little girl with an angry, inconsistent alcoholic father might decide that men can not be trusted. Later this belief is transferred to her husband so she won't be hurt by him. If we attempt to “prove” the husband is worthwhile or worthy of trust in a particular area, the wife will find reasons why he is not trustworthy in other areas or why if she trusts now, her trust will be shattered in the future.

What do we do?

I believe we must help the couple create new emotional experiences in the room. These are experiences that run counter to the negative projection. Here are some principles to keep in mind:

  • Slow the process down and facilitate a deeper inquiry into the motives of the partner who is believed to possess the negative trait.
  • Help the projecting partner claim their desire to possess some of the disowned trait (for example, to be selfish at times). And claim it emotionally, not rationally.
  • Confront and delineate the parental prejudice that may be dominating and understand the origins of the prejudice.

In the role play, I did succeed in making progress and even created a very tender moment when the wife “felt” her husband in a new way and shifted her rigid self protection.

If you'd like to see the session filmed in December at the Brief Therapy Conference, you can order it at
Dismantling Negative Projections.

To make this DVD an even better learning resource, I am including two additional handouts. One presents a twelve step process to work with entrenched beliefs in couples therapy and the other is a transcript of a real session with a couple with the same dynamic.

This aspect of our work is hard. Remember that a very entrenched negative projection will not resolve in one session. It is too embedded in each partner's early life experience and their experience with each other. You have to hold the thread, create the coherence and keep going back, checking in and working with the emotional dynamics that underlie the negative belief.

Clients with pervasive projections will try to avoid this work. But if you persevere, your couples will change the negative dynamic that interferes with their ability to love one another.

In closing, I'd like to share with you one of my favorite quotes by Pericles, “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

I like it, of course, because it recognizes the essential value of work like ours and the interwoven nature of all relationships. And I think of it especially when I work with couples who stubbornly hold unrelenting negative beliefs about their partners.

About 

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. hello. What do you do when one partner has an obvious mental illness that is significantly impacting the relationship? I have gently confronted the partner’s paranoia, with very little headway made (fixated delusions of being undermined by the other). I have spent time with him examining what his partner’s ‘motives’ might be, and challenging his irrational thinking. He is medicated. His suspiciousness has set up a very nasty defensiveness in the other, which leads to circular arguing and no sustained improvement. Neither are able to empathize easily with the other, yet neither are willing to walk away. We have worked a lot on empathy and expression of needs, challenging ‘mind-reading’. I have sent them each to individual therapy and asked them to return in a few months if they still wish to work on their relationship. together. Any thoughts?

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