Ellyn Bader

When I am doing training, I get many requests to learn more about the Paper Exercise. I thought you might like having more information about it.

The Paper Exercise is an exercise that Pete and I adapted from Susan Campbell’s book, The Couples Journey. The exercise sounds a bit contrived, but it is so revealing of couples’ dynamics that it is worthwhile learning to use it. It can be used either diagnostically or as an intervention into the couples’ system.

Setting up the exercise

You will need a piece of plain white 8 ½ x 11 paper. Hold it in your hand, look into the eyes of one partner, and say, “This piece of paper represents something important to you. I’d like you to take a minute and think about what this piece of paper represents to you.  You can think of anything that’s important to you except for your kids and your marriage.”

Get confident working with couplesThen pause and continue to look into the eyes of that partner giving him a few seconds to think about what it is you’ve asked him to do.  You want him to have time to process the request.

Then turn to the second partner and say, “This piece of paper represents something important to you and I’d like you to take a minute and think about what it represents to you. It can be anything that’s important to you except for your kids or your marriage.” Then pause again, giving time for that partner to think about it. Next, ask the couple to hold the piece of paper between them. Make sure each person has a hand on one end of the paper.

Then say to them, “I’d like you to hold this paper between you and I’m going to give you up to five minutes to decide who gets this paper without ripping or tearing it.  You can do it verbally or non-verbally. You can do it any way you like, but at the end of the five minutes, I’d like you to decide who gets the paper without ripping or tearing it.”

Then be quiet and watch them. Usually I’ll back my chair up a little.

You might even consider recording the couple.

Anyway, you watch and you time it.  A lot of couples will try to engage you in answering questions, because you’ve created a projective type of situation that’s unsettling for them and they’re going to want you to structure it for them.

They’ll ask you all kinds of things. I keep responding to them, “You can do it any way you choose and you’ll have up to five minutes to decide who gets the paper without ripping or tearing it.”  That’s all I say to them. And then I observe for the 5 minutes, especially watching for six categories. Watching for these will illuminate major areas of developmental weakness for the couple.

Summary List of Diagnostic Areas

  1. Do the partners self-define? Is self-differentiation present in one, two or neither partner?
  2. How do they manage boundaries?  Are their boundaries rigid, overly permeable or clearly expressed?
  3. Do they show awareness that their partner is separate and different from them? Do they explore what matters to the other? This is a measure of other-differentiation.
  4. How do they manage conflict? Is it avoided, escalated or acknowledged and handled?
  5. Do they have the capacity to negotiate and move the conflict forward?
  6. Is each partner able to give and/or receive?

After the couple completes the exercise, be sure to inquire how each partner feels about the outcome.  Then, you can give them feedback about where you saw each of them break down. You can also give positive strokes for strengths the exercise revealed.

This exercise is so rich. When you become fluid using it, you will learn an enormous amount about any couple in just a very few minutes!  And you will come to recognize predictable patterns in couples without a base of differentiation.

Remember you can use this blog to share your comments and experiences using this exercise.

In our book, In Quest of the Mythical Mate, we give common examples and transcripts of responses from couples at most of the different developmental stages. For more information about it or to order a copy, click In Quest of the Mythical Mate.

I also have an entire lesson on this in my internet training program. For more information about that, visit Couples Therapy Training.

I love seeing comments from readers and will look forward to your observations about working with this exercise.

Until next time,



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. I did this exercise with a couple last nigh that are very divided by their hostility and resentment towards each other. As soon as I said, your five minutes starts now, the wife said in a very hostile tone ” he can have it”. What am I to make of this…..

  2. In our session the couple was given the paper to share and the female said that her important value was compassion the male partner said “that is also my chosen value”. So at that moment the female says I don’t believe that’s really what he had in his mind I think he’s chosen mine just so that we will not argue. I think he’s gaming system. Because they both had chosen compassion there was nothing to really barter about other that who would get the paper. From there the five minutes was spent talking about what the paper represented, she saw it as part of self, she was unwilling to give up her core value and also unwilling to take his compassion from him. She suggested the exercise would have been better had they each been asked to write down their chosen subject And then revealed to one another what they chose so that he couldn’t have copied her. He denied that he had chosen her value after hearing her share her value. She became very emotional and felt that the confrontation of the entire event was overwhelming and gave her much anxiety. She was unwilling to let go of the paper and also unwilling to take his. Eventually he let go of the paper with a gesture saying he understood how much compassion meant to her. I am wondering how this might be interpreted.

  3. I used the paper excercise a couple of days ago on a couple who have been together for 15 yrs now. The wife suspects infidelity (found sms exchange between husband and his work colleague), which husband denies. Wife is very talkative in sessions, expresses emotion easily and seeks ‘stroking’ from husband when she talks. Husband is very limited in divulging, seems to be in deep thought and confirms feeling emptiness, loneliness and pressure due to her not approving of his time alone or trips away from home due to suspicion. They share a workplace, and she has recently demanded to be assigned to another position so that they can have more space and less contact at work. The wife is the initiator for the therapy.
    The husband was holding the paper very tightly looking at the floor, as if avoiding any communication. The wife iniciated communication by asking him to look at her, she proceeded to explain that she promissed not to cry and yet that she had to cry as the issue represented by the paper was really important to her. Whilst crying, she told him she noticed how tightly he was holding on and reassured him she would not take it away from him. He looked down again, continuing to hold the paper tightly between his thumbs and fingers. The wife then suggested they both let go of the paper at the same time. He took his time looking away from her and then said he did not think letting go was a good idea. She kept on, wanting to tell him what it was that was so important to her. He replied that he did not want to share about what the paper represented to him. He seemed very focused on holding on to the paper. She said to him that what she wanted was important to her, and that what he wanted was important to her too. She wanted him to have it and kept on crying. As she did not get a reply she let go of the paper and said: ‘Here you go, I let you have it. Please pursue what you want in life (she said this as if advising/urging him) and let me know that you want me too. I need that’.
    As she wanted to continue he folded the paper and said turning to me: ‘This is finished now, isn’t it. We have completed the excercise’.
    I am very curious to hear about other therapists comments on this.
    My initial experience with the wife was that of really feeling ‘the victim’ in her in the sessions, as well as the punisher. I sensed her need to ‘sacrifice’ and ask for something in return here. The husband did not seem to want to engage, as if he was highly avoidant of going ‘too deep’ or engaging at all with her. He has said previously that his wife has tendency to ‘spill all over’ when they argue. He seems to be sticking to his own patterns of withdrawal and control, out of own fear to experience the chaos. I must admit that this excercise did clear some issues for me regarding where they are right now. However, I am getting a little bit lost here regarding differentiation. I do not experience the wife as differentiated, and yet in the excercise she manifested some of the attributes of it…Any thoughts?

    • I feel the husband is holding on to his new lover and wants his wife to let him go thus making him the victim. He feels guilty so he will not leave himself. He wishes for her to kick him out so he can claim victim status. This is the common Karpman drama triangle of Victim, Rescuer and Perpetrator. She is trying to rescue him from his “drama” and will end up being the perpetrator when she kicks him out for the affair.

  4. Interesting excercise indeed,,In response to Matt above,
    I few the incompletion/toss as avoidant, resistant behavior,,defensive stand..mexican standoff perhaps.

  5. Ellyn, Thanks so much for your response. This blog is so useful and it is great to read other people’s questions and have them answered so promptly so we all can learn.

  6. It might be my presentation, and…

    Twice in a row (and before that), when I’ve used this technique, one or the other in the couple IMMEDIATELY lets go of the paper (usually shrugging their shoulders first).

    I’m curious what the first thing you would say to a couple after this happens, Ellyn.

    • Usually I wait quietly for a minute to see what they do.
      Then I ask are you finished? If they say yes I ask how each feels about the outcome. The most common reason for someone to let go is they want to avoid anxiety and are highly conflict avoidant-and sometimes passive-aggressive.

  7. Thank you for sharing this information with me. I have not had the opportunity to use either exercise with a couple. I can see from the comments how both exercises can be very powerful tools to help the couple discover things about themselves and the relationship and in a short period of time.

  8. I used the paper exercise for the first time last week. My couple asked me if they were allowed to tell each other what the paper represented to them. I was unsure myself to be honest as it had not been clear to me if this was expected or necessary or not. Anyway I said they could tell each other, hoping this was correct. Initially the wife chose something which involved the children and I had to get her to pick something else. The process was quite interesting as the husband had been complaining that he felt he was always the one compromising and he was somewhat resentful that his wife always seemed to get what she wanted – often because she was much more organized than him and managed to put him in a position that he felt he had to co-operate because he was trying to do the right thing by her and the kids. Towards the end of the exercise the wife decided that the husband already had what he wished for and let go of the paper. He then seemed uncomfortable being “the winner” in this process, but he also was uncomfortable and said later that he felt that although the wife had said he could have what he wanted, in practice this was not yet reality and he questioned if it would occur in practice. He then attempted to give the wife the paper back saying he did not want to win if it meant she would not have what she wanted. This was a powerful exercise in reminding him of his own needs and how he felt thwarted in getting these met because of his wish for his wife to want what he wanted. She on the other hand, could see that she did usually get what she wanted and I felt she relinquished the paper because she felt this was only fair. However, I sensed some resentment in her that she had already given in to what he wanted because she then pointed out some of the boundaries she would place around him getting what he wanted in practice. I would like clarification if I should have allowed the couple to tell each other their important thing or is the idea to let them just focus on some anonymous concept? I note that some couples described above did not appear to tell each other what it was. Your reply would be appreciated. I enjoyed the exercise and would like to use it again, but want to make sure I am using it appropriately.

    • Dawn-
      The paper exercise you did seems very revealing of low level differentiation. In answer to your question, the directions are vague about whether to tell the partner specifically what they picked. There is a definite reason for this. Partners who take the time to select something important and meaningful to themselves–and then tell it to their spouse are usually more differentiated. Be sure you give the directions exactly as they are written, because the directions have been refined over time. When evaluating what they do, look for whether they did self-define(tell each other what they picked). How they handle this gives an important window into how the couple manages their desires and their conflicts.

  9. Hi, Ellyn-
    I wish to share with you a couple I have been seeing recently. He (Mr. S.) is 31, she (Mrs M.) is 28, married for 3yrs, and yet unconsummated, presumably due to her vaginismus and fear of pain. Both have strong passive aggressive trait. He had a secure childhood with his mother supporting him; his father contributed financilly little, so his mother had to take the burden. She had an insecure childhood wherein she was demanded to be brave, suppress her tears, and be disciplined to the expense of relationship. Her parents have been having conflicts, and her father could not support his family necessitating her mother to work. Presently she is financing her family of origin. During the paper exercise they held the paper for considerable time when he ascertained his rights on it; she went on acknowledging his views patiently and supporting him (typical of conflict avoidant) while tentatively mentioning her own demands. At the end of 5mins she let the paper go off with a hurried unsure mention of her demand saying – “I will let go of the paper provided that my demand is met” without waiting for approval from husband.
    While in therapy they were angry several times and fought with each other and kept the blaming game on. In yesterday’s session when I was about to introduce the I-to-I process, the husband said that he was very upset because she had just rebuffed his demands of paying attention to him. He also said that her snapping at him which she generally indulges in, would provoke him to be belittled and extremely angry. I made out that he was slipping from here-and-now situation to then-and-there situation and relive in the past. It was very evident that both were overwhelmed by the right brain. I seized this opportunity and created an exercise: I arranged them them to be seated facing each other and hold hands so that he continuously kept in physical contact with her and sensed her warmth. I asked her to begin snapping at him, first mildly, and then gradually increase the intensity of snapping from 1 through 10, while I asked him to tolerate his anxiety while focusing his attention on the warmth of her hands. He was soon able to take her snapping positively to the extent that he found it funny! On her part, she was unable to snap at him when he was holding her hands, so she had to shut her eyes to pretend to be upset. She was unable to go to grade 7! Later I asked him to leave her hands and sit with a distance, hold his own hands and imagine that he was still holding her hands, and then asked her to start snapping at him again. Surprisingly he was able to tolerate to 70% without being in physical contact with her.
    I am not sure how the success of this activity could be explained. Did I help create a connection between the right and left brain through holding hands of partner and later of self? Did I simply use a behavior technique? Did the physical contact help him to stay in touch with intimacy so that it discounted the vehemence of snapping? Or did I stumble upon another form of the I-to-I process through which he could develop tolerance to anxiety? Please guide.
    Vinod Chebbi, Bangalore, India.

    • Vinod-I will try my best to answer your question, although since you know the couple and were there with them, your observations might be better than mine.

      I think you were very creative. It seems like you created and discovered a new way to help him develop increased self soothing under stress. You originally created a new experience and thus a memory was stored in his hippocampus. Then you gave him a way to re-access it, and used bi-lateral stimulation of his own hands-thus accessing more regions of the brain.
      Intriguing and well done.
      In the future when you have specific questions, will you post it inside your members area blogs. I will give longer, more detailed answers there. This blog is for all the therapists on my list and not one where I will always answer. I was glad to see you will be back in September.

  10. Hello everyone,
    I just applyed the exercise to a young couple that wants to get married.They are toghether from 1 year. During the exercise, they did not speek so mostly they where sending non-verbal clues to each other. This is a couple in the first stage of symbiosis where the bond needs to be strenghten.

  11. Paper Exercise:
    Marcella initially came to see me in April 2010 for individual therapy. He was depressed, anxious and said he has a history of dysfunctional relationships. When he was 20 yrs old he met a women and had two children with her. Two sons, one 19 and the other 11. When I first met Marcella he was in the middle of a divorce but dating a women with whom he cared for a great deal. After several sessions I started working with them in couple therapy. I will call her Sharon.
    Marcilla and Sharon have a very dysfunctional relationship (symbiotic/dependent, I think). They both are jealous of the other. In my last session with them I decided to use the “paper exercise.”
    I gave the paper to them along with the instructions, telling them they had 5 minutes to decide who gets the paper. It went like this:
    At first they seemed awkward, more Marcella than Sharon. He laughed and said, “Are you serious?”
    Sharon initiated the first step.
    S: I think it is best that I have the paper…you know it is important that is kept safe…I think I can do that.
    M: Shakes his head. I don’t know about that…I don’t think I can give it up.
    S: This is a really important paper and I think I am the best one to keep it…you know how organized I am.
    M: Yeah, but I don’t know. I think I should have it. His demeanor showed how uncomfortable he was, how hard it was for him to give up the paper.
    S: I really think it is best if I keep it. You know I can put it in my file cabinet…where would you keep it. Together they said: “in the trunk of my/your car.” They laughed.
    M: I just don’t know if I can trust it. Again, struggling holding tight on the paper.
    S: How about I keep it safe, make a copy for you and you keep the copy wherever you want.
    M: He breaks out in a big grin…Okay I can do that. He gives up the paper.
    What happened next was the powerful part of the exercise. Marcello opened up about all the betrayals he has experienced and most of them from people close to him.
    1. His father died in an auto accident when Marcello was 11 yrs. old. He was very close to his father. He helped him on the farm…they both shared an interest in cars.
    2. His mother fell into a deep depression (he only recognized this at the time of the sesson.) After his father died his mother completely disconnected from his father’s side of the family.
    3. He had two children with a women he never married. He describes the relationship as hostile…she cheated on him and stole money from him.
    4. One of his sisters and his mother abused the credit card,without his knowledge. When I asked how it was that he was unaware they did this, he replied: I trusted them.
    5. His wife also took money from him. Together they did not have children. At some point in time he bought a new home. When he decided to leave his wife. he wanted to protect his assets. He asked his brother to put his name on the deed of the house, taking Marcella’s name off. They made arrangements for his brother to make monthly payments and Marcella sent his brother a check. His brother failed to make the house payments…he had a gambling problem. He used Marcella’s checks to paydown his debt. The house went into foreclosure. Another betrayal.

  12. I’d tell them that the marriage and children are not easy to split or put into one person’s hands and it would be best to choose something else.

  13. Hi Ellyn, I have started practicing the paper excerceise, but many times the couple or one of them insists in choosing the marriage or children. Should I listen and take tis attitude as a diagnostic issue or insist they should choose something else?

  14. Thanks to all who are writing. The goal of this exercise is to learn about the couple’s process-and especially to see what happens if they each want something different. There is only 1 paper. The goal is to expose what they do that is problematic and gets in their way. Not being able to take the paper may mean that the issue is not resolved yet, it may reflect guilt or anxiety or a feeling of obligation about receiving. If an attitude of disdain shows up, I would ask that partner what type of relationship they want to be in.

    • Do you allow them to tell each other what the item actually is? I am currently doing this activity with a couple and i prohibited them from telling one another.

  15. Regarding the paper exercise…
    What happens if they both just hand each other their papers?
    What happens if they don’t want to take it from the other?

  16. Hi, Ellyn, Pete, Michelle and Friends,
    So nice to blog again!!!
    I never knew that such an exercise existed – until you introduced it in our teleseminar. Since then I have used it in 4-5 couples, but could not make out much except some conflict-avoidance and aggression. May be I need to listen to the recorded session again and again. But, Ellyn, your description of the purpose (six points) – it’s just wonderful! I will follow it up again with my new clients and get back to you. And I have a question: What if the issue between the couple is entirely about bringing up the kids – for instance, wife is burdened with caring for kids and the husband is reluctant to give a hand to her and bears a “don’t bother me” attitude?

  17. This is one of my favorite exercises with couples. I videotape it and often go back over it with them in a subsequent session. I also add “pets” as exclusions.

  18. Loved the Paper Exercise. Used it already with a couple and found it a great diagnostic tool that made the couples’ typical and often unproductive method of conflict resolution so visible to them, as well.
    Thanks for sharing the exercise.


  19. I’ve been using this exercise for years (thanks f=to Ellyn) and I’m interested in it’s latest evolution. I’m SO relieved to see the caveat “except your marr or your children.” I’ve always thought of adding that! It imagine it will really heats things up for some of those more symbiotic cpls to add that exclusion, whereas that dynamic can’t be sniffed out quite so quickly if they’re ‘allowed” to choose the more comfortable option of marriage, children. Love that exercise… and thanks for the change!

  20. Hi Ellyn and group
    I just wrote up a wonderful session I had last evening with a couple. I lost it all and I am too tired to re-write it. I used the paper excercise and it was a powerful experience for me and the couple. Together they worked through the exercise in a respectful and communicative manner.
    Too tired to re-do…Helen B.