Ellyn Bader

 Recognizing When Your Client Defines a Clear Issue with Related Feelings

Today's blog post is the second in which we focus on the Initiator for more effective Initiation. We are explaining the steps with volatile couples as you begin working with them in the Initiator-Inquirer format.

The tasks of being an effective Initiator sound simple. The Initiator…
1.  Brings up one and only one issue/problem
2.  Uses “I messages” to describe thoughts & feelings about the issue
3.  Describes the issue without blame or name calling
4.  Is open to learning more about him/herself than was known before he/she started talk

For you as the therapist, this step involves asking yourself, “Did my client actually initiate?”

Be especially alert to whether he or she is, in fact, defining a clear issue and a clear feeling that connects to that issue.

It is common in volatile couples for the initiating partner to wander and talk a lot. They believe they have been clear, but in fact they have been quite vague.

They describe the context: ” You remember when we were discussing me coming home late?”

They may describe the partner’s behavior: “You were looking so critical.”

Or they may complain: “Your timing was terrible, getting mad at me when I was so stressed already.”

Even after listening for a while, you may not know what the issue is. It is so tempting to think a partner has actually defined an issue when they haven’t.  And if we are not sure how to clarify the issue, it becomes even more tempting to ask their partner to clarify it. However, this is our work. It is up to us to be sure a clear initiation has occurred before asking the partner to come into the discussion. Interrupt any interaction between them and work with the Initiator first to articulate a clear issue. This involves working more on self-definition, articulation of emotions and the main significance of the issue.

Another way to respond after you’ve heard a long description is, “ Now could you describe the core of the issue that you really want to discuss?”

Or, to help the Initiator be more specific you might ask, “When you’re done having this conversation, what do you hope to learn about yourself and what do you hope your partner will learn about you?”

It would help your colleagues if you post examples you spot in the weeks ahead. Here’s one that recently happened in a session with me. One of my clients said, “I want to talk about a trip I’d like to take. I know you won’t want me to take it. It’s too long and too far away. You’ve been mad other times when I’ve gone on eco-safaris.”

Or here’s another one: “I want to talk about us, what’s going on with us. I don’t get it. I say I want to talk and you don’t talk.  I want to talk. We never talk. When will you ever talk to me?”

And now it is your turn. What is wrong with these two attempts at initiation? What would you say to the Initiator to get more clarity? I look forward to reading your own examples.

As you read this article, I will be heading out for three weeks in Kenya and Turkey. I won't be responding to blogs or emails during that time. But I hope that won't stop you from writing.

I am going back to Kenya with the organization World Teacher Aid to help build a high school. Pete and I have been involved with this non-profit that builds schools in camps for internally displaced Kenyans. Last year we conducted a conference call and invited everyone to attend for any contribution they wished to make. The response was tremendous, so I know that many of you support this work – and I truly appreciate your support.  Last weekend Michelle and I shopped for all sizes of kids underwear and some toys/activities to bring along. I look forward to sharing this year's experience in Africa on the blog.

I have written one more newsletter on initiating that will be sent to you while I am gone, and I am eager to read your comments and respond to them after I return.


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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9 years ago



9 years ago

The first example seems to include an assumption. She seems to be angry about what she anticipates will happen, not what has happened. I would invite her to try to talk about the trip in session and take it from there. In the second example, it is too vague. I would try to help clarify by asking her how she approaches him when she wants to talks and have her do this in the session. Then how does her husband respond to her approach, how is he interpreting it (critical? punishing? intimidating?). Just for a start.

9 years ago

I agree with Michelle that the in the first example the initiator anticipates and therefore assumes her partner ‘s negative response. She is telling her partner what she believes he will say and how he will feel instead of talking from her own position of why she wants to go and how she feels about it. Already she is inviting her partner to either lie about any negative feelings he has, become defensive or feel that in order to prove that he is not as she describes, he must appease her by saying ‘yes’. It is difficult to have an honest discussion when your position is dictated to you! I would invite her to talk about this issue from the perspective of what this trip means to her, what she hopes to gain, how this would add value to their relationship. The second example is definitely too vague. What is it about ‘us’ that concerns you? What do you mean by ‘you never talk’? Is it that your partner is silent or is it about what you both avoid talking about? What does it feel like, that your partner doesn’t talk to you? Clarifying and asking her to reflect on the underlying issues and feeling about their lack of communications and what this means to her will then enable her partner to hear the emotional attachment she has to this trip.

Colleen Morris
9 years ago

Hello again, I am sorry that I failed to add my name to this previous comment.

Michelle Muff
9 years ago

For the steps of communication listed above: Do you ever ask them to identify prior to starting the first step, what thye what the end goal to be in this conversation. I think that would be helpful for them to focus on what they what to achieve in the conversation and to verbalize that. It would also indentify if thier motives were to change the other or to change self/couple relationship. If the partner says, “I would like for you to change _____” It would still be a helpful analysis and it could be considered part of his/her assertive communication.

9 years ago

In both of the examples above I would ask the initiator to clarify exactly what it is they are worried/anxious about, what it is they would like from the relationship and what that means to them. I find the issues are almost always vague but getting to the underlying feelings and keeping the tension there can help the inquirer to understand.

Pat LaDouceur
Pat LaDouceur
9 years ago

The first example starts out well but quickly turns to interpreting the partner and blaming. I would say something like, “This trip sounds important to you. Would you be willing to tell (your partner) what this trip means to you and what it would be like for you to go?” If she came back to how her partner doesn’t want to hear, I might point out, “he seems to be listening now…would you feel comfortable continuing?”

I agree that the second example is too vague as a communication, and has a lonely, wistful feeling to me (plus the frustration/anger of course). I would try to clarify the wish…to talk more, to spend more time together, to negotiate a difficult subject, or maybe difficulty with a certain kind of interaction … and then ask him if he’d be willing to talk more about what it’s like for him to be left hanging, lonely, or whatever. In other words, I’d try to clarify the topic and some of the underlying feelings, then ask him to talk about those.

For both partners, I also like Ellyn’s question: what do you hope to learn about yourself and what do you hope your partner will learn about you?

A Glossary of Terms that are sometimes Confusing

Couples Therapy is a counseling procedure that seeks to improve the adjustment of two people who have created an interdependent relationship. There are no standard procedures to help two people improve their adjustments to each other. Generally, a more experienced therapist will offer more perspectives and tools to a couple. Length of treatment will depend on severity of problems, motivation and skills of the therapist. A couple can be dating, living together, married or separating and may be gay, lesbian or heterosexual.

Marriage Therapy is a term often used interchangeably with marriage counseling. The term marriage implies two people have created a union sanctioned by a government or religious institution. The methods used in marriage counseling, marriage therapy and couples therapy are interchangeable and depend more on the specific challenges of each unique couple.

Psychotherapy is one or more processes to help improve psychological and emotional functioning. Examples are psychoanalysis, cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, Gestalt therapy, Transactional Analysis, Rational-Emotive therapy, or group therapy. Many forms of psychotherapy are blends of different approaches. For example, newer forms of psychotherapy called energy psychology draw upon recent advances in brain and neuroscience. These approaches often build on cognitive behavioral methods.

Clinical Psychologist. After graduating from college, it usually takes about five years of graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Psycholgy. It then requires an additional two years of supervision and passing a written (and often) an oral exam. There are a few states that allow psychologists to prescribe medications (with additional training) but that is uncommon.

Psychiatrist. After graduation from medical school, there is a generally a 4-year psychiatric residency. After the completion of this training, psychiatrists must pass an exam issued by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to obtain certification and legally practice in the field. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications.

Clinical Social Worker. This profession usually requires two years of study after obtaining an undergraduate degree. While specific licensure requirements vary by state, most require clinical social workers to obtain 3,000 hours or 2 years of supervised clinical experience, after obtaining a Masters degree. Social workers can also specialize in diverse fields such as human services management, social welfare analysis, community organizing, social and community development, and social and political research.

Marriage and Family Therapist. Obtaining this license requires a Masters degree which takes approximately two years of post graduate study. The license also requires 3000 hours of supervised work and passing written exams.

The Couples Institute. We have assembled a group of top notch therapists at The Couples Institute. Whatever marriage help or marriage advice you are looking for, we are here to serve you. While most other therapists see only a few couples a week, we specialize in marriage and couples relationships, working to develop and bring you the most current and effective approaches to couples therapy. For more information about couples therapy or marriage counseling, see our couples therapy section.