Ellyn Bader

Therapist Errors: Not Recognizing Protective Passivity

This blog post continues to focus on the initiator. Last month we looked at  recognizing a “non-Initiation.”  Remember we are discussing couples who have done very little active differentiation.

An important subtle issue that occurs in many initiations is passivity. Passivity happens as a self-protection when partners fear the vulnerability of self-exposure. They may have difficulty articulating what they desire or they may not even know. Today let’s consider a situation in which the wife is trying to initiate. She initiates a topic in which she passively insinuates that everything would be better if her husband would just go to her parent’s house for a family reunion. She uses statements like, “My sister and her family always go to these family reunions.“ She adds,  “My parents are aging and it is the right thing to do.” She goes on and on without ever directly saying why this is an issue for her or why she wants her husband to come.

This is a time when it is easy to make an error and create mischief for yourself. The wife’s request sounds easy. Why not, a family reunion at the in-laws? It is even tempting to say to her, “Will you tell your husband what you are wanting or needing from him right now?” She will gladly say, “I want you to go with me this summer”.  And her husband looks like a heel if he says no. And of course, this doesn’t make him feel warmly towards you or the therapy process.

Even worse, inadvertently you have allowed her to remain passive, to stay undefined and to pull on her husband before she activates herself.

Imagine how different it might be if you said to her, “ I am not sure what you feel about going to your parents for the reunion.” And with careful therapeutic questioning by you (and maybe even her husband), the session evolves and she says, “I feel conflicted. I want to go and I don’t want to go. I always end up depressed when I am at their house. I feel small. I do whatever they want. I lose touch with myself, with you and with our kids. I’m like putty in their hands. This year I’d like to test myself. Can I do better? Can I lean on you for support? Can I think more carefully before saying yes or no to what they want to do each day? I like joining in some of the activities, but I’d really like us to go off together some days as just our nuclear family. I’d like to depend on you (husband) for some support, and I am afraid to depend on you.”

Jumping into premature problem solving is a related error that’s easy to make. After the wife did the first Initiation, you might be tempted to ask them both, “Do you have any ideas what the solution could be?” Asking this would be way ahead of them. You would be caught in the content of the conflict and you’d be jumping way ahead of the wife’s development.

Watching the initiation has given you a window into seeing how much is unspoken and perhaps unknown by either partner. It is not your job to mediate a solution. Your job is to support their development and to encourage more openness to themselves and each other. You are a translator who helps her stretch into her internal world, to know herself better, to describe herself and eventually to hold onto herself in the relationships with those she loves.

Please share examples of similar situations where couples have been protectively passive in an attempt to initiate. These examples are not always easy to recognize. I’d also love to see questions you use to help a client verbalize his or her deeper desire.


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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barbara griswold
9 years ago

Let’s say the wife describes her reason for wanting him to come to the reunion as “I just feel you don’t do anything that makes you uncomfortable just for me. If you do, you act like I’m dragging you the entire time. I feel like if you really loved me you’d do things that you didn’t want to do, just because you know it pleases me. “

Lisa M. Stanton
9 years ago

What if the therapist is using a Solution-Focused approach at the couples’ request. Would the therapist still stay away from having the couple come up with solutions or merely wait until emotions about all aspects of the situation are explored?

9 years ago

Lisa-I think it depends on the goals. If the partners are there for substantial growth, I’d shy away from immediate solutions and work on changing their process.

9 years ago

I’m enjoying this series : )

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.