Ellyn Bader


I thought I’d write a few short blog posts that focus on the Initiator in the Initiator-Inquirer Process. Attaining successful initiation in the early stages of therapy is not easy. There are many subtleties that make a big difference.  In this series, I will write each time about one main point. I hope it will give you a focus in future sessions with highly volatile or very disengaged couples.

First is setting the context and providing structure.  Emphasize with the couple that the aim of the Initiator-Inquirer is to make a substantial change in the process of how they are with each other. Don’t focus on the content or problem solving at this stage. Without developing a different way to process challenging emotions and difficult topics, the couple will continue to hurt each other. Changing the process is absolutely essential.

Let the couple know that you will be active. You will be providing structure. You will be intervening often.  You absolutely do not want to get pulled into their chaos. You do not want the session to be too scattered.

Also, let them know that you do not expect them to get it right immediately.  Say, “It is normal to feel afraid or feel defensive when I ask you to take risks or to say something differently.“ Explain to them the importance of allowing you to coach them so they can attain a new and different outcome.

Ask them to alert you if they are getting reactive and defensive with you. Reiterate you want to be able to help them make a substantial change in the process of how they are with each other. For example, you might say, “Today’s discussion will not be about problem solving or negotiation, it will be about being different with one another. In fact, being able to have a discussion in which they really are different with each other in the office than they have been at home would be a grand success.”

Feel free to comment below on your experience with setting the context or to suggest ways of doing this.

If you are new to the Initiator-Inquirer Process, it would be helpful to read our blog post summarizing it. Click Initiator-Inquirer. Or for a demonstration of the process, get our DVD called “Neutralize the Anger.” It teaches the Initiator-Inquirer process and shows a demonstration of it.


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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Barry G. Ginsberg
9 years ago

I believe that structuring from the very first session is the key to success in couples therapy. It’s important to inform clients what to expect, be open about your values and assumptions and develop a collaborative agreement that secures a good working relationship. I also find that contracting for a defined number of sessions with an agreement to review the course of therapy and re-contract can improve outcome.

Dan Wile
9 years ago

I love the idea of telling them that the goal is not problem-solving or negotiation but to be different with one another.

9 years ago

I have typically dealt with process and content sort of simultaneously, moving back and forth between them so that we are working on two things at once. Wondering if this is not the best way?

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.