Dr. Ellyn Bader and Other Experts on Differentiation at Couples Conference

Dr. Ellyn Bader presenting at Couples Conference 2016

Day 2 was on Differentiation at Couples Conference 2016. In a panel discussion early in the day, I set the stage for understanding differentiation by explaining that in thriving relationships, partners are able to…

Express their own thoughts, feelings, wishes and desires while being curious about their partner’s  thoughts, feelings, wishes and desires.

And with more solid differentiation, partners will…

Use their awareness of the other to make better decisions about how they function.

Of course it is easier to describe differentiation than it is to lead the couple there! And that is what development in couples work is all about.  Here are 3 examples demonstrating these principles that were discussed during the day:

Esther Perel, in her discussion of infidelity repair described the two different realities that are front and center for each partner.

  • For the affair partner, it is usually about growth and expansion.
  • For the betrayed partner, it is about loss and betrayal.

Successful repair requires each partner to listen, hear and respond to the other’s reality. This is not easy for either of them.

Here are a few of the differentiation-based questions Esther recommended for the betrayed partner to ask the affair partner:

  • What did the affair mean to you?
  • Did you feel guilty?
  • What did you discover about yourself in that relationship? How did you feel about it?
  • Did you discover new parts of yourself or recover lost ones in that relationship?
  • Are there parts of yourself that you want to bring into our relationship?

Terry Real demonstrated differentiation in his many examples of being direct and holding up a mirror for partners to see their self-defeating behavior.  He described one way to preface strong interventions.
This is the part, my friend, where I say, ‘I can be nice to you right now, or I can work to save your marriage.’ What’s more important to you?

He stressed the importance of the therapist’s authenticity. Demonstrating it to your clients means telling difficult truths right from the beginning of therapy.

Later in the day, Sue Diamond Potts and I did a workshop on Addiction and Self-Absorption with a focus on self-absorbed partners developing greater other-differentiation. It takes significant awareness of the other to get outside of a bubble of self-absorbtion.

Self-Absorbed partners don’t:

  • Listen without interrupting
  • Ask other-directed questions
  • Show genuine curiosity
  • Delay gratification
  • Understand their partners in light of the partner’s history

One strong leverage point of couples therapy is the desire to keep the relationship. This provides the therapist the ability to create tension for growth.  Sue demonstrated this by presenting the following addiction case.

The couple was in ongoing recovery, but did not have solid differentiation. They avoided conflict and were organized around the wife’s self-centeredness. In a particular session, Sue asked the wife to ask her husband the following question:  Do you feel I am giving as much as you are to our relationship?

There was a tense silence in the room and then he said, “No, not really.”

The tension built and the wife left the room. While she was gone, the husband strongly encouraged Sue to drop the discussion. However, when the wife returned, Sue persisted and, they all discussed the tension created by the husband’s honesty.

In the next session Sue continued by focusing more on the husband’s willingness to drop the subject. She asked him to address his fear of speaking up.

Husband:  I’m afraid you’ll blow up – you’ll snap and go to all or nothing thinking.

Wife: Gets silent and the tension begins to mount again.

Sue:  Can you tell her what is the worst thing you imagine will happen if you do speak up?

Husband: Yeah – that’s you’ll drink.

Sue then gives the wife the following question to ask and the wife accepts Sue’s developmental assist.

Wife:  Do you think if you speak honesty and I get upset that I’ll have no other recourse but to drink?

Husband: Yes, sometimes.

Wife: Has that kept you from telling me how you feel in our relationship?

Husband: On some level.

Wife: Can you think of an example of what you have held back?

Sue, by persevering and not folding in the face of tension and desired regression, enabled the couple to have a differentiation-based conversation in which the wife became interested in her husband’s fears that were holding him back from expressing more desires with her.

Often, an incisive question, asked at the right time can propel a couple forward when you don’t fold.

Please share any reactions you have to these comments. Better yet, share a differentiation-based question that has opened up important dialogue with one of your couples.

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Beth Reimel
Beth Reimel

very helpful examples of the therapist demonstrating differentiation in their interventions

Teresa Solomita
Teresa Solomita

So nice to read this as I did not attend this session (too much to choose from!). A really wonderful and helpful piece of work. Thanks for posting.

Dr. Sara Joy David
Dr. Sara Joy David

Excellent suggestions. I would welcome comments re contribution of external stressors such as poverty, racism, ageism, sexism, homophobia and toxic family members or friends.


Thank you, very helpful.


These are brilliant questions, framed against a background of authentic, non-folding energy of the experienced therapist. Great modelling….

Margot Maurer
Margot Maurer

I thought it was very enlightening. Sue was not intimated by the force of the .couple’s desire to maintain the status quo. It is very tempting to back off, .when in. reality, they really want you to pursue a different scenario.

Ana Franco
Ana Franco

I am curious: should a therapist pursue an issue
even if the partners don’t want to?
Isn’t that invadíng their privacy?

Michael Honke
Michael Honke

Thank you for the article. I found a number of interesting and helpful insights. However, I am not a fan of the concept of differentiation. I’m not sure if what you are presenting is the Bowenian sense of differentiation, but I find that some of the Family Systems’s concepts to harbor residues from the old, one-person psychology paradigm. From a perspective of modern neuropsychoanalytic, attachment theory, and interpersonal neurobiology, differentiation is a one-person psychological version of affect regulation that is fostered in secure attachment in a two person system. Mind-sight, creating safety and security for primary emotional experiences in emotionally focused therapy, and vulnerability and shame resilience found in Brene’ Brown’s research, all point to a sense of achieving emotional regulation and connection in spite of insecure attachment styles. This latter perspective seems to focus more on authentically connecting with others rather than thinking of it as achieving autonomous functioning. There may be overlap, and some fine distinctions between these different perspectives. I nonetheless always feel both enriched in some ways, and a bit uneasy when reading Bowen’s work…or David Schnarch.


Michael-I would like you to consider that you may be confusing differentiation with individuation. In our model, differentiation is a very relational concept. It takes solid differentiation to be a whole person who can self define and give to another at the same time. In this way partners don’t end up depressed and empty.

Mark Loeser
Mark Loeser

Ellyn, tremendously helpful, as always. The importance of differentiation just cannot be over emphasized. Thanks for caring so much about helping couples find happiness.

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader 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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