Ellyn Bader

Choice Traffic SignA very distressed, acrimonious couple comes to see you for couples therapy. They’ve done significant damage to each other over the years. It seems they will fight about anything and you feel like you are getting nowhere. All your best efforts are thwarted. You say to them, “I’m sorry to give you some bad news. You are faced with two ugly choices. This is probably not what you want to hear. Yet, it is your current reality.”“Choice number one. You can keep repeating the same destructive, draining, self-protective behaviors and suffer more of the same miserable consequences. Choice number two. You can do the difficult work of breaking these patterns by learning to resist the impulse to interrupt, blame, or disengage and withdraw into your cocoon. You can make the effort to become a skilled listener. You can actively learn what you do that makes it so difficult for your partner to be more giving to you. And you can learn to represent yourselves well without assaulting one another. Or more simply – choice #2 consists of meeting the challenge of changing your focus from defensiveness to collaboration. I sit here wondering which choice you will make.” Transformational leaders are able to:

  1. Articulate a vision that excites the imagination – and chart a path to achieve it.
  2. Focus outside of themselves on what needs to be transformed rather than being weighted down by their own fears
  3. Inspire clients to believe in themselves and their ability to change
  4. Take risks to confront regressed behaviors and expectations
  5. Portray competence, confidence and certainty that encourages clients to work hard on repairing hurt, betrayal or disillusionment

What do you think of this disarming confrontation with bitter, fighting couples? Do you like it? Hate it? Can you imagine using it? Or, are you thinking, ‘I’d never use it and here’s why…?’ Let me know in the comments section below.


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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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.

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Sam Leong
Sam Leong
8 years ago

You must have been listening in on one of yesterday’s session that I had with this acrimonious couple. Despite the modest gains they have made with my attempts to teach them to interact not out of defensiveness and reduced reactivity, they get stuck time and time again in their fears and return to blaming and attacking each other.
Yes, I felt the need to give them the two choices again early in the session. However, my mind went to only one choice – limited idea of – “you two need to consider a separation since you keep hurting each other.” The husband asked what this would look like while his wife agreed that maybe separating with the way to go. But somewhere in the second half of the session, the husband (lower functioning of the two with ADD/OCD) was able to speak with less fear and speak of his heart felt gratitude for his wife of four years. His wife softened and shared how she finally felt appreciated for all her efforts. This soothing moment was further enhanced as I directed them to hold eye contact as the husband expressed his gratitude.
I still have much to learn about being a transformational leader and reading your description of this disarming confrontation has inspired me to get back to the basics of the developmental model that you teach.

Thank you!

Nelly Venturini
8 years ago

This is exactly what I do. I refuse to play referee and become part of a dysfunctional system. It works every time.

Carol Posey
8 years ago

I think the way in which you outlined the choices for your couple has the potential for becoming a turning point for them. And…youyou made it clear that the choice is theirs and that you are willing to be of help.
I don’t think you said how long you had been working with this couple, but I suspect not too long or else you (or any other therapist) would run the danger of becoming part of the system.
You are very helpful in how you suggest to your clients and the rest of us, productive paths to choose.

Day Piercy
8 years ago

As someone who struggled for a very long time with therapy failures and finally learned that trauma triggers were the source of my problem, I also would offer a third choice of teaching people basic Alexander Technique practices to open space for the possibility of a different outcome. I learned that when my body was in a trauma posture and the energy of trauma triggers flared, it didn’t matter what choices anyone offered. I didn’t have the power to make a choice. I was a defensive little girl fighting for my life all over again. Maybe when more people understand that this is what is happening to them and that there are body-mind physical activities and techniques that can change the dynamic, some new possibilities will open for them personally and therefore in their relationship with each other.

Carmen Cubillo, LAC, LAMFT
Reply to  Day Piercy

Yes noticing triggers and trauma I agree make one reactive and not thoughtful. Both people would need to feel very safe before trying this approach. So that is the key, when primal bran in reactive not much works. Question now becomes how to create this safety sense in them?

I thought the script was excellent, but how could you ever present this script when there is no trust? This script makes many assumptions. Say husband is living a double life in his own house, refusing to follow throught on promises made or even on his marital vows and a long enough time has passed where promises are lip service, and it is evident new husband has abandoned the relationship or was never present in new marriage b/c behavior indicates this? Yet due to the avoidant/hostile nature of attachment style keeps stringing on “wife” who lives independently. Excuses that now is not the right time, to create a life together or follow through on promises, due to what ever issue he can come up with, basically many omissions, breached promises,essentially abandons wife, while attempting to seduce other women? Denies all when approached or directly questions, gets aggressive defensive, stonewalls. Like the hostile and avoidant examples in the books that Ellen describes but more so. No trust is left in marriage.

How can you ask for trust and doing something else like this when the couples history like this one above shows patterns of promise violations, betrayals, infidelities and lack of honesty in one spouse? Would this not be dangerous to make deals for the other spouse? Do we make sure that you are starting out with a couple where both people are actually able to be in a relationship, not all people who try to couple are able to do this, no matter who they are with, and individual counseling is very important before attempting anything further.

Insight, willingness, honesty are all a vital part and must be working and present in the couple in order for something like this script to be effective, other wise it might be too dangerous and it might result in more damage by encouraging couple to repeating false promises, false agreements and create more trusts violations, thus encouraging the patterns that have not worked in past.

Of course since trust is the problem to begin with, this sends the couple in an eternal catch 22. This type of person would not got to counseling to work on themselves b/c they have no ability to perceive problem or empathize. If spouse dragged them, they did they would tell the counselor everything they felt counselor wanted to hear, ie visitor….. create distractions, long enough to get out the door. The fact that in the example the assumption is, the married couple was living together, tells me they at least were wanting to be more present in a shared life, they bickered but the example said nothing of not trusting each other.

I read other posts & it seems that when there are emotional connections offered, or even safety throught reduction or loss of trauma triggers, the connection is more effective, and most but not all people, can heal and rebuild trust …and that gets us into Sue Johnsons work.
Your no nonsense style is sometimes too pragmatic makes assumptions as to the normal functioning ability of the couple…that they just took the wrong path & need a road sign, and they are arguing over the exit they took ….those coupes you can work with, but …..sometimes a couple is not even in the same car, or on the same road. As a therapist how do you work with that? and how do you know the difference?

What type of assessment should we do before presenting this skit to them, to screen for red flags like mentioned above?….I liked it and will try it…let you know…in all honestly if people were more present and pragmatic we would all live in a much healthier world. You set a good standard of normal healthy functioning as a couple, just saw the clutter video great & funny as well…Thanks again Ellen this is so helpful….

Claudia Crawford
Claudia Crawford
8 years ago

Oh Ellen,

Again you have given negative energy clarity, allowing the path for transformation to positive energy. Thank you!
I find that such authentic straight forward naming of what is really going on separates out those who want to be part of the relationship but don’t know how, from those who don’t or who are not yet ready.
I recently lost one couple who cannot let go of their patterns, who are threatened and felt unheard because I wouldn’t join them in doing the same things over and over and expecting a different result; and another couples who were the most difficult I have yet to encounter, who are choosing to work.
Thank you always.

8 years ago

I agree trauma is hugh in many situations .. It will sabotage the session every time.. I liked what you said that you did not have a choice..We can play around forever and not get to what
is really happening..Clarity is a great gift.

jenny A
8 years ago

Thank you again, Ellen. As has happened so often, you have succinctly phrased the challenge to use in session with these anxious, hostile people. Presumably you have already engaged to at least a reasonable degree with them, and attempt to convey the idea that your challenge is offered out of care and concern for them in the present moment, but with their future clearly in your view.

8 years ago

Thanks Ellen for the clear and positive suggestion. I believe I am using this technique but it is good to hear from you and you articulated the options very well.

Frances Weesner
8 years ago

Brilliant! Way to point out the current entrenched patterns of negativity and destruction and offer offer the choice between continuing in the current pattern or opting for the stretch and struggle but positive outcomes of intentional change. Thanks for your insights and willingness to share great tools!

Elizabeth Bennett
8 years ago

Thank you for this,

I have tried to be as direct as I thought I could, should be but to no avail.
Your recommendation about being the leader in the therapy gives me validation to call it like I see it. My couple is stuck, he is the nice guy who
is there for co-workers and friends usually ignoring her desires about what she wants. She does not feel like a priority to him, something he denies, and when the inevitable conflict occurs her reaction is usually negative and at times quite emotional. This then becomes his justification for describing their problems as her doing. He can be quite self righteous and disinterested in looking at their dynamics because “look at her – she’s out of control” and “look at all I do and have done for this family” She often is not direct in dealing with him, can be quite sarcastic and holds on to to problematic issues that although understandably hurtful are not presented in a way that allows for compromise.
At this point he is not coming in with her because he initiated therapy so that she could be fixed/cured.

deryl goldenberg
8 years ago

really enjoyed the discussion here. I loved the way ellen and pete outlined the choices for an acrimonious couple. and then enjoyed the mention of trauma. I think there are two kinds of couples…those that can recognize that they bring their past, (ie., trauma) into the relationship, and then have a chance to reconsider the body’s mind–its self regulation dynamic,. and how early childhood trauma messes with our nervous systems most significantly ..and then there are the couples that don’t have familiarity with themselves to that degree…
that makes the .keying off one another so justifiable and tricky to deal with. getting their attention with two choices is a good start. and then trying to inspire some new pattern breaking responses.
Alexander technique I don’t know about, but virpassana meditation, I do and will recommend it to clients alongside our therapy, as learning to slow down and have a simple focus, helps the body recalibrate, and then this can be used during those tramatically triggered crazy times. the challenge is catch oneself before falling into the body’s catastrophic alarm sensors, and predator response. even tho we are no longer being hunted on the plains by our predator cousins, it still feels like that to our primitive survival oriented brain.
lets keep this thread going…as am interested in helping couples in my practice, but do feel like they need a psycho-educational piece to help them understand this additional dimension — this traumatic stuff from the past, the unconscious overriding of their good intellectual intentions…inspiring them to catch onto their primitive thinking arsenal so as to not take their heightened sense of alarm so seriously. instead letting this thunderstorm run its course, let the squall squall…let it run its course through them, and once regulated they can begin to act and think with sensitively with perspective.

Dennis Minno
8 years ago

I like this firm, caring confrontation very much. I have used a version of choice #1 with couples but have not delivered choice #2 in such an encouraging and compelling way. What I like most about it is how it puts ME in a different frame of mind and releases me from my tendency to be over responsible by have to “make them understand” how negative this pattern is. On some occasions I have cited Rodriguez and Richter’s summary of how the alarm response of the autonomic nervous system can “hijack” their ability to listen and respond with less reactivity (Clinician’s Digest in the Sep/Oct 2013 Psychotherapy Networker). Thanks for your thoughtful intervention.

mark loeser
8 years ago

As always, very pragmatic and helpful. I will be sure to use it tomorrow. Either that, or I will strangle both of them.

Sayed Jalal
8 years ago

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Sayed Jalal
8 years ago

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Stana Paulauskas PhD
8 years ago

Thanks for the reminder that sometimes we have to set limits with clients, both for them and for the integrity of our work with them. This post gave me the fortitude to kindly but repeatedly talk with a husband who only wants his wife to change, as he believes that is the “core issue”. He uses this to distract from his need to make changes (he made changes for years, he states, and she didn’t do “a thing.”) But his current behavior/reactions are so damaging, he feels justified, and wife continues to withdraw. I repeatedly asked him yesterday to construct an appropriate apology for his wife, for calling her a “f…ing retard” when she didn’t surf the web fast enough for a phone number while they drove in the car (She got out and walked home at the next stop). He refuses to apologize for this insult. Don’t know where he will land, but I told him I may not be able to work with him if he is not able to be part of the solution, in spite of what may (or may not) have happened in the past. His dynamic with me, is exactly the dynamic in the ther. relationship. We have to make a change somewhere. Thanks again for the support in being clear, and setting a limit. It helped me feel much more effective, and not as helpless and angry as in the past.
at the next stop).
contribute to the repair of a very distressed relationship.

8 years ago

Thanks to all of you for getting involved. I like the different mentions of meditation and Alexander work as avenues to manage emotional regulation and trauma. Sometimes it takes a firm but gentle confrontation to get some one’s attention and recognition that there is something they themselves can do!

Kathy Hardie-Williams, M.Ed, MS, NCC, MFT

Ellen…it is so validating to read what you wrote about being a transformational leader. I do the process you described and sometimes, those ‘insecure tapes’ start playing….Am I doing the right thing by confronting this couple? Causing further harm? Will I lose them? Will this work? etc. So, thank you for validating the direction my gut steers me in and that I need to continue to trust it.

Lori Collins, M.S., MFT

Dear Ellyn,
So grateful for your words of wisdom, and continuing to guide me to be a transformational leader and couples therapist. Your articles are booster shots of what it takes, both personally and professionally, to be an excellent couples therapist.
Thank you,

Lisa M. Stanton
8 years ago

I like the idea of framing the intervention in the form of a choice for the partner. That puts the responsibility for their role in the issues they are having in their hands. Your emails are very helpful, Ellyn. Much appreciated!

Mary-Ruth Dowd
8 years ago

I like this approach. In fact, I’ve long used it myself to good effect. It was valuable though, for me to read that it is your approach too. It’s an approach that makes sense. Providing a new perspective (vision) for couples, plus what the process of therapy (& client work) will be to achieve this end result, all laid out before them in the first session, restores HOPE to couples who previously felt hopeless, o/whelmed, had tried their best and failed. Couples rarely fail to decide to give the therapy plan a go – and they rarely fail to improve.

Mark Edwards
8 years ago

I think the mention of meditation, Alexander technique etc arises from the recognition of the therapists that often in couples work individual therapy is a required adjunct if change is going to be accomplished by the team.

Tanvi Patel, LPC-S
8 years ago

Yes, thanks Ellen, and I agree with most comments here, giving the choice to the couple has proven helpful and shifts responsibility while removing the therapist from engaging in or becoming part of the harmful system. However it hasn’t always been effective for me. There have been times the couple is simply at therapy to say “we tried everything” and don’t seem fully committed to changing and improving the relationship. This choice has been received by some couples to mean that alas! there is no magical solution this therapist can offer me, not can they change my spouse, we are going to stop going in a matter of 2-3 sessions.

But the fully committed couples, ahh the change in dynamic that occurs when they accept the choice to change and listen is truly amazing to witness. This is when hope returns to the relationship, reconnection, relief from the anxiety and other symptoms of distress slowly resolve, and steps towards trust and intimacy are made. Thanks again Ellen.

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