Enduring Models of Couples Therapy: What principles have stood the test of time?

Enduring Models of Couples Therapy What principles have stood the test of time

Artificial Intelligence is currently one of the hottest topics in news and culture. I find it fascinating to think about with respect to couples relationships and also the client-therapist relationship. I wanted to have some fun kicking off the Couples Conference so I decided to create an Ellyn avatar to point out the paradox of the authentic AI therapist.

Here it is for your enjoyment.


The theme of this year’s conference was Enduring Models of Couples Therapy: What principles have stood the test of time?

We asked the founders/developers of PACT, RLT, Developmental Model, Solution-Focused Therapy, and IFS to do keynotes summarizing their principles or interventions that have had lasting impact.

The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy: Ellyn Bader

Let’s start with the 5 principles that I emphasized:

  1. Strong leadership by the therapist is essential. Without knowing where you are going you will easily get caught accidentally supporting regression and repeating the couple’s familiar negative patterns.
  2. Couples relationships can evolve through a series of predictable stages. Identifying the stage enables you to target effective interventions.
  3. Commitment to individual change matters. Without autonomous changes, partners stay stuck waiting for the other to change.
  4. Effective differentiation is the foundation for vitality, intimacy, managing differences, and forming an enduring loving partnership.
  5. Lasting change for clients in couples therapy comes from them taking emotional risks, sustaining effort, and building new emotional capacities.

The Developmental Model is not a pathology model. Your focus is not on symptoms but on stimulating developmental growth and increasing the emotional capacities of each partner. Using this model enables you to work from much more than intuition. You recognize where partners are stuck and you understand why. You learn to support partners taking risks and being accountable for their own growth. Doing this allows you to avoid interventions that are too far ahead of your clients and to identify developmental assists that will drive each partner forward towards the goals they want to achieve.

Internal Family Systems: Frank Anderson

Frank has worked for many years with both Dick Schwartz and Bessel Van der Kolk. He has expertise in trauma and dissociation.

He described the role of IFS in working with relational trauma. Trauma, whether it is past or present, blocks connection.

The goal of IFS is to release self-energy and access the inner resources of the client. 

In the face of trauma, people will either repeat, regress or learn.

The extreme or reactive parts (exiles) show up only when a wound is activated. Their role is to stop the pain, and they can come in the form of either hypo or hyper-activation. 

Of course, often with couples these extremes will also hurt the partner.

Much of the therapeutic work can be in the form of helping protective parts separate from the self and learn about themselves and their role. One example would be appreciating the positive intent behind blaming energy, so they can then hold space for compassion and empathy.

Solution-Focused Couples Therapy: Elliot Connie

Elliot described the 3 phases of solution-focused work with couples.

  1. What is the desired outcome? “What are your best hopes for us talking today?”
  2. Getting a more complete description of the desired outcome.
  3. Closing the session.

He described several ways to discuss the outcome. First you can dig more deeply into the positive history of the couple. Explore what it was that made them fall in love. 

Then move on to “What would you notice if you woke up happy and transformed?’

Questions are essential and the therapist is introducing love and hope via their questions.

As you move to closing the session, tell the couple that you appreciate them answering all your questions. Don’t presume a second session. Instead ask, “Would another session be useful?”

Throughout the work, the therapist aims to get the client proficient in solution-focused language.

Relational Life Therapy: Terry Real

Terry described the 3 phases of RLT. 

  1. Waking the client up to what is happening or what they are doing.
  2. Inner Child work. In this phase RLT practitioners focus on re-parenting the wounded self.
  3. Learned connection.

Terry focuses a lot on joining with clients through the truth. He will speak directly to the grandiose narcissist or the unrelenting victim.

In the 3rd stage of RLT, relational skills can be taught since so many clients had no good role models.

PACT: Stan Tatkin

Stan gave a very extensive presentation of the multiple aspects of PACT. Here is a summary of a few:

PACT is a poly-theoretical approach which has at its goal, secure functioning.

PACT is a difficult approach to master with a lot of moving parts, but when integrated, it becomes exquisitely simple, fun, and energy conserving for the therapist.

PACT focuses on experiential moments “show me” psychotherapy.

Secure functioning is available to most everyone. It is not the same as secure attachment.

Secure functioning will only occur if the couple therapist expects it. 

PACT therapists are above all investigators. They test and retest their hunches and hypotheses. They are constantly looking for the best version of the truth and then tailor interventions to what is in front of them.


I wanted to know what has been most important in each approach over time. I came away from the conference thinking about the essence of these presentations.                     

Above all, I love the creativity invested in finding solutions that will really help our clients. 

I was also struck by these similarities across many or most of the models:

  1. A focus on experiential moments in the room as the fulcrum of change.
  2. Difficult or triggered moments become the place for necessary repair and learning.
  3. Trauma in different forms interferes with connection and needs a way to be addressed by the therapist.
  4. There is no cookie cutter approach. The art of couples work will inevitably lead to growth in the therapist.

I think it’s healthy to be exposed to a variety of styles and approaches for your work. If you think about what aspects of a particular approach resonate with you, you might find ways to use them. I don’t recommend jumping from one approach to another haphazardly. Rather, use what works best for you and incorporate it into your own professional style. Or you might choose to immerse yourself in one of them –  train, study, and grow. I’d be delighted to welcome you if you choose to pursue deeper training in The Developmental Model. Training usually opens twice a year and you can get on the waiting list here.

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ellyn bader
ellyn bader

I do value and read all your comments

Ellen Lourie
Ellen Lourie

Thank you so much Ellyn! Reading your summary is a beautiful way to start on this Monday morning. I have been a subscriber to your training for several years and it has launched so much growth for me personally and professionally. I’m grateful!

Gayle Benator
Gayle Benator

Thank you, Ellyn, for taking the time to offer brief descriptions of couples theories. I’ve long been a fan of SFBT (solution focused brief therapy) and I’m delighted to see it presented for couples work. Your synthesization of different couples models is also much appreciated.

Carolyn McAleavy
Carolyn McAleavy

Thanks for this synopsis, Ellyn. I really value your model and after the first training several years ago, I recently joined the advanced/ongoing training. I’m finding it so helpful and ‘refreshing’ as it continually reminds me of the principles and refines my practice. I look forward to the Couples Conference every year.

Amy Guido
Amy Guido

Sounds like it was an amazing conference. I’m in my second year with The Couples Institute and love how you offer ongoing bonus calls with experts in others models. Your training process is one that always has more to reveal-at first I just wanted to understand it quickly but over time I’ve come to appreciate how you’ve slowed me down (to open and build me up) so I can help my clients do the same. Loving the model and what is done for me personally and professionally. Thank you!


Can we have access to the trainings and earn CE’s for viewing the playbacks?

ellyn bader
ellyn bader
Reply to  Adrian

They will be available from the Erickson Foundation but are not ready yet

Sue Diamond
Sue Diamond

Thank you Ellyn for taking the time in your very busy schedule to synthesize the models and their key points. I find it very helpful. I also admire your non-competitive approach, which welcomes others to share their ideas and approaches collaboratively. We all benefit greatly from it.

Carmen Cristina
Carmen Cristina

Your insights on the principles that have withstood the test of time as you analyze the different models is so
valuable. I will share this with the peer group that was a result of my level 1 training with you, because great ideas are meant to be shared.


Thank you Ellyn. Loved the poem, avatar and the summary provided. Appreciate all you do for supporting couples therapists. Working diligently through your book on the Deveopmental Model.

Kathy Hardie-Williams LPC LMFT
Kathy Hardie-Williams LPC LMFT

Very helpful Ellyn! Reading your summary was enlightening without the overwhelm. Thank you so much for the work you do; I continue to follow you and Pete and will for many years to come.

Andrea Tang
Andrea Tang

Ellyn, thank you. A beautiful and productive summary, one that took me back to the nuances of the conference and details from the various systems/speakers.
In appreciation always, Andrea


Thank you Ellyn. Appreciate looking at the positive ways each approach works. Loving your course

Cathie Hutchison
Cathie Hutchison

I love this collection of information and sense it enriching my approach to my work. Thank you


Than you Ellyn for this summary. Really useful. An eye opener. And really proud to be able to fully identify with the Dev Model principles having been learning with you now for the last 6 months!


I am an experienced couple therapist or some 25 years, accredited sexual and relationship . I am always open to new/or old approaches. Really appreciate you putting this together Ellyn.Really useful summary. I follow all your online work.


Hi Carole again as below, I also bought and use you Initiator/ Enquirer cards .


Lovely. Thanks.

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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