Fear of Couples Therapy

Many therapists are drawn to doing psychotherapy in order to be helpers and also because we enjoy the closeness with our clients. Individual therapy can be calming and comfortable. It feels good and we often like the experience of providing support and unconditional positive regard to our clients. I don’t mean to imply that individual therapy is without its difficult confrontations. But in individual therapy, our clients can titrate how slowly or quickly they inform us about their “dark side”. In couples work, the other partner may dump the worst aspects of their spouse on us in the first session.  And things escalate quickly because, after all, who is able to be openly, vulnerably accountable for their own behavior under these conditions? In couples therapy you will likely witness partners being brutal or very self-centered with each other. You may have to face how vicious a client can actually be. You will be called upon to make difficult confrontations. And these can be scary! Fear about doing couples therapy can take many forms. There is fear for some therapists about even getting started and there are the many fears we experience often in the room with challenging couples. Ask yourself what are some of your own fears? When we are honest with ourselves, there is a high probability that we have days where we feel overwhelmed and don’t know what is best to do or say, especially with high-volatile interactions. There are many occasions to feel confused, lost, insecure and inadequate. Continuing education courses often discuss theory, technique and interventions as if they can be delivered without risk. And done, objectively and calmly without fear. Pete and I wrote an article for the Psychotherapy Networker magazine on just this topic. And writing the article came with its own fears, since we decided to be very open and self-revealing. We initially wrote about 5 fears.
  1. The fear of inflicting pain
  2. The fear of making fatal errors
  3. The fear of confrontation
  4. The fear of being the bad guy
  5. The fear of facing ongoing discouragement
And the final article was published with a more in-depth look at three of these. If you haven't seen the article, you can read it at Facing Our Fears. We’d like to start an open dialogue here on the blog about fear in couples work. Please share your reactions to our article. What do you experience? What have you overcome or what do you still grapple with? What has helped you with your own fears? Thanks for taking the time to involve yourself with this personal appraisal. I hope you'll join the discussion by commenting below. Practical training goes a long way to overcoming fear of couples therapy. Our audio program High Impact Couples Therapy shows you how to get both partners aligned and working towards the same collaborative outcome. This five-CD audio program comes with a follow-along workbook. For more information or to purchase, visit High Impact Couples Therapy.

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Christina Dale
Christina Dale

Hi Ellyn,
I recently read the article you and Pete had written for the Psychotherapy Networker and loved what you wrote about the risks you took in doing couples work. I too have my fears about creating conflict situations in session. I had talked to a psychiatrist consultant about how to make therapy less volatile and conflict driven as it seemed that I was losing track of the sessions. His comment to me was to forget avoiding conflict because the conflict is there whether I am in the room or not. It was about my fears of how to manage seeing people argue and then feeling responsible to do something about it. I also had a fear of “doing more harm” as our professional code of ethics blatantly states that our duty is to “do no harm”. I did come to understand that if the couple is behaving in harmful ways in session, they are doing the same if not worse to each other when a therapist is not in the room to witness it. I took some training in conflict resolution and mediation process which helped me see conflict in a different light and which also gave me some tools to “sit” with the conflict rather than trying to solve it too quickly……I still struggle with this at times!

Ümit Çetin
Ümit Çetin

Hi Ellyn,
As you said in one of your clinical calls, clients coming in for individual therapy already display some ownership of the problem, while in couples therapy they are interested in fixing the other partner. This is one of the big challenges of couples therapy where our first task is to shift the couple from that position of lack of accountability. As we, therapists, usually like working with clients who are eager to look into themselves, it is understandable why we avoid doing couples therapy.
I loved your article for it is written in a so humble and transparent way, and it increases my awareness of the many reasons for the tendency to avoid couples therapy. Couples therapy means immediate vulnerability, immediate conflict, hostility, bitterness, pain, and hopelessness as shown succinctly by your case examples. When in couples therapy, we cannot escape from witnessing and experiencing these difficult emotions, while simultaneously trying to maintain our nonjudgmental attitude in the midst of it all and to decide on a direction. Sometimes, there seems no way out. Personally, I find it especially hard when one of the partners wants to get out of the marriage and the other does not want. Also, I used to feel uncomfortable with hostile couples, but have overcome it to some extent under the guidance of your training.
I understand from your article that it is our responsibility to invite more couples into our offices. The very structure of couples therapy gets directly into the heart of the relational problem, and helps people develop the necessary skills to meet the challenges of an intimate relationship in a relatively short time compared to individual therapy. Moreover, they get to know each other more completely in addition to going deeper into their true feelings.
Thanks Ellyn and Pete,

Reply to  Ümit Çetin

Thanks to you for reading our article and for your insightful comments. I have just been teaching at a conference where one therapist spoke to me about a recent problem he had. A woman client stormed out of a session and refused to return. She wrote him a nasty letter afterwards. His story reminded me once again of how even when we mean well, we can encounter hostility that is hard to manage. This can increase fear and make a therapist more tentative the next time.
Warm thanks for your ongoing involvement in our work,

Salomon Nasielski
Salomon Nasielski

Hi Ellyn,
Thank you once more for your newsletters, so enriching.
I many times came across the fear with fighting couples. Two reasons : (1) Transference : As a little boy I was terrified when my parents fought as I did not know what to do, because they had never resolved their conflicts, but rather covered these up. (2) Ignorance : as a little boy, I never witnessed any grown-up couples resolving their conflicts.
Today, I sit back, relax, and use in succession compassion and humor, back and forth. My strongest remedy : I keep telling myself that I do not have to stop them fighting. And I tell them so, also suggesting that the fight is more about testing the rope that unites them than about the stated reasons. If that gets their curiosity, we can move on. One of my dreams : Had I known this when I was a kid, no, nonono, I would not have tried that on them. Let their souls rest in peace. Thank you for your suggestion to remain calm, and to only do what can be done, when it appears possible.
Love to both of you,
With warm memories from your Sorrento workshop,


Hi Salomon-
How good to hear from you! Your comments are always personal which I value and appreciate. And both Pete and I remember our time with you warmly,

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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