Ellyn Bader

Nov 2012 infidelity255At the end of last month’s post, I asked you to think about a couple’s unfolding history and share how you would structure treatment after disclosure of an affair and a history of lies and deceit. What might you say to them at the end of the first session? And what would be some considerations for you in structuring the next session?  

An important consideration for me was how quickly the husband seemed to be rushing towards divorce while simultaneously wanting an amicable divorce. He’d been married to his wife and had lied to her for many years. Fearing conflict and not wanting to apologize, he’d been evasive and secretive. They had two children together. But he wanted out and he wanted out quickly. He avoided significant issues in the marriage and now wanted to handle the divorce the same way, in essence deceiving himself about how easy it might be to achieve a friendly divorce.

His wife was furious. I knew there was no way he would get an amicable divorce if he rushed through separation and divorce. And I knew that in a very short time I had to make an impression strong enough to get their attention but not so strong that I scared them away.

I also knew that if he returned to therapy to please me and please his wife, I would have very little leverage to encourage change in their patterns and I’d be unable to trust what he said or did. His history of conflict avoidance and adaptation to his wife and mother was quite pervasive and I did not want him to replicate that with me. And his felony lies were extensive, but I did not believe he was a sociopath.

I will pick up the session near the end after we were discussing his pattern of apologizing to avoid conflict. If you'd like to read  the first part of the transcript you can see it here.

Here’s how the end of our first session unfolded:

Ellyn: You’ve never really had a real chance to find out about your compatibility because the foundation of your marriage has not been honest.  How do you feel when you say to her you wish you had done some things differently?  

Husband:  Well it’s just the same old apology.  You know I’m always apologizing.

Ellyn:  Apologizing is a lot different from being accountable and responsible for what you say and do.  You were saying, “I wish I had stood up for myself better.  I wish I had confronted you more directly.”

Husband:  (Looks surprised) Well, you’re right.  I guess that isn’t what she wanted me to apologize for.  That’s what I wish I had done.  The real cause of my distancing myself from her is that I just never stood up for myself.  Right back to the very, very beginning,

Ellyn:  Does it seem like the only way to redeem your self is to get a divorce?

Husband:  I’ve sold myself out to her for so long.  It’s hard to imagine that I could ever work through all that resentment and come to a place where I love her again.

I then summarized the session:

Ellyn:  I think each of you has a very tough, independent decision to make about whether you will keep talking, how you will keep talking, where you will keep talking, and in what form you will keep talking.  And whether with this crisis you want to change this 20-year pattern. You certainly can repeat it – that would be the easiest thing to do.  

Husband:  Or the other option, which I’ve thought about, is just go to the lawyer, get the divorce and don’t talk to her anymore.  Quite frankly, that’s what I’ve been thinking of doing.

Ellyn:  I’m not sure that’s any different than the 20-year pattern.

Husband:  He laughs and says: I see you’re right and that really isn’t what I want to do.

Ellyn (to husband):  The different pattern on your side would be talking about the tough issues with her, working them through instead of apologizing for things you don’t feel sorry for, and working through the tough issues  with her directly.  But I’m not sure that’s what you really want to do.

Ellyn (to  wife):   And you would need to decide whether or not you really are prepared to hear the honesty. You will be listening to some difficult truths.

Husband:  I do want to break the pattern.  I get frustrated in my attempts when it seems like we just keep going over the same old territory like we have been for the last 3 months. Nothing changes.  I definitely don’t want to be in the same spot 6 months from now that we’re in now and I really don’t feel like Francesca has moved at all.

Ellyn:  You have not given her a real chance to move. She shouldn’t have moved.  You haven’t been telling her the truth.  In fact for the last 3 months you’ve been creating a more difficult situation where you’ve been saying she should believe you and she was crazy when she didn’t believe you – when in fact you’ve been lying.  You’ve been saying she should believe what she really shouldn’t believe.

Husband:  That’s fair.  Touché!

Ellyn:  I’d like to know as honestly as you can what are your feelings about our session today?

Husband:  We got at real issues for the first time.

Wife:  Today we talked about things I wanted to but never got to with the other therapist.

Ellyn:  I won’t schedule another appointment right now. I’m challenging each of you to think hard about whether or not you want to come back.

(to husband) If you come back, I’m going to be asking you to come clean in a way that you’ve never come clean before. Really lay the facts on the table.

(to wife)If you come it means I will be confronting you, I will be asking you to listen, to stop jumping in. I’ll ask you to say things differently than you’ve said them in the past.

I want each of you separately to make your own decision about whether you want to go ahead with the kind of work I’m talking about.  There will be excruciating moments and it will be very different from how you’ve related to each other in the past.  I would like each of you separately to decide and separately to call me.

Husband: The insights that you’ve had have certainly been – should I say – refreshing, if painful.  

He tries to make an appointment and I refuse, saying, “I’ll give you the videotape to take with you and then you call me after you’ve watched it and taken some time to think about it.”

In about a week, I heard separately from each of them that they wanted to return.

Again, I’d love to read some of your reactions. What do you think about the direction I took? How would you say things yourself?.  Of course I appreciate positive feedback as much as anyone, but you are also free to suggest other approaches. After reading your comments I will post the outcome of this case.  Thanks for your involvement.


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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Nan Narboe
8 years ago

Lovely. As I “feel into” the session, I imagine the couple’s relief (At last, the issues are on the table) as well as their shock. (The issues are on the table. You may or may not want to deal with them.)

But most of all I feel warmed by the sense of protection you offered them — while also asking them to imagine choosing, individually, whether to take an unfamiliar step forward. Lovely.

8 years ago

I think your response was right on. When we don’t call clients on their failure to be honest (especially with couples of course) then we just basically endorse the status quo. Agree with comment above. Inviting clients to be accountable empowers them which definitely beats the role of victim.

Anne S.
8 years ago

I appreciate your having each indivdual decide for themselves whether to continue. I realize I would have made it more plain how appauling husband’s behavior (felony lying) had been but in doing so may have scared him off prematurely. There now will be time in future to do that.

8 years ago

I always wonder how to educate them about continuing down the path of least resistance, the easy out, vs taking on the challenge of growth through addressing the real issues. Especially wehn feelings are predominant in the decision to move forward..
Can you brek down how you separate and enlighten the options to break the comfortable pattern?

Annie V
8 years ago

I really liked the apology vs. Accountability and responsibility take on it.

Chris Sam
8 years ago

This posting is very timely for me. I have just started working with a couple who have had a very long term unhappy marriage. They have both been conflict aversive. In therapy she has been more willing to take chances and try new things in an effort to change the pattern, he has been very resistant to change always wanting to “solve the problem” by asking her what she wants him to do and then resenting her “being critical and controlling”. I have felt stuck with them and your suggestions have given me an idea for how to get me and them unstuck. Thank you

8 years ago

I liked how you handled this session very much. Telling the wife that she needs to be prepared to hear some” difficult truths” is a great way to prepare her to listen to his feelings or concerns. Also stating you were going to ask her to” say things differently” and to really listen is great. So often, it seems, the spouse who has been cheated on doesn’t want to hear these difficult truths and instead wants to blame and put all the therapist’s focus on the badness of the cheater. Especially in the avoidant patterned couple.
Thanks for a nice way of clarifying the problem for this kind of couple!

8 years ago

I am curious to learn how you help the wife rebuild trust after so many years of felony lies.

8 years ago

I really liked your way of confronting the husband by pointing out the difference between his “apologizing” and “being held accountable and responsible”… and asking if getting a divorce might be a quick way of trying to redeem himself… which then led to his acknowledging never standing up for himself and feeling he had sold himself out for so long that he felt hopeless in ever being able to “love her again”.

I also liked the way you summarized your position and what you expected from each of them.  I am sure they both left with a great deal of respect for you for standing up to them and pointing out their pattern of lying to each other in different ways… and your not being afraid to confront them and actually giving them a role model of how not to avoid conflict… outlining the hard work ahead… and by not reaching out as an enabler to their dysfunction you showed them someone who was definitely in charge and as a source of challenge and help IF they really wanted it and were willing to put in the effort to make some changes. I liked your “requiring” them to own their therapy and have to do some homework if they were going to work with you.

I think I would have them write out their goals for themselves, what they want individually and as a couple… and what kind of relationship they want in the future… before they can return to therapy.  I think it could be helpful for the husband make a list of all of his lies and his fears of telling the truth and resentments for not being truthful.  I wonder if having an individual session might help him to purge himself and also reinforce his coming clean first with himself, then you and then with his wife.  I also think an individual session with the wife could perhaps help her into beginning to look at her own fear of standing up for herself and what gets in the way of her trusting herself to hear the truth.

I think the husband at some level craves to have his wife be strong enough to handle his vulnerability and truthfulness so he can learn to like himself and experience his own strength… but they both are so insecure and fearful and needing the approval of the other that they seem to be locked into their symbiosis of avoidance and distance. I look forward to your outcome of this case.

Barb Griswold, MFT
8 years ago

I liked the idea of getting them to go away and consider their committment to ongoing therapy, while clearly outlining what ythey would need to do, if they chose to continue. I think your non-judgemental but firm responses gave them the confidence that you had the strength and objectivity needed to wade into the murky waters of infidentliy without drowning all of you in the usual victim/perpetrator blame game. I also liked how you compared quick divorce as equalivalent to his conflict avoidant lies. I assume you educate clients about the different types of lies? I would think this could be helpful.

8 years ago

I like the idea of you saying to him that you have got away with things your way in a nice way but not with me and i am in-charge here. You also ask her to take responsilibity by telling her to prepare for what you don’t want to hear. This couple are doing in session what they do well in their relationship all the time. By not maintaining the status quo you are holding them both be honest, open and not blaming the other but to think and feel for themselves individually , which has not happened in this relationship before. This is also visible when you ask each of them to think about coming back . I would have them back together and be as firm and objective as you have been and challenging them if they want to save this relationship by each taking responsibility and each of them making changes for themselves rather than pointing a finger at each other. They might need some coaching for the change but this can be done later in individual sessions

8 years ago

I really like your honesty is holding both partners accountable for what the pattern is, and what they will be responsible for if they choose to come back. Although defences will be high, I also can feel their relief at having someone clearly outline what needs to happen. Under the defences I am sure there is a vulnerability/yearning to “come clean” on both sides and move forward in their lives whatever that looks like.

8 years ago

This was such a wonderful way of approaching what will be very difficult. I am imaging that she has her own part in not being able to hear his truth and it really set the stage so beautifully to look at the emotional trauma behind their way of interacting and differentialte in a way that can lead to sharing emotionally.

I am wondering how you will continue to hold your sessions as a safe place to be open, it’s such a deeply engrained way of living for this couple. I am thinking about discussing what will make it difficult for him to risk this kind of transparency. And I am thinking how much personal responsibility this will require of him.

For her I’m wondering about getting her to identify ways she can speak about questions that come up for her when she suspects in congruency.

Nina Raff
8 years ago

You are the master. It shows. I agree with all the things everyone else said they liked about how you handled it. It was brilliant, and a great lesson.

monique vazire
8 years ago

You set the stage very clearly: what each of them would have to agree to if they decide to come back. However, I feel the wife has more to lose or to risk since she does not want the divorce, so I would support her more by pointing our to her that she might have very good reasons for not wanting or being able to listen/hear what her husband had wanted to tell her all along. Often when we are not willing or able to hear something it’s because we feel too vulnerable – there might be an unbalance in the relationship in terms of power/money/influence/etc… in his favor, which put her at a disadvantage and I would be careful about not forcing her to listen to him before she feels supported enough. Conversely he might feel vulnerable to admit some degree of neediness to his wife (need to be supported even though he might have entered the relationship posing as a strong, dependable person) so he might resort to demanding that she be strong – and she might feel she cannot b that strong and feel shame about that. So I do think that both feel secretly too vulnerable to be honest about their vulnerability. Each need to be reassured that they can heal their vulnerable parts before being able to show up for the other. I know it’s easy to say all those things after the facts. I don’t know if I could hold all this well while facing them. To me , the hardest part for the therapist is to keep enough perspective so that I don’t let myself collude with one position or the other as I see each as being legitimate or understand the reasons why they resort to their behavior. It’s very tricky to hold compassion, yet to not excuse or condone or collude with the blaming or not being perceived as doing so.

debbie hecker
8 years ago

By suggesting each think about the course of action they want to take, you are doing a fine job of “differentiating” them and underscoring their autonomy and need to take individual responsibility for the outcome of the couple. Perfect.

Nancy Calkins
Nancy Calkins
8 years ago

I felt you modeled differentiation for this couple. You stood apart in a strong but gentle style of confrontation without blaming. You demonstated that the truth is something to embrace rather than deny. You said the hard things and nobody died! Finally, you opened the door for them to act in a diffentiated manner by having to decide for themselves if they are willing to set their own appointments and return to the vulnerability of truth. Loved it, a great model for them and me!

8 years ago

I am grateful for your sharing this case.
I would have the couple go away and decide whether they want to do the work
because therapy is not forced. I appreciate what you said about apoligizing and accountability. Too many clients say sorry because they are caught but no real desire
to make amends or be accountable. They want you to accept the apology and
ask no questions. thanks so much for your help so I can help others.

8 years ago

Hummm, interesting tack you’ve taken. I’d go a different direction. Here’s a guy in a room with two women and one of them is particularly angry with him. I feel curious about his lieing. Has he ever told the truth? When ? Where? What were the circumstances. Inquire of his story about lieing. How does he perceive that it serves him? In what way(s) does it serve him. Are there more satisfying ways to interact, ways that yield higher dividends and less costs?
It’s implicit in your (E) statement but I’d say something like “come back when you want to be honest and do your work. Then I can help you succeed.”
And where are her boundaries? Why has she enabled him for so long? How does his dishonesty serve her needs? Perhaps with him as the villan she can hide and avoid vulnerability and intimacy.

Sandi Wilson
7 years ago

I have a couple who are talking about divorce and there has been sustained verbal abuse for at least two years. During last session, husband exemplified his pattern of ‘fight’ when expressing anxiety; wife exemplified her typical ‘flight’, and his son, now 22, ultimately (after trying to rescue both of them) his ‘freeze’. I also left it up to the man and wife to make their independent decisions about conjoint therapy at this time and asked them to identify what issues they personally wanted to address if they chose conjoint sessions. Son told both parents the conjoint “is too hard for” them. Husband just wants everybody to forgive him and let him prove to them he has changed (which he failed to prove to his son immediately after the last session when he exploded because his wife refused to stop the divorce proceedings). Wife is not ready for conjoint because she is still to angry and still too hurt and “sick of” his explosiveness and verbal abuse and nothing he says is going to change her mind “right now”. Both partners say they do not want a divorce. Both say they love each other. BUT . . . .

My initial goal was to garner information sufficient to get past the blaming and try to identify what pervasive patterns had been eroding at the primary relationship IF they do choose conjoint, but at this point, the husband (who has been diagnosed as Bipolar and ADHD with obsessive compulsive personality) is the client and his abuse toward his wife and son is an issue being addressed in therapy. They both wanted a conjoint session and, in retrospect, I wonder if I maybe should have encouraged them to wait, but I scheduled the conjoint session when they both asked (she has a restraining order and does not talk to him directly). Though the conjoint did certainly help provide information about their pattern and though both were able to learn some new communication skills during the session, it was emotionally difficult for all three of them, and all three need time to assimilate new insights. I don’t know where this is going since conjoint is not currently on the table, but I do believe communicating during conjoint is the best hope they have for recovery and development of a new way of interacting. The emerging victim/rescuer/persecutor ‘game’ during the conjoint session was a micro-chasm of their relationship and it is possible they are not willing to take their personal responsibility for the destructiveness of their patterns of interacting. Even with emotional support, from each other and with therapist, all three are still in a holding pattern as to where they want to go from here. I have left the door open for communication and will have to see where this goes in the upcoming weeks.