Peter Pearson

Colored concentric circlesSome partners just stubbornly refuse to be accountable for their own role in a mutual mess and you find yourself going in circles in therapy sessions. Perhaps they are resistant to your best explanations, insights, interpretations and confrontations.

Asking about their goals or what they are willing to change yields trivial results.

We have all been there.

Now what?

Here is one approach and what you might say to them.

“We seem to be going in circles  here. Let’s take a moment to review where we are headed. What do you each think is the purpose or purposes of our meetings?” Then, have a discussion about the purpose of meeting.

In this situation, please don’t ask for goals. The idea of setting a goal will often trigger distracting, unproductive thoughts in one or both partners. I will need to change as soon as I identify a goal, so I will describe goals for my partner instead of for myself or state tiny goals for myself. They may rationalize or give reasons why they should not have a goal until their partner changes xyz.

Asking about purpose seems to circumvent the goal dilemma.

Often they will respond by saying, “We are here to xxx (for example learn to communicate better or stop fighting so much).”

When that happens ask, “Will you say ‘I am here to’ rather than ‘we are here to’? That way I can understand your separate, individual desires better.”

Then comes the “goal question” but it is important to phrase it using a different word. The new word is “required.”

Let’s see how that works:

Just ask, “What do you think will be required of you as an individual to fulfill your purpose for being here?”

Expect a lot of dancing around from clients answering this question. If you get evasive replies, you can say, “This is the reptilian brain in action. It is normal for this part of us to avoid emotional risk, effort and taking the initiative to improve reactions. It’s quite common for the reptilian brain to think it shouldn’t have to do much in the change dept. So if you were to come from your best self what do you think would be required of you to create a more satisfying relationship?”

I think of this as having a collaborative discussion to create more meaningful sessions.

There are different ways to break the inevitable spinning cycle with distressed couples, hopefully you find this to be a useful one.

Please comment below. How likely you are to try this?  Better yet, try it and let me know how it works for you!


Peter Pearson, Ph.D., Relationship & Teamwork Expert for Entrepreneur Couples

Pete has been training and coaching couples to become a strong team since 1984 when he co-founded The Couples Institute with his psychologist wife, Ellyn Bader.

Their popular book, “Tell Me No Lies,” is about being honest with compassion and growing stronger as a couple.

Pete has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including “The Today Show,” "Good Morning America,” and "CBS Early Morning News,” and quoted in major publications including “The New York Times,” “Oprah Magazine,” “Redbook,” “Cosmopolitan,” and “Business Insider.”

Category: Goal Setting

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  1. The two coin riddle and the solution is:

    I have two American coins in my hand – they total 6 cents. One of the coins is not a nickel.
    What are the two coins?


    the two coins are a nickel and a penny. I said ONE of the coins is not a nickel. The other coin is a nickel.
    How we phrase or define a problem can either be clarifying or confusing. I would guess there are a lot of life problems that are harder than they need to be because they are defined in a confusing way.
    Stay steady

  2. Very likely to try! I like replacing the word goal, and any chance I get to help clients avoid the word “we” is a plus! Among couples that I have been seeing for more then a few sessions, I am well known to be having a pet-peeve about the word “we”. 🙂

  3. Thank you!
    Two powerful words (Purpose & Required). Yes, they do change the direction and accountability of the work and my clients have been able to be more insightful and reflective, in a way that brings about true change.

  4. Hi Pete,
    I met with just the husband (who had an affair and is trying to win his wife back) and talking about the reptilian brain really resonated with him as he had used that term in business. We then had an informative discussion about what would be required of him to create a more satisfying relationship if he were to come from his best self. A poignant moment was when he said he longed for his wife to turn towards him with openness and love and we discussed how he might show that to her and share his desire with her to have it be reciprocal in a way that she might be able to really hear him and believe him. Still a long way to go (and I keep reminding myself to sloowww it way down) and yet he seemed to hear more clearly and I’m hoping we can talk more about this in the conjoint session next week. Thanks so much, Pete, for your wise insights! This training with Ellyn and you is proving to be invaluable for me!

  5. Thanks, once again, for very helpful suggestions & the knowledge that I am not the only one who struggles with “going in circles” with certain couples. Like others, I plan to use this strategy tomorrow with a couple I have been thinking about since our last session, realizing that I am doing most of the work & wondering how to get some progress/movement/change. Also, I would like to hear ideas about the question a previous commenter asked – when 1 of the couple says “don’t ask me to do anything that will require me to change?” Describes this husband perfectly.

  6. I am so happy to know that I was not alone in getting stuck with couples leading them to define their goals. I will definitely use that! Thanks.

  7. Thanks Pete, I am going to try this today. I recognize that when the session is going in circles, I am working too hard.

  8. What would you say to the individual who says “Nothing is required of me to change-What would be required is for her/him to change?”

  9. Great article! What would you suggest when one of the couple says “Don’t ask me to do anything that will require me to change?” and yet, wants a different outcome than the one they are getting?

  10. I too avoid ‘goal’ in my work. Objective and priority are the two terms that I’ve collaborated to ’emerge’ within my work. I’m intrigued by the injection of the biological / neurochemical component (somatic WITH psychotherapy / counseling approach rather than 2 separate providers – my new learning and diverse learning curve): So for that thank you for the exemplary ‘orienting the field’ statement (THis is the reptilian brain… more satisfying relationship.’ I will be trying this in my current most dysfunctional relationship; being with my adult daughter… see where it takes us; hopefully into a new relational field of some permanence… I don’t do “couple therapy” but that’s an intention because it is a HUGE gap area in our jurisdiction; also family and group work. So I am staying tuned.

  11. Andre – i have yet to get a response from a couple that the reptilian brain was an insulting metaphor -although i can imagine I could describe it in such a way that it would not be so flattering – just about always couples find the explanation a relief.

  12. Wonderful intervention, Pete. Thanks
    I plan to use it tomorrow

    (And, I don’t know the coin puzzle but would like to know)

  13. I think I figured it out but only as I said the coin problem out loud to have my 7 year old help solve it. It’s interesting how saying something versus reading or thinking it can also change your perspective. I like these ideas of how subtle shifts in language can sometimes help to unstick couples

  14. I love it! I will use it!

    But I’m concerned the reptilian reference could be insulting. Do you recommend we try something so provocative when we are at our wit’s end?

    Perhaps I would make the double-bind clearer by suggesting they employ reason, foresight and compassion (theory-of-mind) from the higher-order brain areas unique to humans (the PFC) as the best self. I’m thinking about how lobsters or prawns enter a trap and are unable to find their way out — but we are better and smarter than them, since we can stop doing what’s instinctive and consider the problem more thoughtfully. I think this is what you are driving at?

    Thanks Pete, your master skills are much appreciated!

    (I believe I know the coins puzzle.)

  15. Hi Pete,
    I see more individual clients than couples. I think it’s a great manoeuvre for couples but I think this strategic intervention applies equally well to the individual who’s playing smokes and mirrors with themself.

  16. I know it, but I cheated! This is a perfect intervention for a couple I’ve been working with since October! Thank you

  17. Great article! I’ll be using this right away! I love the change from seeing goals to sound what would be required from you. Brilliant! And my husband and I can’t figure out the coin riddle. Any hints?

  18. “I know it.” Thanks so much for this article. I know two couples I will use this advice with in the next week. I have been struggling with how to get them moving. I believe this will bring more clarity to our sessions.

  19. Your subject line caught my eye. I am working with a couple in which both partners value being good people. Both, but especially one, are allergic to being flawed, being seen as flawed. Not my word in therapy. It is more than taking things so personally they have trouble feeling for their beloved, for one it is as if acknowledging anything less than rational behavior humiliates her and grieves her deeply and is intolerable to bear.

    Coming upon your article, I am reminded of a saying, “Coincidence is the myth of Western science.”

  20. Thanks, Pete. I seem to have a few couples going in circles lately! I like that stop,
    pause, “What do you think is the purpose of our meeting?”
    I like the change to “required” rather than what are you willing to do!

  21. Thank you both.
    This is my ‘go to’ tip. I say it with warmth and humor and empathy. Within the first 5 minutes, the couple spills, and I listen. Then, I give them each a piece of paper and say, “I can see how difficult things have become. Jane, I see why it’s impossible to live with Dick. Dick, I see why it’s impossible to live with Jane. You’re both on to something. Almost everyone IS impossible to live with…so I’m going to ask you each to make a list and write down why YOU are impossible to live with. Couples often enjoy this. When they finish, I have them read their list out loud. I go on to explain that their list about themselves is going to be a big part of our work…etc…. When one partner cannot come up with a single reason why THEY are impossible to live with–I know what I’m in for–and your tip will help me go to Plan B with fewer words. I often use the human brain, the mammal brain (for when they are getting closet to emotional regulation) and the lizard brain for threat perception. Using your idea will definitely help. Thanks.

  22. Sue – here’s another example about language making things foggier or clearer. Imagine I have two American coins in my hand. the two coins add up to 6 cents. One of the coins is not a nickle – what are the two coins? if any reader is confident they know the correct answer just reply by saying “i know it”

  23. Hi Ellyn and Pete, I think this is a short article which provide tips that can go long on change. What is required of you–is good! and I like the part about the reptilian brain, However I often recommend my couples take up dancing so you might learn some dancing steps to incorporate into your therapy. I will show you and L how to do it!! p.s You talked about your couples dancing around a question!

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