Ellyn Bader

Video: Helping couples see the best in each other

It’s like watching a storm roll in. One moment, everything seems fine. Then the couple you’re working with hits a stressful point. Tensions rise. Voices, too. Or maybe a hostile silence falls over the room.

Whatever the pattern, the result is the same. As the conversation turns bitter, progress stalls — and you find yourself searching for a solution.

When partners lose sight of one another

If this couple’s anger seems like a blind force, this might be exactly the point. Trauma from earlier relationships often makes it impossible for them to see each other clearly in the moment.

Partners who lived with emotional abuse and neglect, especially in childhood, may lack any model of constancy and love. They will tend to project the worst qualities of their abusers onto their present partners, which can launch them into fight, flight, or freeze mode.

When this happens, we need to guide them gently back into the present. Even though they’re feeling scared, can they acknowledge the loving, positive things they know about each other?

Small, memorable changes that move couples forward

Fortunately, there are practical techniques for helping couples see and acknowledge the good in one another. As their therapist, you can help them create memorable moments where small but significant changes happen. In noticing these behavioral shifts, you reinforce the repeatable steps that move them toward trust, intimacy, and mutual respect.

We had a great conversation about these patterns in a recent couples therapy training session. Here’s a 4-minute video clip that captures some of the discussion tips and insights you can use in your practice.

Let me know what you think of these suggestions. As always, my goal is to offer meaningful support and advice that will help you feel more competent.


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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25 days ago

insightful 3+ minutes. thank you.

25 days ago

Thank you. Please offer ways to help client who holds on to the painful events of the past understand that relentlessness List. And how to stop the pattern of going back

Elise Bon-Rudin
Elise Bon-Rudin
25 days ago

“Insufficient libidinal object constancy” – Wow! It was very good to hear this concept from object relations (if I remember correctly) flow easily in Ellen’s analysis. Marvelous. Thank you.

Namita ( Corinne)
25 days ago

Gently guiding them back to the present during the session and helping them find ways to do so outside the session. My challenge is often how they integrate the experience ( repeatable steps) during the session into moments of challenge outside the office.

Dr. Jose A Gonzalez LMHC

If you go deeper in your encounters you will be aware that it is your personality what works.

Joy Zeglinski
Joy Zeglinski
25 days ago

Love the little sound bites. Thank you.

Joan Crimmins
Joan Crimmins
25 days ago

Thank you for sharing this. I have a tough couple right now, so every little bit helps.

22 days ago

Very useful and inspiring. Thanks!

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.