Helplessness Underlies Many Control Struggles

I am pleased that many readers took the time to think about the last transcript I posted. I enjoyed reading your perspectives and seeing your comments about my interventions.

If you missed the first installment of this series you can read it here.

Before giving you the second section of the transcript, I want to reflect first on some of the questions and comments.

A very good, old friend from Belgium wrote and said that it was hard to understand the true meaning of each role.  So, let's start there.

The initiator is the person who takes action and raises an issue first. The initiating partner brings a topic to the attention of both people in the couple. Initiation can be very passive and undifferentiated or it can be very active and well defined. However, either way the initiator is the one who experiences some tension and brings the stress to the attention of both people.

Stress can be positive or negative. It can be tension that shows desire to move towards positive growth or change in the relationship. The stress may also occur because:

  1. A partner is having old issues or trauma triggered
  2. A partner feels like a victim, gets angry and remains mostly passive
  3. A partner is tired, hungry, overloaded or overwhelmed and starts to regress
  4. A partner recognizes an arena where there is significant disagreement and wants to negotiate a good solution

When a partner initiates, I am always listening for the quality of the initiation, for the source of the stress and for the level of differentiation in what is presented. Tom's initiation in this transcript is blaming, vague and very undifferentiated.

Whenever a couple is new to doing the I-I process, I especially want to find a way for it to have a positive outcome. At the time of this transcript, Vicky and Tom are relatively new to the I-I process, so I want to notice and acknowledge any strength I see, even when Tom starts out vague and undifferentiated. Since I am still learning a lot about this couple, I also know that a positive outcome from this session will occur if all of us gain increased clarity about what starts their power struggles and what role they each have in maintaining them. I usually won't figure all that out in one session, but each initiation will help delineate clearer boundaries around the contribution from each partner's specific issues. Because Tom presents in a vague and blaming manner, it gives me an opportunity to structure Vicky and help her learn not to take his issues personally. Effective inquirers do not draw attention to themselves and they are able to contain their own reactivity and listen openly to their spouse. For all of us, this is tough when we feel blamed! Yet, doing it leads to marvelous outcomes.

Last month's transcript ended with this comment:

Ellyn: Vicky, I know it isn't your intention. This is about Tom's perception. See if you can keep pursuing his image without thinking about yourself and why you do or don't do certain things.

Let's continue:
Vicky: Where else do you want to be independent?

Tom:  In choosing my reading. You tell me what to read and it's like you are taking charge of me.

Ellyn: Vicky, you are doing a great job hanging into this discussion and trying to learn more about Tom's yearning for independence.

Tom: I want my life to belong to me. I want to read what I want to read.

Vicky: I asked you so we could discuss the book. I thought it would interest you.

Ellyn: You ask him to read it and for some reason he feels like you are taking charge of him. That makes him angry.

Tom: (Sighs) That's right. I want to read what I want to read. I want to go to school only if I want to go to school. When you talk to me it, it's like you are pounding me with your words. You'll never stop having expectations of me.

Vicky: I feel sad and lonely. I'm not trying to do these things. Ellyn: Vicky. This is what happens to so many inquirers. You can see his pain, you know you aren't trying to do this and you feel stuck, and I think he feels helpless.

Tom: I don't like feeling helpless.

Ellyn: And you especially don't like feeling helpless with your wife. The more helpless you feel, the bigger and more controlling she seems.

Tom: (Slightly teary, but says angrily) You bet I don't want to be helpless with her.

Vicky: (In a sad pleading voice). I don't want you to feel that way. But can't you understand this isn't about what I am doing?

Tom: (angrily) I don't need an intellectualizing lecture from you right now.

Ellyn: Tom, she is trying. I think you just snapped at her because you don't like feeling your helplessness. You were starting to cry.

Let's stop again. Please comment again on my interventions. As the session is evolving, the extent of Tom's projection of ‘negative parent' onto Vicky is surfacing.

What have I learned about each of them?

What are some principles that determine my interventions now? And what principles might determine where I go next? Again, I will send another installment, and I look forward to hearing from you.

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Steven Spotts
Steven Spotts

I went to one of your conferences years ago and started using the I to I regularly in my own work with couples and in my own marriage. Watching this couple trying to use this model I’m struck again with how difficult the roles are to actually learn and apply (as simple as they seem). In an effort to facilitate the learning process I recently took 4 couples who were stuck or in crisis on a 6 day retreat and gave them opportunities to work with the I to I in front of each other while I worked with them. I also gave the observing couples the opportunity to give feedback to the demonstrating couple. This (as well as the extended time to focus on their relationship) seemed to accelerate their understanding and learning of the roles. I wonder if you have used other methods (e.g. having couples watch their own video recording or perhaps other video or live demonstrations) to help speed their understanding and effective application of this powerful tool.

Jillian Beverstock
Jillian Beverstock

Hi Ellyn,
Thank you so much for sharing this with us. It is so helpful for me. I can get really stuck sometimes with couple’s in this blame game.
I know you are saying to Vicky that Tom is talking about his feelings, but if she is truely making all these comments to him, how do you get her to see that and not feel blamed? Tom continues to feel he is told what to do and Vicky keeps saying she isn’t doing that. She doesn’t want him to feel helpless but he does when she tries to control him. I find with couple’s in similar situations, that they continue to blame and get more angry.
Thanks again…this is great learning.

Dorothy Anderson
Dorothy Anderson

I so appreciate your willingness to share your expertise with me [us]… I attended a conference of yours in Mlps years ago, have your book, and have used your knowledge and experience to my advantage.

When I have a client like Tom, who is extremely sensitive to critical comment, I can usually refer back to his childhood and dealing with a critical parent. I introduce this to him as a type of PTSD, he’s being thrown back into being a child who is totally dependent on his parents, and has to create a way to cope in a negative setting… His growth is that now he knows he has more choices… one of which is to realize his wife is not his mother/father and to work on being less frightened, thus creating his strong emotional reaction. Thanks again for your generosity in sharing your thoughts, ideas and expertise.


Dorothy-You are one step ahead of me here and you will see in the next transcript how we move into his early childhood work.
Jillian-In the next two pieces, I will be helping Vicki understand better her role in the cycle, while also managing her defensiveness differently.
And Steven, what you are doing is excellent. Pete and I always structured our intensive workshops similar to how you describe. I also do videotape sessions and ask couples to watch certain sections. Taking even 2 couples for an extended session where they coach each other can be very effective. I find the coaching helps partners internalize skills with some distance.
Thanks to all 3 of you for your comments

Pat LaDouceur
Pat LaDouceur

I often try to calm reactivity (like Tom’s) by including in my comment something about one or the other person’s positive intent. For example, I started seeing recently a very reactive couple with significant past trauma, where one partner gets incredibly angry at almost every comment the partner makes. Each time I commented on what was happening, I include her wish to “get through” to her partner, and eventually she was able to start hearing the effect her anger had on him. The I-I was helpful here from the first session on – it helped slow things down and give each person a chance to reflect on what they were saying/hearing. Great tool for so many reasons!

Rosemary Clayton
Rosemary Clayton

This is such useful learning Ellyn. Thank you. I am interested in your intervention with Tom where you initiate the idea that he share what happened when he was a little boy – rather than waiting for him to raise it himself. What if he had not been able to recall the memory? I’d be curious for your thoughts on this please. Thank you for sharing this with us.


Rose-His reactions were so strong and over-determined that I knew it had to be rooted in the past as well as the present. If he had not remembered, or he had evaded my question, I would have gone back to his experience with Vicky. Later, when we processed this I-I session, I would raise the past again.
However, he can resolve the past in the present as he resolves these issues with Vicky and develops stronger differentiation and better ways of coping.

Ümit Çetin
Ümit Çetin

Hi Ellyn,

Sorry that I noticed this second section of the transcript too late. Anyway, I would like to share what I learned from this part. As this couple is relatively new to the I-I process, I realize how you stress the importance of being supportive in your interventions to them. Even though you praise Vicky in hanging into the inquirer role, she relapses and defends herself. Yet, you manage to translate what Tom says in an empathical way, while also acknowledging what she says , which is actually a defense. When Vicky, continues to defend herself, you normalize her struggle, indicating that this is what happens with many inquirers. At the same time, you mirror the initiator’s feelings in order to overcome the stuckness.

What have I learned about each of them? The core issue with Tom seems to be his feeling helpless in relation to the (perceived) controlling object plus his not being able to manage this feeling. Instead, he becomes aggressive.
With Vicky, her strong wish to defend herself may indicate that she is not comfortable with being criticized, being found guilty.

What principles might determine where I go next?
Since his feelings of being controlled by his wife are so strong, and the wife is stuck at this point, I think, coming to some family_of_origin material on the part of the initiator makes sense. This will give a chance to the inquirer, to see the initiator from a bigger perspective, and contain herself in that role. To the initiator, it will give him an opportunity to increase his self-awareness and to own his vulnerable aspects.


In this section it is easy to see how the dynamics of this relationship involve lots of parent/child interactions. Yes, Tom is projecting negative parent onto Vicky and part of their unspoken contract is that she will accept this role. Her perception is that she “asked” Tom to read a book; his perception is that she “told” him. This strikes me as a very typical child/parent interaction where the parent asks the child to do something but in actuality it is not a request but a directive. Vicky continues to take on the role of the parent alongside her inquisitor role when she says “can’t you understand this isn’t about what I am doing?” It feels to me like underneath that “question” is a parental type message of “you are not smart enough/mature enough/perceptive enough?? to understand something. Perhaps the structure emerges this way because of the I-I assignment of roles. I would like to see what emerges when the roles are reversed – when Vicky is the initiator and Tom is the inquirer. I think this would provide additional insight into the relationship dynamics.

Danya Babkair
Danya Babkair

Hi Ellyn,

In this session I believe you are escalating the conversation in a safe place with is therapy so Vicky can learn to see her husband in a more empathy view. Your target for the next session is to bring Vicky to have more awareness about her husband feelings and know were it is coming from, so that it will create more closeness and understanding or each other behavior.


Danya-Thanks for engaging your thinking with this case!

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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