Ellyn Bader

The Couples Conference is always an exciting mix of experts presenting new ideas that stimulate thinking and discussion. This one was also  deeply satisfying. At one point I found myself reflecting on how much has happened in the last 27 years. When Pete and I started The Couples Institute in 1984, we were warned by several mentors that we could never be successful specializing in couples. The specialty was too narrow. Couples wouldn’t come together, especially if they were troubled. And they certainly wouldn’t take time off work for daytime appointments.  We persisted anyway and of course none of those dire predictions came true.

Then I remembered back to 1995 when Jeff Zeig and I created the first Couples Conference. There was competition among the faculty, and turf wars predominated.  Fast forward to April 2011: this Conference was characterized by respect and collaboration. Respect for the contributions of one another and for our clients, and what we have learned from them. Collaboration and discussion with each other and the audience.  And a genuine desire to move the field forward.

It was also very special for me to meet some of the therapists from my online training program – in person.

Read on for a brief summary of highlights, to give you the flavor and the excitement of the event.

Christine Padesky kicked off the meeting with a keynote called “Stronger than We Think”. She presented a high-distress couple who loved backpacking. She skillfully used their love for backpacking to reveal how to translate couples skills from this one area into their high-conflict areas. After all, backpacking requires cooking together, planning together and relying on one another under adverse conditions.

Bill Dougherty discussed mistakes made by inexperienced couples therapists, including not providing enough structure and allowing angry couples to go after each other. He stressed the necessity of spotting moments of hope in very demoralized couples and advised us to be very cautious about using poorly timed, unbalanced empathy. He also stressed something that I feel very strongly about: couples therapy is a specialty and if you only see a few couples a week you must be very willing to get specialized training or make referrals.

Marty Klein humorously pointed out that most couples have sex when they are too tired to do anything else. Is it any wonder that they have so much difficulty? If you have difficulty talking to your clients about sex, you might be interested in how he phrases questions. A perfect example, “How often do you masturbate?” as opposed to “do you masturbate?” With the implied assumption, one partner is not put on the spot in front of the other one.

Esther Perel reported on following up with many of her couples who came to therapy in the aftermath of infidelity. She divided  recovery after infidelity into three types: those who go into a black hole, the survivors who stay together for kids or values and the explorers, who use infidelity as a catalyst for growth.

Julie Gottman reminded us that 69% of all couples conflicts are perpetual and are to be worked with in an ongoing way rather than being allowed to fester undiscussed.  Telling couples this statistic takes the stigma out of their perpetual conflicts that never get resolved.

Richard Schwartz demonstrated Internal Family Systems Theory. He showed how to engage a nurturing part of the self to help integrate parts of the self that were previously traumatized.

Jeff and Lillian Zeig demonstrated how partners can metaphorically act out unmet desires experientially.

Stan Tatkin explained the importance of identifying micromovements and micro-expressions in couples’ interaction and demonstrated the value of using videotape to enable you and your clients to see what they are not consciously processing.

Jette Simon taught some concepts from Imago therapy. As many of you know, the Imago Dialogue has a lot of similarites to our Initiator-Inquirer process, as well as some differences. She included some sentence stems which help the speaking partner go deeper:

  • When I get scared, how I try to protect myself is…
  • Underneath my anger, what I am experiencing is…

And I spoke about how to integrate Attachment, Differentiation and Neuroscience with hostile angry couples and how to use these three theories to guide your work. I showed two newer videos that demonstrated using these theories to get off therapy off to a powerful start.  I also talked about how working with these angry couples pushes your personal development as a therapist and how essential it is to learn how to hold these partners accountable to creating the intimacy they desire.

I believe that Couples Therapy is mainly an art created by the therapist who integrates many skills. The Couples Conference provides an opportunity to learn about various approaches and take the best from all of them. Then you can tweak as necessary to make it natural for you and for your couples. I hope you’ll look into any of these ideas that intrigue you so that you can develop your style and practice, too.

Celebrating Couples Therapy’s progress and accomplishments,


P.S. If you’d like to be a couples specialist and participate in an international group of committed couples therapists, our online training program, “The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy: Integrating Attachment, Differentiation, and Neuroscience” might be right for you. This training program, conducted by internet and conference calls, accommodates couples therapists from around the world and is unusually convenient and affordable. Please visit Developmental Model  for more information or to register.


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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  1. This was my first Couples Conference also and it was an exceptional experience; not only because of the information shared but also for the opportunity to connect with professionals from other areas. My favorite part of the conference was that all of the sessions were so different and so stimulating. It was great to hear and see all the different approaches being used; some which felt really in line with what I am currently doing and others that challenged me to grow and consider other ways of working. One of my favorite speakers, beside Ellyn’s, was Esther Perel. She was not only a dynamic speaker but her approach was something very new to me and it provides a great opportunity to grow. I look forward to attending next year!

  2. Thanks Ellyn. I’m sorry I missed it. I hope to go to the next one. Are there any tapes available for purchase? I found some speakers I would like to hear as a result of your synopsis. Thanks.

  3. Ellyn, Thank you for the highlights of the conference. I was sorry to miss the conference. I am always looking for new ideas.

  4. This was my first Couples Conference. It was a wonderful conference with excellent speakers and up-to-date informtion. I too enjoyed meeting Esther, Pete and other classmates. I look forward to further training and definely the next conference.

  5. I was glad to have attended Saturday. I wish I could have attended all three days but my schedule wouldn’t allow it. I especially enjoyed Esther Perel’s talk Saturday. Lastly, Ellyn it was nice meeting you (finally) in person.

  6. I enjoyed the conference more this year than any other conference. All the presentations I attended expanded my knowledge. As I reflected on it I began to compare and contrast the different theoretical models – one observation was the commonalities in key issues and models of intervention, although the different models were analyzing from different perspectives, they seem to reach common conclusions.

  7. Thanks Ellen for the highlights from the conference. Having attended the couples conference in the past with some of the same presenters, it helped to track with what I learned from them previously. Good reminder from Marty’s tip on phrasing questions and also the sentence stems from Jette. Are your new videos available for purchasing? Thanks again for your ongoing contribution to this field.
    Sorry Sam-The videos are real clients and can’t be sold.

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