Ellyn Bader

Leading the way when couples are lost in their own issues

How often do you encounter couples who are so deeply entangled with each other that they can’t tell where one ends and the other begins?

It’s a familiar struggle. They may come into your office bickering about what seem like petty conflicts, yet without a clue as to who own is responsible for what. Or they may spend the first several sessions gliding over the surface of major differences they’re afraid to dive into.

In many cases, lack of differentiation is the underlying issue. Yet, the right technique for moving these couples forward without getting sidetracked isn’t always clear.

A process that tests the edges of each partner’s development

The Initiator-Inquirer Process can be extremely valuable in working with couples who you believe are struggling to maintain a clear sense of themselves within the relationship. If you’re new to the I-I, here’s a detailed look at how it works

The advantage of using the I-I with couples who appear to avoid conflict is that it will readily reveal where they are on a differentiation scale. It also helps you stay centered and in control of the process so you can lead each session with skill and confidence. 

Bringing the I-I into the therapeutic process 

The simplest way to start is to introduce the I-I as an advanced relationship skill that couples can learn together. Share the perspective that the couple’s relationship is much larger than any single issue. While issues do matter, what matters even more is the way they are discussed and the respect partners give to one another. 

When the couple agrees to try the I-I,  you can invite them to take turns playing the role of Initiator or Inquirer. You will encourage the Initiator to: 

  • Bring up only one issue at a time. 
  • Use “I” messages to describe their thoughts and feelings.
  • Define the issue without blame, shame or name-calling.
  • Agree to learn more about themselves than they knew before they started talking.

The Inquirer will be encouraged to:

  • Actively listen and restate what they’ve heard.
  • Ask questions that help reveal their partner’s thoughts, feelings, and desires.
  • Openly show empathy and understanding.
  • Continue with empathic responses until the Initiator reaches a soothing moment.

What will the conversation reveal?

You may see a number of red flags that indicate one or more partners are terrified of conflict, believing it might break the relationship. This belief suggests low levels of differentiation. You may also see  partners respond aggressively – meaning they literally can’t separate whose issue is whose. 

For example, does the Initiator: 

  • Immediately pin blame on the other partner, even before defining the issue clearly?
  • State what they think their partner believes, rather than conveying their own thoughts, feelings, and desires?
  • Present the issue in vague terms, possibly to avoid any direct confrontation?
  • Collapse into tearful or icy silence after a weak attempt to bring up the issue?
  • Become angry or defensive when the Inquirer poses questions?

And what about the Inquirer? Do you see them:

  • Interrupt or make defensive counter-statements while the Initiator is speaking?
  • Squirm in their seat, shake their head, roll their eyes – or give any signal that seems to negate what the Initiator is saying?
  • Ask hostile questions such as, “Is that really the way you see it?” Or shift attention back to themselves, “What about my concerns here?”
  • Listen with an angry or cold expression, unable to show any sign of caring or understanding?
  • Find it difficult to restate what their partner has said?

Using the I-I to lead each session

These red flags suggest you will need a way to plant your feet, requiring couples to work more productively with each other. Here’s how. 

Structure conversations around the I-I process. This virtually guarantees that the couple will be required to address real issues and practice the positive skills that the I-I emphasizes. 

Keep in mind that the I-I will feel unnatural at first. Just because the process makes sense to you doesn’t mean the couple will jump for joy when you explain how it works. Exercise patience as they get started. Don’t be afraid to say, “This might feel awkward in the beginning, like any new skill you’re learning. No one is born knowing how to read, write, or ride a bike, but all of us can learn.” 

Calmly but firmly insist they follow the rules. Reinforcing the I-I principles as you go will add structure to the conversation. Keep the conversation moving in a productive direction. 

Encourage them to stay in the developmental tension. Learning to tolerate fear, impatience, and irritation is crucial to the couple’s growth. Acknowledge that it might feel risky, but that going forward with the conversation even when you’re afraid is the ultimate goal. 

Mirror their progress. Offer explicit praise as they master the steps. “That was hard, but you stayed with it. Your position is very clear, and you’re not blaming anyone.” Or, “I can tell you are listening deeply from the way you summarized what your partner said. And you didn’t take her words personally, which helps you both see things more clearly.” 

Offer to play one role. If the stress of the I-I seems too much for one partner in a particular session, consider saying, “How about if I play your role today and you can watch? Observing is a good way to learn, too.” 

Above all, resist the temptation to problem-solve with this couple. Their fear of conflict can create tension for you, too – so check for signs that you’re getting involved in a premature search for solutions. Remind them that the real objective is learning how to navigate intense conversations so that both partners feel understood and respected. 


Take Action Now

Have you used the Initiator-Inquirer process to help any of your clients? ? Are there tips you can offer to other therapists new to using this process? If you have never used it, are you likely to try it? Please post your thoughts below. I will use them to shape future articles that will be helpful for all of us. Thanks! 

Click here  if you’re interested in learning how the Initiator-Inquirer process can be used to support your work with trauma.


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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