Ellyn Bader

Today we are discussing setting larger goals; what is commonly known as having a vision, and working towards them with visualization. Vision setting is the focus of today's blog post.

It is an enormous help in couples therapy to take the focus off daily struggles and put relationship efforts into a larger context. The reality is that most couples spend more time discussing what movie they want to see, or what room is a mess than they do discussing any big dreams they have. Bringing the larger dreams into better focus helps give partners a crucial incentive to do some of the hard work in front of them.

What is a vision? Vision is a strong desire aligned with partners' values and supported by a plan.

To create and sustain a vision partners need to be strong advocates for their beliefs and desires. Without a sense of growth and the ability to move in a positive direction, partners become depressed and unmotivated. Without some big dreams, a part of each partner withers and dies and they begin to live their lives “in quiet desperation.” So here is a brief overview of the concept of vision.

Consider asking your clients to do some of the following exercises:

Creating Your Vision

A vision involves fantasizing and identifying something you really want. A vision contains enough passion that you are willing to put in sustained effort to bring it about. This focus involves identifying, recalling or revising the important dreams you had when you got together with your partner. Just allow yourself to think creatively about the type of relationship you desire. Describe it.

Describe your vision of how you want your relationship to be in one or more important areas of your life: family, couple/marital, personal growth, financial, spiritual, physical, hobbies, work/career, self development, community/social, health.

You will know you have your vision when:

  1. The results are hard to achieve, i.e. it will require “stretching.”
  2. You are excited when you think about it.
  3. The results of the vision are meaningful to you.
  4. The results make a difference in your life, and most likely make a difference in someone else's life.
  5. The results are visible and at least to some degree measurable.
  6. The results will reflect your strengths and core values.

As you reflect on your dreams and start to answer these questions, be aware of attitudes you might have that could undermine your vision.

Attitudes that get in the way of constructing or realizing your own vision:

  1. I can't really have what I want.
  2. I want something only if someone else wants it too.
  3. What I want is not that important.
  4. Even if I begin, I will eventually fail.
  5. My partner will laugh at it or not be supportive.
  6. I get too anxious when imagining what I want so I quit.
  7. I don't have the necessary skills or talent to pull it off.
  8. Really big dreams are only for other people.

If your clients have difficulty constructing their vision, invite them to write down what kind of job, family, marriage, career, etc. they would absolutely hate to have. Have them think of their “disaster job” and write down all the qualities, conditions, and situations that would make for a very, very miserable working experience. Then have them reverse the qualities and characteristics, and they'll begin to describe an ideal situation.

Explain that a vision will evolve as people move towards it. It will also require new skills and capabilities. Have partners ask themselves an important question: “What will I have to do, that I don't want to do, to realize this vision?” Every vision will carry some areas of skill development and tasks you may not be keen about. Don't let this aspect make you believe your vision is wrong for you. Accept that it will involve some drudge work that a part of you will resist.

Have clients write out the results they want. Then, and only then, have them begin to write out their plan of action. Going too rapidly into a plan of action is a very good way to squash budding dreams. However a good plan will help solidify a couple's vision and also keep them on track.

We have a resource to help therapists have breakthroughs with very difficult couples. For more information, please visit High Impact Couples Therapy.

As always, I welcome your comments and invite you to share your experience with these exercises using visualization to help couples define their larger goals.


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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Katrina Waller
Katrina Waller
4 years ago

I have been a couple psychotherapist for over 20 years and I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of helping a couple take a step back from their ‘problem saturated’ narratives which can be so disheartening and disempowering for them. I think our one of our key skills in working with couples is to ensure that their individual issues and distress are validated and acknowledged alongside creating a space for more empowering and inspiring narratives which motivate them to take a step back, look at the bigger picture and do the work that is required to hopefully make positive changes to their situation. In the first session I usually ask each partner to describe what THEIR partner hopes for and would find helpful from couple therapy i.e. not them but their partner – this can help in shifting the focus from them both launching into their complaints and distress with each other and can create the seeds of what a vision might look like. Some clients find the request to think of the other challenging whilst others are very insightful. I often use creative materials in creating a vision with a couple and find this works particularly well with highly conflicted couples. I will ask each of them to bring in a picture, poem, object, piece of prose etc to the next session that encapsulates how they would like their relationship to be, then in the session I give them magazines and postcards from which each can pick two or three additional images – we stick these up on a board each explaining what their images represent. Then we spend some time exploring what they have jointly created as their relationship vision. Then I use the questions that Ellyn and Pete developed for goal setting e.g. I will ask each of them to carefully consider “so what do you think you need to do more or less of to individually contribute to your relationship vision” – I really like having a visual depiction of their vision to inspire, motivate and encourage them – some couples will take it home or take a picture of it on their mobile phone as a constant reminder of their vision, and others ask me to keep it and have it on display in session – I can then use it as a powerful resource in the sessions to keep the couple rooted to their goals, particularly when we are doing I:I work.

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.