Ellyn Bader

cofronting hypocrisy“It's discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.” ― Noël Coward, Blithe Spirit

Today I’d like to share a fascinating piece on hypocrisy from the University of Colorado’s Conflict Research Consortium.

They studied how to use confrontation of hypocrisy on a large scale to bring about social change.  Their findings won’t shock most psychotherapists! They found confronting hypocrisy to be particularly effective with people of conscience, and to be very ineffective with greedy or sociopathic people.

For many people, having to admit publicly that their behavior is hypocritical creates enormous shame. They may be immersed in an intense conflict and not recognize that they are behaving in a way that is inconsistent with their moral values. The authors state, “It is easy to do things that clearly advance one's interest's without bothering to think about whether or not they are fair or consistent with one's fundamental values.”

They continue, “Many people find it extremely embarrassing and painful to publicly acknowledge their own hypocrisy. It undermines their sense of self-worth and the esteem with which they are held by others.” Thus, many times people will change their behavior, rather than continuing to act in a way that exposes them to shame and ongoing revelation.

“The key to successful hypocrisy mobilization is, therefore, to create a situation in which an individual or group is confronted with the hypocrisy of their actions and is given a public choice to make about their future behavior. When successful, this strategy will mobilize the integrative system and change behavior. Unlike force, which usually produces unstable change, the change brought about through the moral argument of hypocrisy mobilization is usually relatively stable.

One classic example of this strategy is Martin Luther King's campaign to end segregation in the United States in the 1950s. With public demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience, he drew attention to the fact that segregation was incompatible with the United States' claim that it was a nation in which all men (and women) were created equal.”

What does this mean to you about couples therapy?
Are confrontations made in your office public enough for them to make a difference?
Does your experience support the researchers’ conclusion? In other words, does repeated confrontation of the same hypocrisy increase exposure and integrate more permanent change for your clients?
And, if you confront a lot and without getting the desired change, does that say anything about fairness, greed, sociopathy or your client’s moral beliefs?

I welcome your comments below.

Click University of Colorado to read more about this work.

Or click Frederick Douglas to read a scathing confrontation that he delivered on July 4, 1852, on the hypocrisy of American slavery .

Thanks so much.


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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Winifred Reilly
8 years ago

One of the things I value most about being a couples therapist is the slightly more “public” arena that couples therapy creates. Whether confrontations made by me or by a spouse are MORE influential because of that added element of being witnessed by more than one person is difficult to know.

I’ll be the first to admit that, public arena or not, clients have sat in my office and lied to me and their partner– sometimes in ways that are shockingly transparent, and occasional with such skill that they should be nominated for an Oscar.

Not sure whether the game-changer is the public exposure or the persistence and steadiness of the therapist or spouse making the confrontation.

Looking forward to reading what others will say.

Kathy Hardie-Williams, M.Ed, MS, NCC, MFT

I belong to a list serve called Goodtherapy.org. Recently, someone posted the question of how to dig oneself out of the pit of low self esteem. My response was to say that I believe it starts with living congruently within our value system and that we can ‘know’ what our value system is by listening to our ‘gut’. I wish I had used the word ‘soul’ instead of ‘gut’ (although for me, the two mean the same). When we don’t live within our value system, it creates a shame cycle (a shame core may already exist) that we can become trapped in and that is difficult to get out of. How does this apply to couples therapy? In my work with couples, I try to emphasize or ‘confront’ when I see that a member of the couple is criticizing the other and/or trying to keep the focus on the ‘other’s’ behavior. Most of the time, the one doing the criticizing is also guilty of the same ‘crime’, although it may look different. With one couple I am working with, she continues to be quite angry with him for stepping outside of the relationship and kissing another woman. He told her this had happened. Of course, she felt quite betrayed and we are still processing that. Having said that, she also engaged in some behavior (too personal to share) that created a very strong feeling of betrayal for him as well. While the behavior is and ‘looks’ different, several times I have had to bring the conversation full circle and facilitate him in confronting her about his feelings of betrayal. I think part of this ‘struggle’ is cultural. We have very strong opinions and feelings about certain behavior (stepping out of the relationship) being ‘wrong’; I believe that we sometimes forget that for another, other types of behavior can create the experience of betrayal in a very big way, but that behavior may seem more culturally acceptable. I believe shame plays a huge part in the cycle we can get trapped in, thus, demonstrating hypocritical behavior. When we focus on the ‘other’s’ behavior, we avoid looking at our own. I hope I am making sense:>.

Sue Diamond Potts
Sue Diamond Potts
8 years ago

Hi Ellyn, Thank you for this series on hypocrisy. It has helped me recognize and identify it happening in my office within a frame of reference that allows for valuable intervention. There were two opportunities last week that I will share. In the first one, the wife was complaining about how badly her husband treats her. When he went to interject – she became enraged and yelled at him to shut up. It was a perfect example of what you have been writing about. I then pointed out to her that she was asking him to be kinder to her when in fact, she wasn’t doing it herself. She seemed very affected by my verbalizing it, like it mattered to her. In other words, her conscience recognized she was out of alignment with the person she wishes to be.
In the second instance, the wife was lamenting about how difficult it was to be happy in a relationship where her husband was so “negative”. She went on to make a case for her position and then began to put him down, to accuse him of not being good enough for her, for being a “loser”, etc. In other words, she was being incredibly negative and I pointed out her hypocrisy. In this instance, she did not respond well. She looked at me with indignation as if to imply that I should dare to point our her flaws. It did not have the desired effect I had hoped for. At best, it did little to help her see she contributes to the very problem that distresses her the most. This happened near the end of a very charged session so I will follow up with her and keep you posted. This understanding that you are sharing with us Ellyn is incredibly important and helpful. It provides a way to intensify the accountability of each partner to ‘walk the walk’ and not just ‘talk the talk’. Fantastic.

Wendy Brox
7 years ago

Great insights!! Thanks, Ellyn. And Sue, I hope we get to hear more about this couple. I recently met a couple (socially) who match this pattern. She complains about his negativity. As we were in a social setting, I commented to her “that (level of negativity) must make it difficult for you to see his positive qualities and not get sucked into the negative vortex.” I felt good about that response. As she was the one who brought up such a personal topic I felt she opened the door for me to comment. I wouldn’t have wanted her to leave perceiving tacit approval or support for her victim role. Don’t know that it helped her but I was glad I didn’t align myself with her superior side.

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.