Integrating Goals and Growth in Couples Therapy

The other day, a therapist in my Developmental Model training program asked me the following:
“How do you integrate a couple’s goals for therapy with the specific developmental tasks that a couple needs to accomplish?”

I want to be direct and collaborative about this with the couple.

Once I get a sense of the stage, I want to involve them by giving information, by giving them feedback, by giving them a sense of where I see them stuck and where I believe they could move.

For example, with a couple who are conflict-avoidant, I might talk to them about the cost of lost intimacy that occurs in conflict avoidant relationships. I might suggest that being able to stay with a substantive issue from beginning to end and not disengage from it will challenge them, but it will also be part of the pathway for them to know each other more completely and more deeply.

Successful goals for each partner might include becoming more resilient to tension that occurs when partners are addressing conflict and difference.

Another example might occur with a couple where the husband is clinging and smothering and the wife is recently demanding more independence (a symbiotic practicing couple). Perhaps they were comfortably symbiotic for a long time; but now the wife feels suffocated.

I might say to a couple like that, “It’s truly important in a relationship that grows and changes over time for each person to be able to express their desires to each other and also their fears to one another.”

To the  husband I might say, “I’m guessing that there might be two parts of you, one part of you that is scared about her being out in the world more, about her having a career and unsettling your family. And another part of you wants to support her. Am I accurate?”

In asking if I’m accurate, I’m actually asking for whether he can access both parts of himself.

In fact, he may not have much access to the part that wants to support her, but probably has some and she may not have heard anything about that. It’s also making his fear explicit.

Then I might say, “Let’s have a conversation between these two alter egos, the part that wants to be supportive and the part that’s scared.”

I’m addressing the symbiotic practicing aspect of their relationship and integrating that into some goal setting by taking the developmental stuck point and seeing if he’ll do some dialogue around it. In this way I try to get clear about the root of his fear.

If you want to fine tune your work with goal setting and recognizing developmental stages, the In Quest of the Mythical Mate Kit is everything you need.  We’re offering a 20% discount until Sunday, March 29 at 11:59pm Pacific time. Click here to find out more. And use code NewQuestKit at checkout to get your kit for the lowest price it will ever be.

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Are there any CE credit with the In Quest of the Mythical Mate Kit?

Meg Luce, LMFT
Meg Luce, LMFT

Thank you, Ellyn, for the clear and applicable ideas for identifying and intervening with couples and their stuck places. I can also see how this will be a useful intervention with one of my individual clients who is bogged down in pulling for symbiosis in his relationship.


I read with such respect, the wisdom of your approach to faciliting a growth process by identifying specially where each partner has got stuck and then being very sure about the individual goals you have for each of them so that you can offer optimal focused support en route. How I love being part of the Couples Institute 🙂

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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