Ellyn Bader


In spring of 2018 I wrote a blog post about the cycle of externalization and blame. This dynamic is a familiar one for couples therapists because so many of the couples who come to see us organize their relationship issues around external symptoms or problems.

How many times have you heard complaints like these?

  • “He drinks too much.”
  • “She spends too much money.”
  • “He never makes time for me and the kids.”
  • “She treats her parents like royalty and me like dirt.”

For people in discomfort about their relationship, it’s much easier to deflect responsibility and attention from themselves and blame their partner than it is to self-reflect.

In my original blog post on this topic, I introduced the importance of shifting that focus and I presented three different ones that might help disrupt the gridlock. You can read that blog post here.

One of the reader’s comments after the blog mentioned the loss of intimacy for these couples who are stuck in externalization and blame. And that leads me to today’s post. First, let’s look at some ways of grounding our interventions so we can get the couple’s commitment for growth. Then let’s see how we might explain “intimacy avoidance” to couples and use it as leverage to start working for that needed growth.

Grounding Our Interventions

When we begin working with a couple, it’s important to communicate our commitment to supporting relationship growth.

Both partners need to see that, in order for the relationship to grow, it’s going to take individual change from each of them. It's going to take recognizing what they're each doing that's been getting in the way of relationship growth

Each partner can start to see that they're contributing to the standoff.

When we begin by grounding our work in this way, we start creating the leverage we’ll need to make stronger confrontations.

It’s also crucial to show that we have a lot of compassion for where they've come from and how hard this is for them.

I might approach that in this way:

“Who you are as people, and how you each have coped with your own backgrounds has led to your not knowing how to make intimate connection in your marriage.

If we can establish the fact that there are ways each of you do this, and that you are unaware of those ways, we can begin to make it not so much about blaming each other.

Let me help you take a look at how you each run away, because right now you don’t see how you’re doing it. You didn't have good role models.

You haven't had good experiences with each other when one or the other of you has reached out. You don't know how to get moments happening where you can reach out and be met.

You guys have been missing each other for such a long time that it is going to take you letting me help you. It is going to take an openness to looking at how you're getting in your own way.”

Calling Attention to Intimacy Avoidance

Once a couple has agreed to work on both their relationship as well as individual growth, the next step is to help them identify how each one avoids intimacy.

One powerful way to help couples do this is by simply calling attention to it. Acknowledging it. Describing it.

Perhaps you’ve given a homework assignment to a couple. You’ve asked them to make a commitment to spend more time together in the coming week.

Maybe they followed through, or at least tried to. Yet they came back to you having fallen back into the same pattern of externalization and blame:

“I tried reaching out, but she was on her computer all night. We went to a party together, but he ended up talking to his buddies all night.

This is where I might say, “I think I'm hearing that there were a lot of times that you were around each other, but neither of you felt together. Did I get that right?”

That's an attempt to at least acknowledge that you're seeing their intimacy avoidance. You're calling it and drawing their attention to it.

But let’s say the couple didn’t follow through at all. Then what?

That’s when I find it useful to say something like this:

“It sounds like a big part of you didn't really want to spend time together. That would've meant one of you walking over to the other and saying, ‘Will you join me?’ Or, ‘I'd like to be with you,’ or something that would express vulnerability.”

Again, empathy is so crucial here. It’s important for our clients to know that we appreciate why they feel the way they do – that you can see the loneliness. You see their isolation.

You can equalize their defensiveness by saying, “Each of you has different ways that you're perpetuating this, because you guys don't know how to create intimacy. You've never done it. You don't know how.”

I would look them each in the eye and I might say to her, “Are you going to let me help you with the part of you that runs away, or has trouble seeing him as scared too?”

I'd look at him and I might say, “Are you going to let me work with the part of you that doesn't want to risk more connection? The part that may feel scared, or even vulnerable, or lonely? Are you going to let me help you with that?”

It’s so important that you get their agreement that they're going to let you in. At the same time, you're also spelling out for them the work they have ahead.

But what if you’re beginning to sense that one of the partners isn’t as vested in this process as the other? That he or she isn’t really willing to commit to the work it will take to grow not only in the relationship, but on a personal level as well?

I’ll be writing about that in my next blog post.

In the meantime, I’d like to hear from you – how could you use some of these ideas in your work with couples? Please leave a comment below.

Getting couples to commit to their own individual growth for the sake of their relationship is an important part of getting off to a strong start in your therapy sessions. Rethinking First Sessions shows you how to conduct a first session that delivers relief and creates traction for future growth in your office. Click here for more information on this downloadable 60-minute audio and written summary.



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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2 years ago

I have the greatest respect for Dr. Bader and the ways she works with couples. I wish I had her skills. I do have one question that kind of sticks with me though. I agree that most of my couple-partners need to look at what they contribute to the problems in their relationship. It’s just that, in some cases, it really seems most of the problem stems from one partner’s actions (or non-actions). Perhaps it’s a deficit on my part, but it’s hard to concentrate very equally on this in those minority of cases, and while I can search for background adaptations in a partner that have led to this situation, and empathize as much as I can, it’s harder to find a focus expecting that much change from the other partner (other than asking why they’re still in the relationship, of course, and trying to be solution-oriented).

2 years ago

Check out the work of Terry Real. Pretending that couples contribute equally can further traumatize the partner who is already dealing with a partner who is disproportionately responsible for the problems. Like most mathematical distributions sometimes it’s one partner, often it’s both and sometimes it’s the other partner who is mainly responsible. Couples therapy will likely fail if you miss this initial diagnosis. Ellyn’s advice is excellent for the middle of the distribution but faulty in the cases where one partner needs to take most of the responsibility for the relationship to recover. Pretending that both contribute equally can empower a partner who is just using an unwitting therapist to punish the partner.

Ellyn Bader
Ellyn Bader
2 years ago

Jeanne and Elliot
Thanks for writing. Let’s get a few things clear. The distribution of accountability varies in every couple. However, it is always easier to see what the blatant partner is doing and what their contribution is. Many times there is a more subtle contribution that is exposed as partner A becomes more accountable. 2 sets of skills that are crucial for excellent couples therapy:
1. Confrontation-both gentle and tough
2. Assessment of the Developmental Stage. When a relationship is stuck in stage 1, both partners are contributing to the stuck place even if 1 partners contribution is more obvious or difficult.

2 years ago

Thank you Ellyn for sharing this informative blog post! I found it on to be a very helpful reminder in how important it is to ground our interventions from the start with couple’s, and help them see their contribution to the avoidance of intimacy for a part of them. I also like what you said about the power of empathizing with each of them and showing our commitment to their relationship growth.

2 years ago

This is really hard work! I am Pia Melody trauma trained and Peter Levine somatic experiencing trained. I am familiar with Terry Real, John Bradshaw, Bessel von and the list goes on. Ellyn helps to remind me of what I already do in a different way. I have worked with very difficult couples and chronic mental illness. The thing I struggle with most is vicarious trauma and self care. Its good to know when it is time to change direction and focus on higher functioning people. That is my goal. I applaud everyone for their contribution to a population that is very much in need of help.

2 years ago

Thank you Dr. Bader for reminding me I am on track. This is really hard work! I am Pia Melody trauma trained and Peter Levine somatic experiencing trained. I am familiar with Terry Real, John Bradshaw, Bessel von and the list goes on. I sometimes feel alone in my work especially with couples who struggle with powerful emotions and yell at each other and sometimes at me. Vicarious trauma is the toughest when you work with too many of these couples. After 10 years I have elected to shift my practice to lesser traumatized individuals. I applaud those who carry on.
Thank you!

Maria Camp
Maria Camp
2 years ago

Thank you Dr. Bader for reminding me I am on track. This is really hard work! I am Pia Melody trauma trained and Peter Levine somatic experiencing trained. I am familiar with Terry Real, John Bradshaw, Bessel von and the list goes on. I sometimes feel alone in my work especially with couples who struggle with powerful emotions and yell at each other and sometimes at me. Vicarious trauma is the toughest when you work with too many of these couples. After 10 years I have elected to shift my practice to lesser traumatized individuals. I applaud those who carry on.
Thank you!

Margot Maurer, LCSW, ACSW, BCD
Margot Maurer, LCSW, ACSW, BCD
2 years ago

I I have not done couple’s therapy for some time. I am a professional mediator, Licensed Clinical Social worker, gerontologist, and a certified Gestalt Coach! So, I wear multiple hats. I have loved working with couples, and with families. I am currently doing guardianship mediations, for parents who have lost custody of their kiddos. I love doing this work. It makes me a better therapist! Thank you for the info.

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.