Ellyn Bader

Confrontation is much more of an art than a science, especially in the intricacy of couples therapy. What comes to mind when you think about confrontation in couples therapy? 

Do you confront a lot? 

Or rarely?  

Does thinking of doing some specific confrontations make you feel anxious? 

Or, perhaps creating a well-crafted confrontation leaves you feeling enthusiastic and excited?

Do you dread confronting an angry partner for fear that you will be attacked or aggressively challenged? 

Do you worry that an untimely or poorly worded confrontation will result in a permanent rupture or at least a significant disconnection in a relationship that you have carefully built? 

And what about this important question: is your anxiety strong enough that you avoid making a confrontation that you know is important to make?

Effective confrontation requires careful attention to nonverbal cues as well as context and interpersonal dynamics. The skills required to make effective confrontations are honed with practice throughout your career as a therapist. Over time you learn to use both gentle and very forceful confrontations.  

How do I define confrontation? I really like the definition given in 1986, 2nd edition Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. It says confrontation is “a technique used in therapy to recognize shortcomings and their possible consequences.” I was very amazed to find this and thought, “what an eloquent definition!” Recognizing shortcomings and the consequences of not changing is so central to our work.

I thought about so many common problems we see: Addiction, Infidelity, Conflict or Intimacy Avoidance, Escalated Hostility, Passive-Aggression, Lies, Deception, and Overworking. And I realized that it would be impossible to do successful couples work without confronting the consequences of these behaviors. 

So many partners in struggling relationships rationalize their lack of accountability and their minimal efforts while excusing themselves for acting in ways that devalue their partners.

Without becoming skillful at challenging regression, violations of trust, indirect hostility, addictive thinking and behavior, or lack of commitment, we can merely skim the surface in our couples work. Our desire to avoid feeling anxious or insecure may lead us to shy away from refining the art of confrontation. Sadly, everyone loses when we “wimp out.”

Or, sometimes we start to make a powerful confrontation and before we know what’s happened, a client has wiggled away from our carefully crafted words. Then we get distracted or overwhelmed and forget to go back to it.Or maybe we consciously avoid returning to it because we are uncertain about the best way to proceed. 

This process is even tougher in couples therapy than in individual therapy because we must reflect on the impact of our confrontation on two people, not just one.

Consider for yourself… 

  • Do you want to learn more about confrontation?
  • What confrontations are hardest for you?
  • When is confrontation easiest?
  • Do you agree that confrontation is a big part of couples work?

Please share some of your thoughts below. Do you think confrontation is more necessary than it may appear to be at first?

Act Now

Do you want to improve your confrontation skills in a safe environment? Do you want to decrease the number of missed opportunities to confront clients, increase the likelihood of them hearing you… and still come back next week? You get all this and more in my upcoming free workshop, Becoming Great at Confrontation: A Workshop for Creating Powerful Change (even with Narcissism, Infidelity, and Passivity).




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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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.

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1 year ago

I am in practicum and signed up for this in hopes information is still available?

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