Tools and Questions to Facilitate Change in the Middle Stage of Couples Therapy

Tools and Questions to Facilitate Change in the Middle Stage of Couples Therapy

For this month’s blog, let’s look at tools and questions you can use to facilitate change in the middle stages of couples work. There is a tendency for therapy to stall in the middle stage of work and for couples to become lazy about doing homework or making changes outside of the room.

First, be honest with yourself. Do your sessions with a particular couple start feeling repetitive? Ask yourself:

  1. Have the partners lost their motivation?
  2. Has sufficient progress been made for now?
  3. Is the couple working productively and the pace is just slower than you would like?
  4. Is the couple stuck? Are there too many different agendas and is each partner working in opposite directions?
  5. Is it time to terminate?

When you get honest with yourself, it becomes easier to ask your clients:

  • Do you feel like our sessions are productive?
  • Are you getting the results you want?
  • What do you wish you would do more of in our sessions?
  • What do you wish I would do more of in our sessions?
  • Are you staying focused on the changes you want between sessions?
  • Are you experimenting with new behaviors?
  • What do you wish you would do more of between sessions?
  • Will you follow through on some homework for the next few weeks?
  • Will you help design a homework assignment for yourself that will push you in ways that may create anxiety for you, but will also contain valuable risks?

Here is one example of a moderate risk homework for a couple stuck in repetitive arguments.

Use it when you would like to stir up some energy. This is one of my favorites designed by my husband, Peter Pearson. It goes like this:

Ask the couple to have 2 discussions this coming week. The statement they are going to discuss is “In marriage, most of the time, it's better to be kind than right.”

Repeat the statement: “In marriage, most of the time, it's better to be kind than right.”

At home this week, each person can take a turn discussing whether they agree or disagree with this statement and why they hold that opinion. The partner who is listening should ask penetrating questions without reacting or pushing their own opinion. Remind your couple that this is a discussion and it is not a time to fight, push a personal point of view, or lose focus.

Ask your couple, “If you agree with the statement that it is better to be kind than right, how would you apply that concept to common arguments you have?”

Or consider this question: “How would you apply that concept to a recent disagreement or argument and talk about this with each other? This homework will lead to rich material for your next couples session.”

If you are a therapist or coach who openly and non-defensively evaluates yourself and your couple, be proud of yourself. Give yourself an extra pat on the back when you are willing to acknowledge that you are at the edge of your own ability or knowledge. Ask yourself, “What is my next growth edge?” This is how you will grow as a person and as a strong therapeutic leader.

I love to see comments on my blog posts. In the commenting section below please share your thoughts. Are you able to be open and non-defensive in your self-evaluation? What is your next growth edge in improving your therapy skills? Or write about your reactions to this exercise.

Have something to say?

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

17 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Tracey Navrides
Tracey Navrides

Hi Ellyn, This was exactly what I needed to hear today. My growth lies in the ability to allow my clients to see what “I am seeing” on their own, in their own time and not push my agenda. I’m constantly reminding myself that if I am working harder on their lives then they are, that is no good! Thank you so much for this tool. I am going to employ it at the next session.

Sher
Sher

I am EXACTLY here right now. Wow. Thanks!

Marie-Claire Thauvette, Relationship and Sex Coach
Marie-Claire Thauvette, Relationship and Sex Coach

I love these ideas. Thank you so much. I find that I lose clients at this stage. Now I know why. I need to challenge them to think more. They need to judge if there is progress. There is considerable progress at the beginning when conflict gets resolved most of the time. Good enough is ok for them. However, I want so much more for them: passion, connection, and fun, for example. I would also add these questions: How much fun are you having in your couple? Is there still a date night? Do you know what eroticism is and have a discussion around that to build passion?
Thanks so much for stirring this in me. It will surely help my couples and help them stick with coaching, and in addition, help them to see progress. Great tools!
Marie-Claire Thauvette
Relationship and Sexuality Coach
Relationship Bliss
Ottawa, Canada

Lori Keegan
Lori Keegan

Excellent topic Ellyn! Love your questions!!!

Katherine Waddell
Katherine Waddell

Wow, I love this! Still learning so much from you after all these years! I have a couple I’m going to use this with this week. So helpful.

Joe Winn
Joe Winn

Hey Ellyn, this is such a useful frame for assessing where the work is and the ongoing motivation of the couple! As always, thanks!

Janae
Janae

I love the idea of posing this question, is it better to be kind or right, to couples. Then having them talk about it in this fashion is brilliant. I can see how it will bring up an important topic while building their skills at listening in a nonjudgemental or agenda pushing way at the same time. I have 2 couples that are right here so I’m looking forward to trying this with them next week! Thanks Ellyn and Pete!

Lynda Morel
Lynda Morel

I so value the wisdom and way of approaching Couples in new ways that you continue to encourage us with as therapists. The results are always positive when transferred into my work with my clients. Thank you! Happy New Year!

Elsy
Elsy

Great tool and effective, i like the self evaluation questions and to have this self mangement so you can check in with yourself as a coach before you go and start a session with the couple. And after session these are good questions. I also liked the open ended questions that help the couple to reflect and the statement is really strong i will try to apply it in my sessions

Barnabas
Barnabas

Hi Ellyn, this is very helpful. I love the tools, the questions are good especially in the middle of a session that has lost motivation. This will help me evaluate myself and my clients when I feel we are stuck.

Debi Jones
Debi Jones

Hi Ellyn,
I deeply value the way in which you stretch my thinking. Such a rich GIFT in my world. I find it staggering I’ve not considered a mid way evaluation process such a this before! Going forward, I intend to be far more sensitive to intentionally creating space to pause, reflect and evaluate together with the couple, by asking quesions such as “Do you feel our sessions are productive? Are you getting the results you want? What do you wish I would do more of in our sessions?” …and so on.
What motivates me to not only evaluate myself non defensively, but to extend these questions to the couple for their honest feedback, is because I believe it will reinforce the INTEGRITY with which I am genuinely motivated to help the them move forward. If I am able to model authentic, non defensive openness to hearing their feedback, I convinced it will strengthen the TRUST factor between us, and within that process, ignite and reinvigorate their commitment to proactively pursuing their dreams and hopes. I am totally inspired. So incredibly blessed to be mentored and trained by you. THANK YOU.

Emma Sartwell
Emma Sartwell

Thanks Ellyn!
Emma Sartwell
Somatic Spiritual Counseling

Ann Burke
Ann Burke
Reply to  Emma Sartwell

I have a couple where one member uses hostile confrontation to be right. She feels stuck and unheard by her partner who in reality is doing productive couples and individual work with his provider. They r in middles. She wants rapid change for long standing dynamics and can be emasculating which keeps the shame dynamic alive for both of them. When faced with the option to leave since she is so unhappy, she hedges . Both r stuck . Ideas?I have found the training over the yrs to be worth it’s weight in gold. This is an example of where Peter, Ellyn and their team can provide direction for the practioner.

Julie
Julie

Thank you so much for this, Ellyn. This series of questions feel like a great way to assess the work, especially at the beginning of the new year and openly with the couple in question! I’m going to experiment by giving the questions to a couple I’ve been working with for over a year and ask them to be prepared to discuss at our next meeting. I will, of course, have given them consideration myself and be prepared to discuss from my perspective as well. I’m looking forward to the discussion.

Jen Graves
Jen Graves

Super, super helpful evaluation questions, Ellyn! Thank you SO much! I have a couple in mind I’m going to use this on the very next time I see them! Yay! And happy new year!

Dave Weil
Dave Weil

Hi All,
Please ignore this email we are doing some testing on site.

Dave Weil
Dave Weil
Reply to  Dave Weil

we received your comment thanks

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."

Read Other Popular Articles