New Ways to Create Collaboration for Severely Distressed Couples

October is here. Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas all quickly tumble into the family, creating stress for couples. School has been underway long enough for kids’ schedules, the demands of various activities, and homework challenges to create additional stress. Couples start fighting much more than they did in the summer months. Their lack of ability to collaborate effectively becomes apparent. Perhaps they call a therapist or perhaps they wait even longer.

Too frequently they wait until their problems have become chronic. John Gottman says, “People wait an average of 6 years to get any couples counseling after distress” (Notarius). And now with worldwide intense economic pressures, couples wait even longer.

As a result, you and I are often confronted in early sessions with high-distress couples with chronic problems. And they have deeply hurt one another!

What makes these couples especially difficult early in therapy is they lack positive motivation and their degree of individual accountability is low. By this time, they have many good reasons not to be vulnerable and transparent. And their openness will be significantly less than what you’ll see if you work with individual psychotherapy clients. These initial obstacles make couples work very challenging.

In individual psychotherapy, you can ask, “Why are you here?” If you ask that same question with high distress couples, you will often make the first session harder for yourself. The blaming and accusations begin and before long, it’s “She did. No, he did.” They are off and running.

You will have to intervene quickly in their rapid escalation or the session will get away from you, leaving you feeling drained and the couple enormously frustrated.

Then, you are trying to control the session at the same time as you are looking for answers to such questions as:

  • What is the developmental stage of this couple?
  • What are the attachment styles of each partner?
  • What is the repeating negative pattern that creates the unsolvable presenting problem?
  • What is relevant information from their individual history that helps create their current problem?
  • Is either partner able to have insight into their own contribution to the problem?
  • What is the extent of self-differentiation and other-differentiation in each partner?
  • How does each partner manage anxiety?
  • Do they have any successful repair processes? Without repair, their unresolved fights will go into long-term memory and create even more future pain and the way they view each other.
  • What are their strengths?
  • Are they able to maintain positive contact or do they dissipate it too quickly?

Even if you get all this information, are you able to feed it back to them so they have a better understanding of why they are so stuck and then feel motivated to actively participate in therapy? If you don't create positive motivation and individual accountability quickly, many couples will not return.

Over the years, Pete and I have challenged our selves to find more effective ways to interrupt chronic hostility quickly. Will you reflect for a moment?

  • How do you challenge the chronic negative patterns that exist?
  • When they describe the presenting problem, what do you listen for? How do you use the time?
  • How do you shift responsibility for effort back to the couple?

We’d like to share our ideas with you. We’re doing a training call next Monday, November 7 at 11am Pacific Time.  We’ll be talking about how you help couples embrace teamwork. This is part of creating significant positive motivation.

This call is special to us because we are doing it to raise money to feed 500 kids in the school we helped to build in Kiwa Farms, Africa.

Here is an amazing statistic: For $1.00 US, you can feed 1 child a healthy meal for 30 days! This is not a dollar a day. This is a dollar for a month of healthy lunches.

We’ve made a commitment to raise $6000. This will feed all the kids in the school for 1 year. They’ll get high protein meals of beans, maize, and milk, and all the money we raise will go directly to the lunch program. This will enable 500 kids to stay in school all day.

We believe these kids deserve another chance. They were displaced due to tribal and political violence. They lost their homes and family members and are rebuilding a life.  Education is their only route out of poverty.

We aren’t setting a fee for this training call. We care about couples getting effective therapy and about these kids getting fed. So, please join us on the call and trade the training for a donation.  You benefit in two ways, new ideas about your couples work and good feelings for helping hungry kids! And if you can’t listen live, you can hear a recording later.

We have fallen in love with these kids and this community and really want to make a difference in their lives. If you’d like to sign up, please visit to contribute whatever amount you wish. After donating, click the big yellow button that says “Return to The Couples Institute” to get to the page with the handouts and call information. You can also sign up by contacting our office: email or call 650-327-5915, or toll free 877-327-5915.

Thank you for your good work,

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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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