Ellyn Bader

I enjoy seeing an exchange of ideas here on the blog. I invite you to list attachment based interventions that you use. Here's one to get us started:

Constancy of Contact. Find one time each week that the couple will get together without discussing relationship problems. This can be a walk, a coffee date or doing a shared activity. The time and place are agreed to ahead of time and neither partner needs to request it. This is designed to build reliability, accountability and time together without stress.


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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  1. Thanks for all the interesting suggestions.
    Waht I often do is to point out, what they have in common, e.g. not accepting responsibility or avoiding fun-time together etc.

  2. I find that outlining the cycle they are in can be very attachment oriented. It’s like saying, we’re in this together – when I do this, you do that, then I do this. It can give a sense of we-ness even as each partner notes their part in the “dance.”

    I also note when one person mentions a feeling, like lonely, and later in the session the other partner starts talking about it in a different context, but saying he/she is lonely. “So you’re lonely too,” I might say – “what’s it like to know that you’re both feeling lonely when you’re stuck like this”. We’re all human, in other words, and we all share these feelings – it takes it away from the “you’re making me lonely” mindset.

  3. I’ve been using the palm to palm exercise above but in a very different way. I have my couples sit facing each other, palms on thighs I ask them to close their eyes and to focus, for a few seconds, on ‘how am I doing? What I am feeling?’, to really get inside themselves. Then I ask them to open their eyes and go palm to palm with their partner. I give this instruction after the introspective piece. I don’t say anything more but let them just sit with feeling their partner’s presence. We then process what happened, how did it feel to feel your partner. Wow… I have heard some amazing bits of insight. I watch as well, noting things like ‘at first you seemed hesitant to make eye contact and then you did. What were you feeling when you looked up? Then what happened for you’.

  4. I have been working with a couple for over a year now who are in a 30+ year conflict avoidant marriage. They live under the same roof and talk occasionally but that’s about it. There is a lot of hostility below the surface and a lot of resistance to dealing with it. They have had a few moments of real from-the-heart connection and overall are moving in the right direction. But they have become accustomed to doing their own things. This Christmas before they left for their annual Maui vacation I asked if they would agree to cook the Christmas dinner together. Beleive it or not, this was a huge accomplishment. There was a session where appreciation was spontaneously expressed and with the comments here, I am inspired to focus a little more deliberately in that direction.

  5. We all like to be appreciated. The following exercise is from a Gestalt book which can be used at an appropriate time during the session. The couple takes turns stating their appreciation of each other. Beginning each sentence “I appreciate_”they state their appreciation specifically and in detail. After about five minutes, they share their experience of doing this, their feelings about giving and receiving appreciation. I think, the experiment itself plus the process of sharing it foster the couple’s sense of connectedness.

  6. This is a good one for couples who have lots of daily logistics to manage. Ask them to decide when/how is best for the two of them. Is it best to email, text, phone? Do a list the night before? It can help to contain it to one modality. High distress couples tend not to think and organize their work. As a result almost every interaction contains an element of one telling the other what to do. If they limit it to email, they can say, “When I call you, it is only to connect in a positive way-say hello, how are you, ask you out, etc” In this way they can look forward to phone calls and check emails for the work load issues.

  7. I just thought of this idea this morning – – haven’t tried it out yet. I envision being able to use this exercise in two different ways.

    1) Have the couple stand facing each other, put up their hands, then place their hands together, palm to palm. Tell them their palms represent their attachment style – – that is, how they are attached to each other. Ask them to tune-into how they feel. No talking. They can move their hands in any way they want, as long as they keep them together. As with the Paper Exercise, observe their behavior and how long they can stay “attached.”

    2) Set them up the same way, facing each other, hands palm to palm. This time, set them up to be successful. Tell them that their hands represent their Attachment Style – that is how they are attached to each other. Instruct them to be happily attached. Suggest to them that just like an actor has to play roles they may not be in the mood for, they still have to ACT the way they are instructed. Even if an actor is in a bad mood and they are playing a happy person, they have to ACT happy.

    Have them act out several scenarios, moving their hands, keeping their hands together, and no talking. Act as Mimes. Depending on the couple you might have them act:

    Happily Attached
    Attached in a flirty way
    Attached in a serious, committed way

    This Attachment Acting Session will help them experience, at a felt level, how to be happily attached. Of course, if they weren’t able to act the part that would give you clues about them as well.

  8. My favorite daily event for couples (early in therapy) is to write down 3 appreciations they have about their partner and share them in a sacred time/space every night. Usually with candle light. No relationship discussion is to occur after that, just snuggle and drift off…

  9. I might ask them how they greet each other, meeting at the end of the work day, or how they touch base before going to bed–what are their rituals for connecting. This can touch on differences in their histories and attachment styles–deep longings, irritability in an avoidant partner, etc. Or it can be a real resource area for them to cultivate and lean into as a support for the differentiation work.

  10. I have also used date nights; coffe times etc as a way of fostering positive attachemen experiences. As well as this I have often asked couples to write down things they wish to discuss and make a date to sit in the park where they can discuss the items on the list. This way they get to practice communication and listening skills while leaving the home as a ‘safe haven’. The public place also requires them to have a level of self-restriant in the interactions.
    I would be pleased to hear further comments.

  11. I like to get the couple to schedule in a regular date night or day event too. I found that although many of them were keen to do this it often did not happen as they got too busy with other things. One tip I found useful was to get one of the partners to put an alert in their phone calendar to remind them to organise something each week to ensure this happened. They took it in turns to take responsibility for this so they shared different activities.