Dr. Ellyn Bader

Co-Founder of The Couples Institute®

Thinking DevelopMentally:

What Do You Say When...?

In this first article of our series, you’ll see what to say when a couple starts a session wanting to rehash a fight.


This situation demonstrates the need for a crucial concept of developmental thinking:
Strong leadership is essential.
Let’s look at what happens when a couple starts a session by dumping the fight of the week on you. They come in feeling raw unresolved pain.
Start by saying:

Before we jump into resolving your fight, I ask you to think of our time together not as conflict resolution, but instead as a time to learn. You are here to learn from me and from each other.

You’re here to learn about your emotional triggers and how to manage them better. Solving this one fight won’t help you in the future. Instead, we can all learn what triggers each of you. You’re also here to learn how to avoid triggering each other and what to do when you yourself are triggered. This won’t always be easy, but it is essential to realizing the dreams that brought you together.
If you want to learn that, then you’ll let yourself be coached by me. I’ll be coaching you to do some things that won’t feel natural or intuitive. If you don’t let me coach you, I will struggle with a part of you that says, “I don’t want to do that” or “I don’t feel like doing that” or “that’s not natural.”
A lot of what I ask won’t automatically feel natural or intuitive. What’s natural is your history of how you respond under stress! Anything we do that breaks those patterns will at first feel awkward and unnatural.

If you don’t let me direct you, nothing new will happen. After several months, you’ll say, “Well, we tried and it didn’t work.” If you allow me to coach you into new ways of being together, you’ll be learning how to work as a team. You will discover what gets in the way of you cooperating and collaborating. If you stay open to feedback and to supporting changes in each other, a lot will start to change.

If you are willing to let me interrupt and coach you, then you will be different.
This kind of conversation is key when you work to support growth and change. In addition, by starting the conversation with your clients in this way, you’ll accomplish several things:

Developmental Principle:

Surface vulnerable feelings.

Using developmental principles allows you to shift the focus from problem solving to learning, and it sets the session up for success.

If partners learn to identify their triggers and the places each of them collapses, the session will be a success even if their immediate fight is not resolved. Learning to shift the focus of tough sessions is crucial so couples walk away saying, “Wow, we really got somewhere.”

The Developmental Model provides a tremendous framework for growth.

The more you can lead, the more growth you will see, and the more your couples will be glad they are working with you.

what now

Mark your calendar for September 13 at 1pm Pacific Time, for our first live webinar in this series. What Do You Say When Unrecognized Trauma Impedes Progress? You’ll also get an email with a link to join before the webinar.

If you're curious to learn more about the Developmental Model and how its principles can usher you into a new way of working confidently and effectively with couples, click the button below.

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Learn from a pioneer and leader in couples therapy training as she shares exactly what to say in difficult therapy sessions.
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