Ellyn Bader

charts and graphs of salesA very big thanks to you if you filled out my survey on the Self-Absorbed Partner. I must have hit a nerve because nearly 200 readers answered the questions.

This topic intrigues me. I often ponder how much of this is cultural, how much is psychological, how much comes from over-indulgence and how much comes from deprivation. I also recognize that some self-absorbed partners have experienced a lot of trauma and become self-preoccupied in order to keep themselves intact. Others are more on the narcissistic continuum and are very entitled. Whatever the source, the self-absorption challenges both therapists and spouses.

I am developing some videos and blogs so that we can go a little deeper into this topic by late summer.

In the meantime, since so many readers responded I thought you might like to know more about the results.  (If you haven’t yet responded, it’s not too late. You can do so here).

An overwhelming majority of respondents (147) said that self-absorbed partners are quite challenging to work with in couples therapy. Others were neutral, while only 10 strongly disagreed.

I always enjoy seeing comments from readers.  If you are one of those who were not challenged by self-absorbed partners, I especially welcome your insights and hope you will share your experience or expertise in the comment section below.

Here are the four biggest issues people wrote to me about:

  1. How easy it is to side with the partner who is not very self-absorbed
  2. Whether or not differentiation is possible when self-absorbed partners show so little interest in their spouses
  3. The plight of the partner who feels invisible and lonely
  4. How to change the core selfishness

Surprisingly, some respondents said that as many as 80% of the couples they see have one partner who is quite a bit more self-centered than the other. Averaged across all of the therapists who responded, that’s 53% of couples seen.

I then asked you whether self-absorption is a catalyst for other derivative problems, and what those problems were. Infidelity, depression and addiction were the most common responses. There were also many comments about spouses turning to food, alcohol and over-spending as substitutes for the lack of connection in their marriages.

In summary, self-absorption is all around us. It is detrimental for flourishing relationships and not easy to change. And inevitably we may feel frustrated, angry, disdainful or fearful at times when we journey into helping couples that contend with this problem.

I eagerly anticipate our dialogue on this topic. Please comment below.


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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Don Damsteegt
7 years ago

This is a great area to explore! I agree that the hardest couples are those where one of the partners is so self-absorbed that they care little about the feelings or wishes of the other.

bonnie vestal
7 years ago

What a great area to explore, whether for people in partnership, or simply in families and workplaces! We can all benefit from taking a closer look at this, how it became such prevalent behavior and what our culture might be doing to perpetuate it.
Thank you for getting the conversation started!

Kim Taff
7 years ago

I sense that the self-absorbed partners are, as you said in the intro, most likely trying very hard to keep themselves intact and have a trauma hx. Paradoxically, I find that the more self-compassion we can offer ourselves the more compassionate we can be with others.

Carmen Cubillo
7 years ago

Important topic,,,…have couple where she refused to acknowledge emotional infidelity or anything her husband trying to do to improve, he tried all and was she was less than kind, then she files a surprise divorce & fake order of protection & now they are supposed to go to court soon to finalize divorce she regrets having done it all, says diid not mean it, wants to work on marriage , but husband says that now he realizes how selfish she has been & how controlling & does not trust …he looked great & at peace …she looked awful, now says she will do anything to make it better …hard to believe her…he now has trust issues understandably, I saw them a few sessions almost 5 months ago & now suddenly this??? they are coming for a few sessions before final papers signed…. he said down the road maybe they can work on the relationship but he will never let any one control him again ….the order of protection was unfounded & also then he had problems at work ,,her mother filed a few more things against him ….got him in trouble ….now he wants nothing to do with her mother nor wants kids to see g ma it is escalating ….she is now anxious, not sure if truly remorseful or not does not seem like it ..just saying all she thinks he wants to hear ….think he is done they are both so self absorbed no one ever talks about the kids & the impact of the loss of familly…. too worried about themselves, she came in to “save the marriage” ……she is still blaming, not sure she is really remorseful or sees her part ….not sure what is going on now …….so yes this is a good topic I have many women who are spoiled would be a good term & the men are bending over backwards for them & it is never enough …hard to connects …
I think a lot are the social expectations from movies etc & also trauma & neglect as children this all compounds problem…the entire princess phenomenon of the last 20 years has really set in now …thanks look forward to learning more

7 years ago
Reply to  Carmen Cubillo

Liked your post. When patients with character logical issues act out in a self justified , usually, impulsive manner, they often get anxious and say things like they “will do anything to change” after their partner hits their limit .
That said, If you aren’t clear on weather she is being remorseful or accountable, then she isn’t.
She’s in a terrible spot of anxiety. Her characterlogic self will not allow her to take responsibility, but she desperately wants things to go back to the way they were. We know that Axis II patients get paired with”long suffering” codependents. At this point he may be breaking from his family of origin issues.He’s to be supported in this, However,he did say that “down the road he might work on the relationship”. Learning to detach and work with his wife to do what’s best for the kids may be your best bet. If she can be cooperative in this,she can begin to rebuild trust. I doubt she can. but the focus will be on what’s best for the kids. Keeping this in front of him may be the counter point to his hurt and resentment. I believe he may be workable not very optimistic about the wife.

Keena Hudson
7 years ago

I think people in pain are naturally self absorbed, but may have to capacity for more generosity when they are feeling happier. And we need to make a distinction between these people and those who have self absorbtion as a pervasive character trait.
Also, I am aware that some of the couples I see have both partners who are self absorbed. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start.

Katrina Waller
7 years ago

I agree that it can be frustrating and demoralising as a therapist when you feel that a client is not engaging with your attempts to help them to explore, acknowledge, reflect and take responsibility for their attitudes and behaviour as a partner. In some respects they are acting out with you the therapist what is happening in their relationship. One technique that I have sometimes found helpful is to use ‘internalised other’ interviewing i.e. you interview partner A as if they were partner B, starting with simple factual questions such as where did you meet, how long have you been together and gradually moving on to questions about feelings, frustrations and behaviours in the relationship – so that partner A is speaking as if they were partner B – then you swop. Internalised Other interviewing was (I think) developed by Karl Tomm. I am happy to share some material I have on this if others are interested.

7 years ago

Katrina-It would be great for you to share that material!

Jenny Glick
7 years ago

Such a great topic Ellyn! Katrina, I would love to see you materials about interviewing partner A as if she/he were partner B. I just ran into this issues last night with a new couple in my office and was struck but the power that partner A had in turning each dialogue in to a statement, comment, reflection of her. I found myself becoming a bit exasperated and silently aligning with her husband and feeling exhausted by the end of the session as I repeatedly and carefully tried to shift this dynamic in their system. Since they are new…I will have lots of time to learn from them and implement tools from Ellyn…I might look at presenting in the online Level 1 class soon. Thanks!

Jean Pollock
Jean Pollock
7 years ago

In one of my couples the man has started right out by demeaning me in these subtle ways, seemingly around scheduling. When I work to schedule them (via email) based on the availability they gave me in the first meeting, he responds with chastizing statements like “Look it; let’s just start from scratch here” (then telling me a new bunch of options, dismissing the schedule I created based on his first stated need.) Before that (first meeting) we opened with intro chat (welcome, the number of chn, their jobs, etc) he rolled his eyes when i asked him, and explained in quite a contemptuous tone “”To answer that would be (…another eye roll) …QUITE complex; certainly more than we have time for here.” I can feel how Partner must feel (like nothing she’s doing is good enough, is my guess) and I can only imagine the depth of his inner despair that he would work so hard to make me feel like nothing I’m doing is right for him. I say that because i don’t see his childhood as entitled.) THAT keeps me interested and curious about what we might unravel as we continue.

7 years ago

I would like to see more about the Internalized Other interviewing. A sample video would be great. As Jean said above, it is frequently difficult to get the absorbed partner to co-operate with such an exercise.

Desperately seeking
Desperately seeking
3 years ago

I would love A list of seasoned therapists who work with the self-absorbed partners/couples therapy. I’ve reached out to many colleagues and am finding very few are interested or feel comfortable working with this dynamic. I live in Connecticut. Anyone?

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.