Ellyn Bader

self-absorbed_man_225This year’s Couples Conference has come and gone. Happily, it turned out to be another dynamic meeting filled with therapists from many countries as well as those from the United States.

This year I conducted a workshop on self-absorbed partners with Sue Diamond-Potts. Sue is my assistant in the online training program and she also specializes in addiction work. We explored the problems created in marriage or committed partnerships by self-absorbed partners.

Self-absorbed partners focus mostly on themselves. Their own thoughts, activities and interests predominate. Many tend to indulge themselves with food, sex, drugs, alcohol, spending or relaxation at the expense of their partners desires.

Sue emphasized how self-centeredness is so prevalent in partners with drug and alcohol problems. She introduced her talk with a favorite quote from many alcoholics, “I may not be much but I’m all I ever think about.” The alcoholic’s self-absorption comes from emotional neediness combined with the belief that people are dangerous. This results in feeling the need to look out for self first as a primary survival strategy.

I followed up with how self-absorbed partners affect their relationships. They don’t see their spouse as a separate person with their own history, their own desires, their own conflicts, vulnerabilities and inadequacies. So they rarely give much thought to their partner’s emotions and they have little motivation to put their own interests aside to connect emotionally.

Their primary orientation is “attend to me” rather than “I give to you”!

Another way to describe this is they are very weak in the capacity for other differentiation. This manifests in day-in and day-out interaction that is troubled because they don’t:

  • Listen without interrupting
  • Ask other-directed questions
  • Show genuine curiosity
  • Delay gratification
  • Understand the partner in light of their partner’s history
  • Remember what they learn about their partner

Therapy with these partners is challenging because the focus needs to shift from an I-need to an I-give way of relating.  And the therapist must be able to recognize small shifts and build on them.

We walked the audience through 7 Principles of Treatment with Self-Absorbed Partners:

  1. Explain what you are doing and why. For example, it is helpful to preface confrontations with statements like, “What I am about to say may make you uncomfortable or defensive and that is understandable because I am about to describe what it is you do that gets in your way.”
  2.  Expose and integrate the intra-psychic split between the greedy side of self and the side that wants a better life. The better life side will be small at first and will grow over time.
  3. Define a goal about how engaged the self-absorbed partner wants to be.
  4. Use the Inquirer role of the Initiator-Inquirer process to increase genuine curiosity, manage tension and move towards a more real understanding of the spouse.
  5. Give homework that includes acts of service to others.
  6. Help the spouse recognize that the self-absorption is not about them. It’s not personal.
  7. When ready, teach the spouses how to collaboratively coach each other. Together they can move away from self-absorption into more thoughtfulness.

Sue reminded us that when working with addicts in couples therapy, it is important not to assume that because they have multiple years of “sobriety” that they have emotional sobriety: the capacity to emotionally regulate their behavior under stress – like when they are triggered by their partner’s behavior.

We finished the workshop with a wonderful case example from Sue. The husband was finally able to initiate about the lack of balance in their marriage and how he does much more than his wife. A turning point in the couples therapy came when Sue prompted the alcoholic wife to ask her husband this question, “Do you feel I am giving as much as you are to our relationship?”  Her husband replied “No,” resulting in so much tension that the wife felt she had to leave the room. When she returned, Sue expressed her confidence that the wife could handle hearing her husband’s reality. The quality of the couple’s interaction became very different after this.

If you’d like to read more of Sue’s work go to her website.

And please share any of your own experience working with self-absorption in couples or clients with addiction problems.

About 

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. Hi Ellyn,
    Thank you for this excellent summary of your workshop with Sue. The information you covered here is very useful and some of it, I guess, can be applied to other kinds of couples as well. I especially liked very much the idea of getting the couples to be aware of the distinction between the “I-need vs I-give way of relating”. I also found the turning point of Sue’s case very inspiring where she prompted the alcoholic wife to ask the critical question regarding the balance of the give-and-take in their relationship. It is differentiation indeed, the ability to express, ask, and then hold and handle the different realities in the relationship that paves the way for a constructive interaction and genuine intimacy.
    Thanks a lot for sharing this,
    Ümit Çetin

  2. Elly & Sue,
    Thanks so much for this summary of what you covered. I am hoping with a little planning I can attend the conference next year. I have a specific interest in the substance use/ recovery crossover in couples work.
    Bobbye

  3. Hi Ellyn and Sue,

    Thanks for taking the time to summarize your workshop.
    I really liked your framework and suggestions for working
    with self-absorbed partners.
    Jim

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