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.


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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6 years ago

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.

6 years ago

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.

6 years ago

Beautifully concise & insightful – Thanks Ellyn!

6 years ago

Thanks Helene for the sharing. Appreciated.

6 years ago

Sorry Ellyn

Ümit Çetin
6 years ago

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

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.