Dr. Ellyn Bader

Co-Founder of The Couples Institute®

Thinking DevelopMentally:

What Do You Say When...?

In this next article of our series, you'll discover what to say when clients make outrageous demands on you or on their partner.

What Do You say when a client makes outrageous demands on you or their partner?

I recently asked members of the Developmental Model training program to share examples of hard moments in sessions, situations where they felt stuck.
I was surprised at how many replied with some version of “You will not believe what I heard!”
Here are 5 examples I received that represent excruciating demands made on conscientious practioners. See if any of these moments sound familiar to you.

Each of these situations might leave you feeling inept or thinking about entitlement, self-absorption, or narcissism.

All five of these examples have something in common: low self-accountability and minimal motivation paired with a high degree of aggressiveness.
The demands are delivered aggressively. These partners don’t know how to say, “I am hurting and desperate.” Instead their pain is expressed in unreasonable demands and aggressive attacks.
They are insisting you focus on the partner without involving themselves in the next steps of the solution.
If you focus on the attacking partner immediately, you will only make things worse.
If you focus on the attacking partner immediately, you will only make things worse.

Before responding, remember these two principles from the Developmental Model:

Developmental Principle: Create individual autonomous change goals. Move from defensive self-protection to individual accountability.

For all the situations above, you might say this to the couple.

OK, let’s step back for a few minutes and look at the big picture.

Relationship work is challenging. It takes risk. It takes openness. It takes looking at uncomfortable and ineffective parts of ourselves.

Some couples come in saying they want to change but they are not ready for it. They then feel bad when the work does not meet their hopes or expectations.

Basically, couples therapy or coaching works best when each partner creates targeted growth goals and then holds themselves individually accountable for reaching those goals. The most effective goals target change in areas of repeating pain or stuckness.

Now, I recognize this is not easy. It requires each of you to put forth sustained effort with focus. It means moving past layers of self-protection and taking multiple emotional risks. It means risking saying something like, “Today I feel so desperate that I just want to clobber you. I don’t know how to tell you how much pain I am experiencing right now. But, I’m telling you instead of clobbering you.”

The more emotionally armored or self-protective you are at any given moment, the more you will want the other to change without you encouraging the change you so desperately want.

That is normal. Not healthy. Just normal.

However, just showing up here does not mean you are ready for growth.. It’s like buying a membership to an expensive gym and just standing in the doorway – observing and then feeling bad because you are not getting in better shape.
So here’s the really crucial question: do you think with my help you are ready for the emotional challenges ahead?
It means you will let me stretch you. It means you will put forth the effort to improve your reactions when you are triggered instead of just focusing on what your partner is doing. You will look for ways to praise progress instead of waiting for perfection. It means you will let me coach and guide you even when it is uncomfortable. It means all of us working together.
So, what do you think?
Are you ready?

Why or why not?

The Developmental Model provides a tremendous framework for growth.

It allows you to expertly lead couples through these kinds of outrageous demands and into a more satisfying relationship.

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 get an email with a link to join a few hours 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.