Ellyn Bader

A few weeks ago, my husband and Couples Institute co-founder Peter Pearson and I were talking with fellow therapists about a pattern we’ve all fallen into at one time or another.

We’re working with two partners who seem hopelessly stalled. One or both have such deep defenses that we feel ourselves walking in circles, session after session.

Conversations may be laced with denial, blame, and resentment, yet neither partner will look deeper at the possible causes.

Or things might bounce along brightly, suggesting the denial that often feels like sunshine over troubled waters.

Over time, we begin to feel frustration, feeling the urge to do something, anything to break the deadlock.

What’s going on?

In our discussion, Peter pointed out that, as therapists, it’s only natural for us to want change. We want to open the door for understanding, caring, and mutual support. 

But what’s likely to happen when we ask guarded, defensive partners to share their innermost thoughts? 

Most likely, our bid for openness will be met with even more resistance, leading us away from where we’re hoping to be. 

When defensiveness is a life script

Not all intimate partners have built rocky walls around their hearts, but quite a few have. These are people living with acute or complex trauma that makes it nearly impossible for them to trust anyone. They don’t relate well to others, and the process of therapy may make them feel handled, controlled and manipulated.

Given their past experiences, it’s no surprise that these individuals will do almost anything to feel safe. But what they’ve sacrificed in the bargain for safety is the opportunity to learn, grow, and change.

Who should drive the process?

When you’re working with people who’ve made it their life’s work to avoid introspection, ask yourself a few questions. Am I taking on too much responsibility here? Do I feel it’s my job to do all the work for them?

As Peter pointed out, we sometimes see things through a medical model that urges us to “fix” people. This suggests that the duty to create change rests mostly with us. Compare this with the more realistic goal of helping couples find their own motivation and guiding them as they do the work together. 

Finding a way in

With guarded, conflict-avoidant couples, it’s essential to accept a slower pace. This gives you the chance to witness the tiniest steps forward and offer abundant praise.

Make it your goal to spark curiosity in partners so they can adopt a spirit of discovery about each other and their relationship. You can model curiosity as you search for examples of positive, nurturing actions they take now or have taken in the past. 

Peter gave an example of dialogue he might use with a couple whose early relationship was full of spontaneity, romance, and mutual appreciation. 

“I am thinking back to something you said earlier … I found it really delightful to hear. You said that when you first got together, you had such great times! I remember you saying you offered each other so much praise and encouragement. That’s really wonderful … it’s something that the strongest couples do for each other.” 

You might emphasize that this is a skill the couple already knows. “I can see you know how to give praise and how to accept praise. This is such an essential skill, such a good sign for your relationship.”

A chance for them to work together

From there, you might guide the couple toward a conversation of how it feels to give and accept praise. This could lead to a question: “I’m curious to find out if you’d like to flex this muscle a bit … explore what it feels like to give and receive more compliments.” 

As things progress, you might invite them to try the Daily Double Challenge, an exercise requiring them to offer praise, support, or positive attention at least once a day and record their experiences. As they share their results with you, this will create natural opportunities to observe and reinforce every step they take toward each other. 

In our next post, we’ll talk more about strategies for treating the toughest couples. In the meantime, please share any questions or challenges you have in the comments section below. Your ideas are so helpful in shaping future posts and educational courses. Thank you! 

Take Action Now

The Developmental Model provides direction for working effectively with a wide variety of tough couples. In fact, the Developmental Model can help you diagnose all your couples’ issues – including what couples aren’t telling you – and tailor your interventions to exactly what’s needed in the moment. If you are interested in our comprehensive training in the Developmental Model,  click here to get on the waiting list. The program is now closed, and will open for our waiting list only in late January.




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."

    Find more about me on:
  • googleplus

Tags: , Forward to a Colleague
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Bill White
13 days ago

Excellent points and insights. A very good article. Thank you.
The next blog might be on how to approach things when you have a couple who aren’t quite on board for vulnerability AND they are in a relationship crisis and need some changes right away. They aren’t developmentally ready to go deep, but going deep is what is needed to resolve the crisis.
In cases like this, I tend to meet with them individually for a few hours (3-6hr each and usually in one or two session each) and prepare them for the deep work (introducing the methods/approaches, assessing the degree they’re on board, and the like).

12 days ago

Thank you for sharing insight into how trauma can put up barriers and complimenting each other helps open the heart.

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.