Tough Couple Challenge #2: Sparking the Desire for Change

Here you are, preparing to meet with a couple who came to you seeking wisdom and guidance that will lead them to a closer, more supportive relationship. 

Like other unhappy couples you’ve seen, this couple has implored you to show them the way. But as you begin defining the issues that are keeping them apart, they’re suddenly fabricating every possible roadblock.

Why is this happening? And how should you respond? 

In the last blog post, we discussed how you can resist the natural temptation to take on more responsibility when couples avoid the honest dialogue that opens the door for change. Whether motivated by fear and self-doubt, the influence of past trauma, or a simple desire to prove the other partner wrong, these roadblocks can derail your most carefully planned strategies for change.

You’re there to guide them, but ultimately you know they must do the work themselves. This means finding ways to motivate and engage both partners in a collaborative effort that will lead them to a new level of compassion and mutual support.

Why insights into past trauma are not enough

The most stuck couples nearly always bring unresolved suffering into their relationships. Issues rooted in the past lead to self-protective patterns that make them feel safer in the short term while doing long-term harm to themselves and others. Examples range from harsh attacks directed at loved ones, obsessions or addictions that temporarily numb the pain, or even secrets and betrayals that have the power to literally blow the relationship apart.

Partners suffering from profound trauma are likely to struggle with low levels of differentiation and shame that compromise their ability to form successful adult relationships. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to simply understand and acknowledge their troubled histories. Thanks to the profound fears that are still controlling their lives, they are literally wired to resist the introspection and open dialogue you are trying to create. 

Shining a light on the most positive traits

In couples therapy, fear of change may stem from each partner’s terror of being blamed. Many partners stay passive, hoping and waiting for the therapist to validate their view that the other partner is responsible for 100% of their troubles.

Moving couples away from blame in all its various forms will demand a lot from you. Progress may feel slow, when you perceive it at all. Finding the way forward will depend on engaging each partner individually by witnessing positive traits, even if that means reframing negative qualities in a favorable light. 

For example, a partner who shows extreme stubbornness in refusing help from others might be described as tenacious and self-reliant. You might say, “Susan, I can see you’ve relied on your own strengths throughout your life. You clearly know how to stand on your own two feet! That’s a quality I admire. This strength has carried you far.” 

From the individual to the team: uncovering shared motivations

Of course, it can also be important to acknowledge the shadow side of positive traits: “Susan, as much as I recognize your need to maintain your independence, I can also see how this is undermining your desire for connection with James. James wants to give to you. He wants you to rely on him at times. This may take a shift outside of your fierce independence. Does this make sense? I wonder whether you could accept some support in trying out some new ways of being together?” 

This sample dialogue points out one way to acknowledge self-protective strategies to bridge into new behavior. 

In a recent training session for couples therapists, my husband and Couples Institute co-founder Dr. Peter Pearson demonstrated another way to bridge the gap: 

“At a certain point, you will need to make it plain that the work belongs to the couple. You might say, ‘I admire you both in so many ways. You have so many positive qualities to build on. At the same time, you need to find a way to work together, because the problems you are facing are very real. If you don’t find ways to collaborate as a couple, you will just go on antagonizing each other.’” 

At this juncture, he demonstrated how to offer a call to action:

“If you want to learn how to work as a team, you’re in the right place. If you believe life is too precious to spend it fighting and engaging in power struggles, I’m here for you. Are you motivated to try some simple exercises – to see how you can combine your strengths as a team?”

The work is hard, but the progress is real

This strategy introduces teamwork as a necessary path to the improvement the partners seek. Couples who agree to simple exercises such as the Daily Double Challenge will start building the foundation to work together toward a common goal — possibly for the first time in months or years. 

Honoring the goodness in each partner can set the stage for a shared practice of recognizing each other's strengths and abilities, which have been unrecognized for too long.

As things move forward, you should expect resistance, setbacks, and periodic returns to the long-standing defense mechanisms that partners have used to conceal their deepest hurts. 

This gives you the opportunity to praise the work they’ve done, affirming that it’s hard, and to strengthen their differentiation while expressing your faith in their ability to overcome regression and build the relationship they truly want. 

How do these suggestions apply to stuck couples you’ve worked with? Can you share a bridging intervention you’ve made recently? Please share your comments in the section below. We’ll use your thoughts to shape future posts and educational offerings. 

Ready to learn more?

If you’d like more insights that can help you work with even the toughest couples, consider our comprehensive training in the Developmental Model. This powerful framework can help you diagnose what couples really need — including the issues they’re NOT sharing with you — so you can tailor your interventions to exactly what’s needed in the moment. Training is now full, but by joining our waiting list, you’ll be first in line for our next session. Enrollment opens in late January, so put your name on the list now

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Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader 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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