Ellyn Bader

Strategies for Working With Lies, Passive-Aggressive Behavior and Affairs

Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute in Menlo Park, California. She is long-time members of the International Transactional Analysis Association (ITAA) and have served in various capacities in the organization. Ellyn was president of the ITAA from 1984-1985. This is an interview of Pete and Ellyn conducted by Bill Cornell for ITAA's publication The Script.

Bill: I'm glad to have the chance to talk with both of you, especially since the stimulus for this interview is the release of your new training tape for the ITAA “Transactional Analysis in Action” series. I think I'll start by asking a couple of questions that interested me from watching the tape, which is titled “Couples Therapy: Strategies for Affairs and Passive-Aggressive Behavior.” I think what stood out to me most from the tape was how pervasive the difficulties are for couples in the differentiation stage and how crucial the differentiation process is to the viability of long-term, healthy relationships. It is striking how hard it is for couples to differentiate.

Pete: And therapists! Many therapists are afraid of conflict and thus avoid the stress and tension involved in facilitating differentiation with a couple.

Ellyn: Many couples try to maintain a symbiotic relationship. They tend to stay stuck in a conflict-avoidant or hostile/dependent relationship, which are both forms of symbiosis. Differentiation is avoided for a lot of reasons. It is a high-anxiety,high-tension phase of a relationship. People have to come to terms with the reality that “we really are different people. You are different from who I thought you were or wanted you to be. We have different ideas, different feelings, different interests. We don't have an ‘ideal' relationship.” Many people experience differentiation as a kind of abandonment. There can be intense separation anxiety during this phase. It is hard for people to manage the tension and to face the crumbling of the symbiosis.

Differentiation has two components. There is self-differentiation: “This is who I am and what I want.” This refers to the development of an independent sense of self: to know what I want, think, feel, desire. Classical structural analysis is very good for this process, which is really a decontamination process. The second involves differentiation from the other. When this is successful, the members of the couple have the capacity to be separate from each other and involved at the same time.

Bill: That sounds very Winnicottian.

Ellyn: Yes, Winnicott and Mahler. It is a developmental perspective. It means a willingness to do a lot of self-management. It's really about the capacity for self-regulation and affect regulation.

Pete: In highly distressed couples, the solution is always for the other person to change so that I can get relief.

Ellyn: Yes, that's true. Also, too many therapists confuse individuation with differentiation, so they misdiagnose the couple. One partner may say, “I'm doing my own thing.” A new therapist may mistake that for differentiation and support that person as the healthier, more independent, more autonomous partner. But “I'm doing my own thing” doesn't necessarily reflect much capacity for differentiation. The members of a truly differentiated couple are able to experience separation and self-responsibility and to work together and support one another.

Bill: So differentiation is a crucial skill set both for therapists to understand and for couples to develop. It raises the question for me about how much emphasis is placed in the contemporary therapeutic literature on the mother/infant and attachment/attunement models. Doesn't that support couples' fantasies of an ideal symbiosis and inhibit differentiation?

Ellyn: Oh dear. We'd need three or four hours for that discussion. I can't turn that into a sound bite. Maybe we should take up that question-of when to promote empathy and when to encourage differentiation-in a different context, such as a conference panel.

Bill: OK. Or maybe another interview! Pete, you said a really interesting thing on the training tape about the uselessness of classic transactional analysis contracts in working with highly distressed couples, especially those with passive-aggressive dynamics.

Pete: You bet. After years of working with couples, I learned that the hard way. Passive-aggressive people strongly defend against identifying and describing what they want. They have been so severely disappointed so many times growing up, they despair of really getting what they want. That's the passive part of their personality. They are also angry about being or feeling deprived, and that's the aggressive, hostile part of their personality. Trying to get a contract from them at the outset of therapy is an exercise in frustration. This is what drives their partners nuts.

Highly distressed couples always have a very deeply embedded notion: The problem they have is that they think they shouldn't have problems! Just as insidious is the belief, “If my partner changes, we won't have any problems.” It is similar to the belief of someone married to an alcoholic: “When my partner stops drinking, things are going to be ok.” Success with these couples requires that each partner accept responsibility and be accountable for his or her contribution to the problems. Part of the confusion is that at a Child ego state level, both people feel they are already far too responsible for the welfare of the other. They hear contracts for change from the therapist as the therapist saying, “It's your fault and you have to fix it.” So you rarely get a clear contract for self-change. Most couples coming into therapy have treatment goals to reestablish the symbiosis, that is, most couples' goals are symbiotic objectives: “WE need to . . . ,” “WE think that . . . ,” “WE don't know how to. . . .” The symbiotic invitation is in the “we.” And, of course, WE need to change/learn really means “my partner needs to change/learn.”

Bill: So what is the alternative to establishing a contract?

Pete: What I've learned is to start with the first phone call, before the couple is even in the office. I tell people on the phone, “I want each of you to think about three questions before you come in for the appointment: (1) What is it I need to do to be a more effective partner? (2) Why would doing those things be difficult for me? (3) How strong is my motivation for working on questions 1 and 2?”

I never ask, “Why are you here?” or “What do you want?” because each person will unload a litany of complaints about the partner-and then I'm stuck because I asked for it, and then I have to give them the bad news that they can't have what I just asked them for. Those are good questions in individual therapy. But in working with highly distressed couples, those questions are lethal.

Bill: How has working with couples influenced your use of transactional analysis?

Pete: Transactional analysis is still the most versatile way of looking at couples' relationships among the models that we've seen. Combine it with Gestalt methods, and there's no better foundation for working with couples.

Ellyn: Transactional analysis is the only system that combines intrapsychic and systemic thinking. We use a lot of TA, especially in helping people differentiate. It's so crucial to couples to avoid splintering and fighting.

Bill: We're back to the difficulties of differentiation.

Pete: All real growth demands that we surrender a certain amount of certainty. Highly distressed couples don't want to face that. We are saying to couples that they have to learn to tolerate insecurity and risk.

Bill: That's seems equally true, perhaps even more so, for the deadened couples, the ones who avoid distress, live in side-by-side, deadening companionship.

Ellyn: Yes, absolutely, these are the highly conflict-avoidant couples.

Pete: I tell couples who are afraid of change, “People don't drown because they fall in the water, they drown because they stay in the water.” We don't talk about change. We talk about experimenting for a while. Just experiment and make some adjustments and see what happens.

Ellyn: When couples try something new, they don't get immediate reinforcement, so they go back to the old ways: “We tried it and nothing happened.” We often use the metaphor of exercise. You don't see changes right away, and therapy is a form of exercise to develop emotional muscle-it takes time and practice.

Bill: So, what about your new book, “Tell Me No Lies?”

Ellyn: We wrote the book for the public, hoping that it's the kind of book therapists will give to couples to read to facilitate therapy. The book is about telling the truth, since so many couples' relationships are based on lies, both deceiving the other and self-deception. Everything from the little “loving” lies to big deceptions.

We also describe the “lie invitee,” the partner who invites lies because he or she doesn't really want the truth or the responsibility for managing his or her own feelings: “I want an intimate relationship, just don't tell me anything I don't want to hear.” We've written about the pressures for self-deception and deception of the other. A good example of this process is what we hear all the time in our training workshops when someone finds out that his or her partner is involved with Internet porn. Internet porn is rampant-so accessible, affordable, and secret. When one member of a couple finds out that the other is involved with it, he or she typically says something like, “Tell me you won't do it again.” Such individuals don't use these things, these points of deceit and distress, as a catalyst for change in the relationship. “Promise me” just invites the other person to hide out. It's an invitation to lie rather than talking to each other about what's really going on. (For more information on this book or to order it, please click here: Tell Me No Lies).

Bill: Besides the new tape and book, what else are you doing professionally these days?

Pete: We're excited about and would like our colleagues to know that we're taking all the material we've learned over the years in working with couples and putting it on our website (www.couplesinstitute.com) so that people can use it at home or in their ongoing therapy. It's not completely done yet, but it will be soon.

Bill: That sounds great. Thanks for talking with me so early on a Sunday. It's been an interesting conversation.

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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