Ellyn Bader

One of the reasons I find the Initiator-Inquirer process especially valuable in our work with couples is that it exposes so much about where they are developmentally. It helps us see the cutting edge of their development and reveals ways we can challenge each of them to work at their growth edges.

Now if you are unfamiliar with the Initiator-Inquirer Process, you can find out more about it here.

As you use this process, it’s important to learn how to look at what your clients’ edges are. What are the places where they fall apart with each other when you’re not around?

For example, I often see couples who are stuck because they lack the self-capacity to allow one of the partners to come forward. In cases like these, much of the work comes in helping each of them see how they contribute to the stuck place.

Let’s say you are working with a couple who has been fighting a lot. One partner is extremely volatile, while the other is incredibly passive-aggressive.

As you begin teaching Initiator-Inquirer to clients who are passive or passive-aggressive, you’ll likely see that they only know how to talk about their desires in terms of what they don’t want. They have a very hard time standing behind their desires in terms of what they do want. When they attempt to describe what they do want, they can find themselves feeling very shaky internally.

For clients whose initiation isn’t solid, it may be very difficult for them to be present, come forward, and know what it is they actually want to express. They may be getting stuck at the very first step of going internal, self-defining, and figuring out what is important to them.

This can be especially true when previous attempts to articulate their desires have been met with anger from parents and their partner.

When somebody has a shaky internal core, when they’re unsure and have trouble defining themselves, so often the way it gets figured out is with somebody who slows down and takes the time to help them process out loud. When you enable them to process out loud, you are helping them figure out where the ground is that they are standing on. And sometimes, they realize that where they started isn’t the authentic core they were trying to express.

So, when I see a client struggling in the initiator role, I might say something like this:

You just acknowledged that you feel really unsure of yourself when you bring things up. What would it be like to take a little more time and see if you can figure out what it is you want to say, or what it is you’re trying to communicate? Let’s see if you can figure that out, or let’s see if we can figure that out together so that you and your partner both know what it is you’re really talking about. Because it does feel so uncertain to you.

This is where support becomes crucial. When your client actually does come forward with something that’s real, present, and authentic, it’s so important to support and underline that step.

Many partners don’t see their progress and what they’ve done that is effective. It’s worth the time, the attention, and the care to acknowledge their successes, and literally get what they’re each contributing to that success.

What we’re working toward are incremental wins. We want to be able to describe the growth edges very specifically and stroke them a lot so the couple can see them clearly as well.

Something else to keep in mind is that, anytime your client is in the initiator role, you want to do as much as you can to be sure he or she gets a good, solid initiation before the partner starts to ask a lot of questions. Because if you don’t know what’s initiated, you won’t know what’s real and authentic.

What can often happen is that, when one partner is shaky in initiation, the partner in the inquirer role can jump in too quickly, asking leading questions that shift the dynamic away from what’s real for the initiator. It’s important to pay attention to whether the line of questioning is helping the partner stay with himself or move toward reacting to his partner.

When you teach Initiator-Inquirer, make it clear that some sessions will be focused primarily on one partner at a time. This can be a challenge, especially when you work with competitive, volatile or very needy partners. The partner who is not the focus may have a hard time trying to contain the desire to tell their side of the story.

But what you’re teaching your client is an important skill they’ll need moving forward – the skill of delay. This is a small, yet crucial step toward learning to stay open and be with their partner, even when they have different perspectives. You’re helping them build that emotional muscle.

Now I’d like to hear from you. How could you use some of these ideas in your work with couples? Please leave a comment and let me know.

You can get a pack of 25 Initiator-Inquirer guide cards  to give to clients when they are learning and practicing the I-I process. Many therapists emphasize that the cards provide a needed anchor for their clients and are their secret ingredient for success with the process.


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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Holly Seerley
Holly Seerley
2 years ago

Oh, yes, one couple I have been working with for about a year fits your two descriptions: She had an absentee single mom ages 4-8 after father left. He had a volatile, blaming abusive mother. She has worked very hard in therapy when the Initiator in I-I processes to identify internally what she wants, express it and stay present for his questions and empathetic statements which elicits her tears of relief, when this happens. Originally, she went blank, cried and could not get words out. This is a woman who is in a powerful and influential position in the corporate world. He at first could barely contain his “big” feelings about what she was saying. He s badly wanted his side to be told. He has learned some
How to calm himself and listen. When calmer, he is so great at empathizing, a strength he is known for in his
men’s group but was lacking in his marriage when it had to do with him at all. He has learned to not take things so personally but sometimes leans now in the direction of it’s not at all about him, with little identification of his part to work on. His defenses are more obvious and show up clearer than hers.

Some things I am going to take back into my work with them:

Both tend to talk about what they do NOT want rather than what they long for. I have worked with them on this but see it is a key to progress individually and relationally. I will key an eye out for those opportunities to help them define positively what they want.

Stroke their successes. He in particular is very vulnerable to expected setbacks.

This is a couple I will present this year for feedback.

Lori posting for Ellyn
Lori posting for Ellyn
2 years ago

Hi Holly, I wanted to pass on that Ellyn read your post while she was on a plane in Mongolia and wanted to send congratulations for work well done!

2 years ago

Hi Holly, I wanted to pass on that Ellyn read your post while she was on a plane in Mongolia and wanted to send congratulations to you for work well done!

Elaine Wells
Elaine Wells
5 months ago

Last week I decided to use the I-I with a couple who seems very calm, smart & cooperative. They had led me to believe that she is the quiet, passive partner who is reluctant to express herself, and that he is the assertive one. During their conversation he stated that he often gives in to her because she can be a “bulldozer” once she sets her mind to something she wants. He expressed his fear that he would follow in his father’s path of sacrificing himself to his wife and family. This was a huge revelation for her, and I think this awareness will prevent lots of tribulation for this young couple.

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.