Ellyn Bader

Stop Angry, Hostile Fighting and Immediately Structure More Effective Interaction

Are you interested in a way to get out of the middle of a couple's conflicts and work with both partners at the same time? One important and powerful aspect of our Developmental Model is the Initiator-Inquirer process for effective communication. The guidelines are simple, but the process is rich, and quite revealing. It can be used with couples at all of the different developmental stages.

In the “I-I” process, there are 2 roles, the Initiator and the Inquirer.

The Initiator:

  1. Brings up only one issue/problem
  2. Uses “I messages” to describe thoughts and feelings about the issue
  3. Describes the issue without blame or name calling
  4. And most essentially is open to learning more about him/herself than was known before he/she started talking

The Inquirer:

  1. Listens actively and recaps a description of the issue
  2. Asks questions to understand the partner's feelings, thoughts or desires
  3. Responds with empathy
  4. Continues with empathic responses until a soothing moment occurs for the Initiator

At first glance the roles sound easy. It might even be tempting to think of these as mainly Rogerian reflective listening statements. However, the roles are more complex and are designed to aid both partners and the therapist.

Why Use the Initiator-Inquirer

This process stops the “who will be attended to” competition, since the roles are delineated ahead of time. The roles also give partners specific skills to learn and apply so they can manage their own emotional volatility during tense discussions.

For the therapist, watching partners function in these roles provides a very explicit window into each partner's level of differentiation. You can fine-tune your interventions based on each partner's level of development.

For example, Hostile-Dependent couples break down very early in the process. In this case, the breakdown indicates where you want to focus so you can help them strengthen their own boundaries and self capacities. This growth will help them be a much more effective partner.

Common examples of breakdowns in the Initiator role:

  1. Blaming the other rather than focusing on the self and/or their internal process
  2. Avoiding or refusing to initiate. Maintaining only a reactive position in the relationship
  3. Demanding a merged response from the other

Common examples of breakdowns in the Inquirer role:

  1. Starting to problem solve and “fix it” immediately rather than allowing space for the partner's own process
  2. Asking questions that have more to do with self than other, like “Don't you think I'm upset, too?”
  3. Demonstrating minimal ability to self-soothe and contain themselves when in the Inquirer role

When you teach this process to a couple, they can work with it on their own especially if they have their own Initiator-Inquirer guide cards at home.

Common self capacities that are developed using the Initiator-Inquirer process are:

  1. Increased anxiety tolerance
  2. Increased ability to delay gratification
  3. Increased ability to internally self-reflect and self-define
  4. Increased capacity to self-soothe
  5. Increased capacity to experience empathy
  6. Increased ability to self-validate

Repetitive sessions with the Initiator-Inquirer process help each partner build their capacity to not take things so personally. This is especially important when a partner is regressing in the Initiator role. When the Inquirer is able to do less self-referencing and is able to tolerate some regression in their spouse, the cycle of defensiveness will be contained.

The Inquirer can become curious and ask questions which then help the Initiator process their own regression more successfully.

As you become more familiar with the Initiator-Inquirer process, you will find a variety of ways to creatively apply it by varying the emphasis so it is appropriate to each client's sensitivity or developmental level.

If you're not already using the Initiator-Inquirer process, I urge you to try it. It's probably the most widely used of all our interventions. Its potential to simultaneously promote self-discovery, intimacy, and growth makes it a powerful tool for you and helps create soothing moments that are new to your clients.

You can get your own pack of 25 I-I guide cards to give away 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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Marylou Donnelly
Marylou Donnelly
3 years ago

Tha I To I process continues to be my favorite after many years of use. Thank you for the review Ellen!

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.