Working with Early Trauma in the Initiator-Inquirer

When you are doing Initiator-Inquirer sessions, be sure to watch how partners function in their assigned roles. The combination of the role and each partner's functioning will give you a clear insight into each partner's level of differentiation. You will see where each person breaks down and you will also be able to locate past or early trauma that is being re-enacted in the current relationship.

Today's blog post is a continuation of the session with Vicky and Tom. If you missed the beginning of the series you can read the first section here and the second section here.

This session originally began with a blaming initiation from Tom. “I am sick of being controlled by you. You want to control my whole life. You leave no area untouched.”

I started by helping Vicky ask Tom questions to uncover his feelings and perceptions that were unexpressed while he blamed her for being controlling.

She initially had difficulty not personalizing his issues, but she was able to take some of my developmental assists and use them to ask a few effective questions. At the very end of last month's post a lot happened very, very quickly. This is common when you are working simultaneously with core issues in each partner.

Tom began to regress as I commented on how much he disliked feeling helpless and especially how much he disliked it with his wife. Vicky also took a step backwards and again self-referenced. “I don't want you to feel that way. But can't you understand this isn't about what I am doing?”

As you'll see in the next part of the transcript, this resulted in Tom striking back with hostility,  “I don't need an intellectualizing lecture from you right now.”

And now you have multiple choices, which is where the art and science of the Initiator-Inquirer process comes in. You could:

  1. Support Tom's regression
  2. Give more developmental assistance to Vicky in her role as Inquirer, so she personalizes less
  3. Confront the nastiness and hostility in Tom's response to her
  4. Try to do as much of all three of these as possible

There are no wrong answers. There are only choices. You must be resilient and willing to regroup if you make a choice that takes you in an ineffective direction.

I made a decision to start by supporting Tom's regression into the past. The issue he initiated was so strong and so clearly laced with old feelings that I guessed it would be valuable to explore the origin of his feeling controlled. Here is how the session progressed:

Ellyn: Tom, I hear that you don't like feeling helpless and it seems to bother you even more if Vicky is kind to you.

Tom: I never want to feel helpless. And it is even worse if I am getting an intellectualizing lecture from her.

Ellyn: And if you were getting compassion?

Tom: I don't want compassion. Damn it. How can she feel compassion when I feel pain?

Ellyn: I think she could feel compassion if you let her in more and told her more about the pain you experienced as a little boy and also why it affects you even now.

Tom: That pain is even worse than what I am feeling now.

Ellyn: Keeping that pain so secret is what results in you feeling so controlled by your wife. What was it like? Will you tell her a little about it?

Tom: (Starts sobbing) I was beaten by my father. I didn't make good grades. My grades never measured up to what my dad wanted. He wanted all A's.

Ellyn: Take your time. Stay there.

Tom: I was never good enough. (Sobbing)

Ellyn: (After waiting until his tears begin to subside) And tell Vicky some more.

Tom: He beat me. He beat me with a belt. More than once.

Ellyn: And…

Tom: I went to the hospital.

Vicky: You went to the hospital? (said with surprise and softness in her voice)

Tom: Yes, I had 2 black eyes and I was nearly unconscious. I was there for a few days.

Ellyn: As you lay there in your hospital bed, feeling so much physical pain, what were you telling yourself about the emotional pain?

Tom: Nobody will ever be the boss of me again! No one! Nobody! No how.
(He says all this vehemently.)

Ellyn: And tell Vicky, “I won't ever let anyone boss me. I don't ever want to feel this bad again.”

Tom: You bet. Vicky, I never ever want to be beaten into a pulp again. I don't care what grades I get. No one will ever hammer on me ever again!

So, let's stop again. Where do you go next? What have you learned? How did I facilitate Tom's regression without losing Vicky? Please read what your colleagues are thinking about these questions and share your own ideas, too.

I look forward to reading your comments. They are the very best source of my responses for future posts. Remember that this blog is public and your comments should not reveal your clients' identity.

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Paula Wiemers
Paula Wiemers

It is interesting to me that Tom doesn’t want compassion from Vicki when he’s in pain. My guess is either it underscores his role as a victim or he may believe Vicki is the cause of the pain. In any event – I think it is helpful he doesn’t look for compassion from Vicki as it opens the door for some inner child work whereby Tom may learn to offer himself compassion. I think this could move him toward greater differentiation and less reactivity as he learns to “soothe himself” in conflicted or regressive situations.

Connie M. Robinson
Connie M. Robinson

“Where do you go next?” I think I’d get Vicki to recap, with empathy, what Tom’s experience was — and how it impacts their relationship now. Maybe, get back to I to I again.
“What have you learned?” I think you chose to facilitate Tom’s regression because he exhibited such strong affect. You really helped him deepen his experience by suggesting he take his time, asking what he told himself, and getting him to say it aloud to Vicki. I think Vicki was able to stay in her role because you made it so clear that you were helping Tom talk about himself, in the days before Vicki, and you explicitly said that his work would allow her to feel more compassion. I especially admired your comment that keeping his pain private is what led to Tom feeling so controlled by his wife.

Arlene H. Johnson
Arlene H. Johnson

This was a great example of how to work with Trauma in one partner. You kept Vicki in the process by asking Tom to tell Vicki about his pain. I very much appreciated your listing of choices and indicating there are no wrong answers. Every situation provides opportunities to go many different directions. I need to remind myself that if something isn’t working to regroup and go in a different direction. I think I would check in with Vickie sext by asking her to recap what she has heard from Tom. Another directions to go would be to praise Tom for sharing his pain. Then, explore how he comforted himself as result of the abuse and how he comforts himself now. I believed he used anger then and now uses his expression of anger to keep away the pain.

Alex Thomas
Alex Thomas

I’ve been in this kind of situation before with couples and it’s played out differently with different partners. It’s where the meat of the matter is often.
Where I would go next is to check in with Vicki how this was for her. Where the couple goes next with this would be interesting to see. How will Tom learn to soothe himself when he gets triggered in the future (because it will happen) without lashing out at Vicki?
How will Vicki cope when Tom doesn’t do everything the way she wants him to?
In the past I’ve gotten tricky responses sometimes. Some range from empathy and support (I’m touched I never knew this about you) to feeling stuck (Now I feel like I have to walk on eggshells by being careful what I say) to intellectual awkwardness where the partner just doesn’t know how to be present to strong emotions. The list goes on.

Ümit Çetin
Ümit Çetin

Where do you go next? What is important now is to support Tom some more in terms of providing him with empathy. There should be some soothing contact between the two of them. To this aim, one possibility seems to turn to Vicki, asking about her experience, but also coaching her response in such a way as to make possible a soothing moment between the two to happen.

What have you learned? What I learned from this part of the transcript is that you provide Tom with some initial corrective emotional experience by having him tell / redirect his childhood decision to his wife, while he is in much affective contact with his past.

How did I facilitate Tom’s regression without losing Vicki? While you spoke on behalf of Vicki, you directed Tom to speak to her rather than to you.


Reply to  Ümit Çetin

Thanks for your insightful comments. I look forward to reading what you write. The fourth and last installment coming up in early November.

Kasandra Landrian-Ramos
Kasandra Landrian-Ramos


I’ve been reading “In Quest of the Mythical Mate,” and I have a question about the (Individual Hx & Intrapsychic Issues Short Script). Do you normally present these with the couple (each partner) in the room at the same time? Or do you do it individually?

I work for an agency named, Catholic Charities Counseling, and we are to conduct an individual psychosocial assessment on each client (even if the client is the couple). Therefore, I was wondering if it would be better if I presented the script together or separately? I’m looking forward to your thoughts and response. Thanks.


I would suggest doing it together. Most partners do not understand each other very well. Their conflicts as a couple are often re-enactments of unresolved childhood pain. Part of our job as couples therapists is to explain the partners to each other in a compassionate light.

Kasandra Landrian-Ramos
Kasandra Landrian-Ramos
Reply to  Ellyn


Thank you very much. I think this is going to work great. I’m excited to use this.

Ann Vance
Ann Vance

I liked the way you helped him explore his pain while she got to be a ‘fly on the wall’ as to what the deeper cause was and so able to come from a place of compassion, Susan Campbell (check out her books on communication) has some great lines that might be helpful to cope here and own the feelings, such as: Hearing you say that I feel…. , I am feeling triggered…. helping Vicki realize it is about him and his anxiety being triggered and being in fight, flight, mode, being in observation mode and being able to mirror back what he is feeling then come from a place of understanding what he feels and expressing how it makes sense to her might be good for him to hear…
Anie V


I am pazzled as to the use of the term differentiation in this context.
Would you please explain?
Thank you


Sure Sharon. Differentiation has to do with a partner being able to identify their own thoughts, feelings, wants and desires and being able to openly express those congruently. As long as Tom blames Vicki and sees her as controlling him, he remains in a symbiotic relationship that is the re-creation of a very troubled, painful relationship he had as a child. When he can be open and not helpless he will be internally more solid. I hope this helps.

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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