Ellyn Bader

In a recent blog post I outlined some of the ways I work with couples who are caught in patterns of externalization and blame in their relationships.

If you missed it, you can check it out here.

In that blog post I presented some ideas for pushing the growth edge in these partners. I ended with the question, “But what if you’re beginning to sense that one of the partners isn’t as invested in this process as the other?”

If you’ve been working with couples for any length of time, you’ve likely seen instances where one partner doesn’t seem as invested in the relationship as the other.

For example, let’s say that you’ve been working with a couple and given them an assignment to come up with a plan for spending more time together.

When they come back to see you, perhaps the male partner says, “Well, I tried to check in with her, but she went right back to her email and spreadsheets.” He doesn’t acknowledge that he really made no effort to do the assignment.

At this point, you can see he’s being evasive and trying to sidetrack your efforts at helping the couple connect.

He’s shifted the focus away from himself and returned to an all-too-familiar pattern of blame.

So how can you help a couple like this move forward?

Acknowledge and draw attention to the avoidance, an aspect of externalization and blame that I introduced in my previous blog post. Ask why it was so difficult to make the plan you assigned.

Now this can be a real pivotal moment because you may be on the brink of exposing the other partner’s worst fear – that he may not be as committed to the relationship as she is.

But as painful as this conversation could be, bear in mind that the couple has been living with this reality, and reacting from it probably for years. Unless you can assist them in

bringing it out into the open, they’re going to continue to live with a kind of quiet disconnection or subtle pattern of rejection.

So you might say to him, “Well, instead of shifting to her right now, let's go back. It sounds like a big part of you didn't actually want to work on a plan for spending more time together. So we have a part of you that wanted to be with her a little bit more, and for right now, a bigger part that didn't want to. Let’s take more time to learn about your evasive part.”

Explore the obstacles that are getting in the way of deeper connection and intimacy.

You may find that he or even both partners never witnessed intimacy when they were growing up.

In addition, each partner likely has other issues that you’ll want to help them face and work through separately. You may encounter unresolved trauma or insecure attachment issues that may be present.

This is where it becomes crucial that you’ve laid the groundwork for each partner to begin making the shift from an external to an internal locus of control.

As you help both partners grapple with their own history, each will start to see and acknowledge the parts of themselves that actually do want connection.

Help each partner identify and articulate what they want.

When a couple has been stuck in a pattern of externalization and blame for any length of time, they may have become used to expressing their emotions only in the negative – in terms of what they don’t want from each other.

This is where we want to encourage each partner to speak up for themselves with gentleness and vulnerability, rather than criticism and blame.

As each partner grows in the ability to articulate their desires, and hear and respond to the other, they can begin to move toward what they actually do want from their relationship.

And this creates real opportunity for change and transformation – both for each partner, and as a couple.

For more ideas you can use in you work with couples, please check out our resource called Ending Chaos, Mayhem, and Verbal Violence.

Now I’d like to hear from you. How could you use one of these ideas in your work with couples? Please leave a comment below.

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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  1. Hi Jo, Ellyn asked me to answer because she is traveling.

    There can be a lot of benefit for individuals to be in couples counseling and individual counseling at the same time. The only time when I would say it is always advisable for couples counseling to stop is when intimate partner violence is occurring. There are other times when the frequency of couples sessions can slow down if the individual sessions take precedence for some time.

    Some times when it may be helpful for one or both partners to have individual therapists is when they are looking to do some trauma work or sometimes deeper work about childhood. A lot of this work can be done in the couples context as well, if the partner who will be doing the speaking is open to doing it in front of their partner and if the partner is willing to listen and learn about their partner without using it against the speaking partner or turning the focus on to them after a really deep emotional disclosure.

    Having said that, it’s important to talk to the individual therapist as well. One of many reasons is that individual therapists who are not trained in relationship dynamics will often accept one partner creating goals for the other partner or saying they need something from the other partner. This would work against the couples sessions where partners can say what they want (which is different than saying what they need because need can be construed as an obligation) and each partner can only establish goals for themselves.

    Still another option is that some couples are comfortable with the couples therapist doing some individual sessions to augment the couples work. This has to be specified in consent, but can really work well for some couples, particularly if there is an specific issue that they would like to do some individual work on and then bring it back to the couple.

    In other words, there are lots of options.

    Does that help?

    Thanks for posting!

  2. “other issues that you’ll want to help them face and work through separately.”
    Hi Ellen,
    I would like to ask your thoughts on the benefit or not to couples engaging in individual counselling (with separate therapists who collaborate with each other and the couple therapist) alongside couple counselling. Is there a need to pause the couple counselling?

    Warmly,

    Jo

  3. When one partner is abusive and unpleasant to be around, the other partner will naturally not want to spend more time with them. Why would someone want to subject themselves to more of that torture?

  4. Thanks so much Diane!!
    And Ann-That exact resource is for sale. However, there are many free calls from Pete on your training site that cover some of this same info. Check the list of Bonus calls for Peter Pearson.

  5. Ellyn, as usual, you clarified an issue I grapple with often – that of one partner consistently exhibiting less effort than the other. In reading your recommendations about how to handle this situation, my frustration (about one particular husband I saw last Saturday!) softened and I now see a way in to use this dynamic in a productive way.

    By the way, I don’t share often and usually listen to clinical calls after the fact due to my schedule. However, I just want you to know how priceless your instruction has been for me – both with couples and individuals. Thank you!!

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