Do You Have the Roadmap for Being an Exceptional Couples Therapist?

If not, I’d like to share some tips with you today.  But first, let me tell you a little about my journey.

I used to think that my many years in practice seeing individuals had provided me with the tools for couples therapy, but I was wrong. I was a seasoned therapist, treating individuals with big problems – like addiction, early childhood abuse, neglect, or even war trauma.  Yet, if you put two people in a room with me who had ‘lost the love’ they once had together, I did not know how to manage the reactivity or move them towards a happier relationship.

Yet now I’m seeing couples, many of whom are on the brink of separation or divorce – with big problems like infidelity, active addiction or chronic hostility and I’m handling them with care, compassion and most importantly, confidence.  I went from being primarily an individual therapist, to seeing mostly couples. On top of that –  I have a full wait list of people who want to see if they can create something together that they are longing for.

So how did I get from not knowing anything to being so confident and having that translate into real change with couples – and a full practice?

The Road Map

Simply put – with sound theory and good guidance. I began learning the Bader-Pearson Developmental Model of couples therapy.  For nearly a decade now I have been studying and integrating this comprehensive road map to creating real and permanent change with couples. I love the approach so much that I’ve been training therapists in this Model for the last 5 years – and we’re building a community – a community of like-minded, exceptional couples therapists.

This roadmap is a framework for treatment that is composed of three equally important overlapping components.

  1. The Stages of Couples Development and integration of attachment styles.
  2. Differentiation as the key feature in creating a secure & lasting bond.
  3. The practical use of the latest neuroscientific research to promote both autonomy and connectedness.

This expansive template will give you a clear way to assess your couple, and reduce the number of times you ask yourself: “What do I do now?” or, “Where is this couple stuck?”

It will reduce the anxiety you feel with difficult couples by recognizing, “I can handle this – I’m one step ahead.”

Stages of Couple Development

Today I’ll share the first aspect of this 3-part model – along with some tips on how to intervene with your couples. There are 6 Stages of Couples Development in the Bader-Pearson Model. I’m going to focus here on the first few stages as that is where most couples get stuck.

Symbiosis

The first stage of ‘falling love’ is commonly known as the honeymoon period, where partners focus on what they have in common and ignore or overlook things that irritate them. It’s a state of “temporary psychosis,” fuelled by internal ‘feel good’ neurochemicals.  It is an important stage in laying a strong foundation of love and bonding as a couple. This stage is known as ‘symbiosis’ because of the enmeshed nature of the two “I’s” forming a “we.” Symbiotic statements from partners include: “We love everything about each other” or “He completes me.”

Failed Differentiation

But this stage doesn’t last! Between the first and second year couples will move into the next stage – ‘differentiation.’ Many of the couples that come into therapy are stuck here and are unable to successfully differentiate. It’s a like a child who can crawl but is not able to get up and walk. It’s a painful place that many partners endure for many years. I’ve seen couples who have been married 30+ years and have never made it past the first stage. According to Bader-Pearson, it’s known as “the dark side of the honeymoon.”   By the time we see them in our offices, these couples will have well entrenched patterns of either fighting or avoiding that challenge even the best trained couples therapists.  At this stage partners will say: “If he really loved me, he’d give me what I want without me having to ask,” or “We have nothing in common so I don’t know why we’re together.”

Attachment Styles

To make matters worse, when a partner has an anxious-clingy insecure attachment, he will often put up with a lot of bad behaviour from his partner and collapse too easily rather than stand up for himself.  This helps him defend against the mounting anxiety at the thought of separation.  If a partner has an anxious-angry insecure attachment style, she will get mad at every little thing, especially when she wants nurturing.  If a partner has an avoidant insecure attachment style, he will not make the effort necessary to demonstrate the ongoing importance of their close bond and of feeling loved.  He will have no internal template for that.

Your Transformation 

These factors can feel like a tornado ripping through your office or like the tense calm before a big storm, if you are unprepared and lack the skills to manage and direct couples towards healthier interactions. That’s what I’m hoping I can help you with. I want you to be successful in your pursuits with couples. I want you to know exactly what to do to ease a lot of unwanted suffering for them and unnecessary anxiety for you –  and generate more income at the same time.

If I can do it, so can you!

3 Tips for Interrupting Symbiosis

  1. If you suspect a partner is stuck in symbiosis, reassure him or her that feeling disillusioned with their partner is normal and is signaling them to move on to the next stage of development. By helping them own their disappointment at the loss of the fantasy partner, you are assisting them in building emotional muscle.
  2. Reframe their differences as a source for being curious rather than furious.  Help them recognize that it is the intolerance of differences that lead to problems, and that they can begin to value what each person is bringing to their lives that is unique.
  3. Help them begin to get comfortable with the tension necessary for growth – without allowing either nastiness or stonewalling.  Too often partners react badly to the tension by either attacking or withdrawing. By doing so they never get know and express themselves clearly, nor do they build the resilience necessary to form a long-term secure bond.

A Mission of Love

Let’s face it, with the divorce rate hovering around 50%, I believe that whatever we can do to lessen unnecessary separations is a worthy pursuit. I personally want to do whatever I can to bring more love into people’s lives. It’s what we all want.  With effective couples interventions, I believe I’m leading a group of therapists who are changing the world, one couple at a time.  I hope you’ll join us one day. So many therapists that have trained in this model continue to meet in my advanced group year after year.  Many have been trained in other couple therapy models but say that something seemed to be missing. They have found that the Developmental Model, with its comprehensive scope, fills in the gaps and enhances their work considerably.

In my next blog I will explore the concept of differentiation, and how you can begin to push for it in your sessions with couples.  Then I will follow up with a 3rd blog on how to integrate neuroscience into your work with couples.

I hope you have found this helpful and I will be back with part 2 in the next week.

About 

Sue Diamond Potts, M.A., is the Founder and Director of the Good Life Therapy Centre which focuses on helping couples and individuals create loving relationships in the aftermath of addiction and trauma.
If you would like help, please call our office to set up a time to meet with one of our outstanding therapists @ 604-682-1484 or Click Here to Contact Us.

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