Confronting Angry Partners can lead to big shifts…

To confront or not confront – that is the question

I’m sure you have had those tense moments with couples when you ask yourself “should I confront this or not?” They are difficult moments and we often have a split second to decide. The truth is confrontation is essential in couples therapy. Yet, as therapists we often struggle with it, because of family and social conditioning that says confrontation is ‘rude’. Maybe you shy away from it because you fear you will scare off your clients, or because you were taught it’s therapeutically unsupportive. Or, perhaps you are afraid to confront an angry client because you had an angry parent and do all you can to avoid such interactions now. These are all real factors when it comes to helping clients get past their angry defences. What I’ve learned from studying and practicing the Developmental Model with Drs. Ellyn Bader & Peter Pearson is that confrontation is necessary to disrupt unhealthy patterns that keep couples stuck in regressed states.

My struggling couple…

The other day I was working with a couple who are struggling to navigate their way past a brief emotional affair that helped them to see that something was amiss in their lives. I did a strong confrontation with the husband at the end of the session, when his anger flared up at both me and his wife.

I saw that his anger is his way to push for a return to the symbiosis that no longer works for them as a couple.

I knew I had to say something.

And I had to say it strongly, to match his energy and get his attention.

“You have a serious anger problem and at some point, you will have to deal with this because it’s keeping you and your relationship stuck”.

My second guessing

We ended the session and I wondered if I had been too hard on him. Was my intervention effective and was the timing right? Maybe I should set up an individual session and explore it further one on one?

But before I had a chance to do anything, I received an email from him that not only touched me deeply, it confirmed how important the confrontation was in moving him forward.

It got his attention and put his focus where it needs to be – on his own growth edge.

Here’s what he said:

I do have an anger problem. I don’t want to have an anger problem. There have been times in my life where it wasn’t as much of a problem and others where it was killing me inside but it was the only way I knew how to cope. The following is my self-actualization of what I think my issue is…

I need to begin to break a pattern that has existed within me for many years and has become a fundamental, and at times automatic/thoughtless, mechanism for protecting myself from deeper more vulnerable feelings. I’m sure as I trace back, this was all learned from my father, who for almost all of childhood, into my adult life dealt with everything via anger and rage because it was an effective mechanism for control and power, when he felt powerless. 

The light bulb went on…

As I’ve done some research, it seems that, this pattern of behavior is hazardous to the closeness, harmony, and trust I am deeply craving and would have wanted with my father and mother.  

I’ve never actually thought about anger as the manifestation of feeling ignored, unimportant, accused, guilty, untrustworthy, devalued, rejected, powerless, unlovable, etc.  But as I think about times I’ve been angry, pissed off or mad as hell, it is usually some manifestation of these above feelings that’s at the core. 

And why?  Because it felt good and addressing those underlying feelings was not within me. 

Whether it was criticism, dismissal, or something else that made me feel invalidated, anger was a way for me to assert and protect myself from those feelings. There have been plenty of times where, now that I think back, my wife and I fought viciously and afterwards I felt like absolute shit and more miserable – only to apologize because deep down inside I knew I was wrong. However, the damage is/was done. 

Here is a quote I read that sums this up:

“A person or situation somehow makes us feel defeated or powerless, and reactively transforming these helpless feelings into anger instantly provides us with a heightened sense of control…”

“The primal fear of these individuals is that if they let their guard down and made themselves truly vulnerable—freely revealing what their heart still aches for—a disapproving or rejecting response from their mate might lead them, almost literally, to bleed to death. And so (however ultimately self-defeating) the protective role of anger in non-disclosure and distancing can feel not simply necessary but absolutely essential.

Anger, however unconsciously, can be employed in a variety of ways to regulate vulnerability in committed relationships. Not only can it be used to disengage from the other when the sought-after closeness starts to create anxiety, it can also, ironically, be a tactic for engaging the other—but at a safe distance.”

According to the author, I need to ask myself not , “What anger control skills do I need to learn?” but rather, What is my anger enabling, protecting against, or symptomatic of?”

Now while this all sounds well and good and I want to do it for myself, to be a better dad, husband and person…  putting it into practice and changing about 35 years of learned behavior is no small feat. But I guess it’s the same way you eat an elephant, one bite at a time. 

Taking a risk that pays off…

Wow! I’m so glad this helped him create an opening in his life to see how much his past conditioning is blocking his attempts at a better marriage. This is the kind of shift that makes therapy work so rewarding.

As the Bader-Pearson model suggests, partners will get angry or passive to maintain the symbiosis rather than get more clear and direct about what they are experiencing, what they are wanting, what their fears are and how they can be engaged with one another better.

Being able to confront the anger will help them to chose whether they are willing to do the work necessary for growth or not.

Bader-Pearson give the following recommendations to therapists around confrontation:

1.  Don’t do it when you yourself are activated.

2.  Anticipate their resistance and get buy in:

“I want to say something now – are you ready to listen to it or not?”

3.  If you go too far and they do get defensive, own it and apologize.

4.  When you have made the confrontation, ask them “What do you think?”  It helps them know you are interested and that while you have to hold the mirror up for them to see themselves clearly, you are in a collaborative  process with them.

Let me know how you are doing with confronting angry clients in your practice. What did you learn in your family of origin about anger? How direct are you with both allowing your clients to have their healthy anger and confronting it when it’s keeping them stuck? I would love to hear from you in the comments below.

Until next time, I wish you much success in your practice of helping couples find love and adventure in their relationships.


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

[Part 3 in this 3-part Series]

In my last 2 blogs, I have outlined a clear roadmap and template to help you be successful and reduce your stress when working with couples.  There are many approaches to couples therapy, so I’ve been sharing how the transformation from a good couples therapist to an exceptional couples therapist happens.  It involves both sound theory and good guidance.  I have done it myself, so I know it’s possible.  I’ve studied and integrated the Bader-Pearson model of couples therapy for nearly a decade, and transformed my skills as a couples therapist.  You can too!

In this third and final blog post in the series, I want to stress how the use of neuroscientific findings can help you both stay calm in tough situations and become a reliable means for getting more traction in your work.

How Neuroscience Helps Couples Therapy

According to John Gottman, couples wait about 6-7 years too long before coming for help. Many people wrongly assume they should be able to do it themselves – that ‘getting along’ should come naturally. Our popular culture reinforces this fairy tale.  When it gets hard, partners cycle in and out of painful interactions, too embarrassed or too embittered to ask for professional help.  Most couples will get their car fixed faster than their relationship.  I am hoping we can begin to change that culture.

Couples trigger each other in a unique way.  This is because the primary attachment relationship in adulthood stirs up and activates early attachment experiences.  I believe this is what Esther Perel is referring to when she says, “Tell me how you were loved as a child, and I will tell you how you love.”  If everything went well and we felt securely  cared for and valued by our parents, there is a high probability we will recreate that with a loving partner in adulthood.  But for too many couples, they are playing out the painful disappointment chronically encountered in early childhood abuse and/or neglect.

The Triune Brain

To understand how this takes place, it helps to know a little about the brain and nervous system.  Humans are born with automatic responses to potential threats called instincts, much the same as almost every other animal on the planet.  These reactions are most often known as the 3 F’s, or our fight/flight/freeze instincts.

Our brainstem is the oldest part of our brain, and can be thought of as the ‘reptilian’ brain. Our most basic and automatic functions for self-preservation reside here.  The ‘alarm’ that alerts us to danger fires the signal so rapidly that partners have already said and/or done harmful things, before they even know what has happened.  Think of what occurs when you poke an alligator with a stick – a lightning-speed response, invoking terror in anything nearby.  The survival strategy in this part of the brain to overwhelming threat is the freeze response.  This dorsal vagal response has the effect of leaving individuals vulnerable to repeated abuse and neglect, via their inability to self-activate.

The next major part of the brain, sitting above the brainstem, is the limbic system. This is also referred to as the ‘mammalian’ brain.  This is where the amygdala resides and where fear is stored.  This crucial part of the brain registers all painful experiences, both physical and emotional.  Since our brains are underdeveloped at birth, early experiences literally shape us.  When these have been difficult, our amygdales are on high alert, and are constantly triggered into a fight or flight response.

Understanding these two parts as the ‘survival’ brain, helps to explain partners reactivity to one another.  I will say more about that below.

The third part of the brain is the neocortex, found at the top and front of the head, is only found in humans and some primates.  This part of the brain, including the pre-frontal cortex, applies reason, logic, creativity, and problem-solving.  It manages impulses and is where relational circuits are formed.  This part of our brain allows us to assess a situation, strategize, and use ‘higher order’ reasoning to manage our fear. It also tells us about our place in the world, our intrinsic value vis-à-vis those around us.  When online, it helps us to thrive rather than just survive.  According to Stephen Porges, this is the top of the hierarchy in the nervous system, where we can stay ‘socially engaged’ even during stressful events, keeping us connected to others.

Couples Trigger Each Other’s Amygdala

This is where the trouble begins.  Once the bliss of symbiosis fades and the real challenges of creating a healthy, meaningful relationship set in, partners are hijacked by the emotional baggage stored in their limbic brains.  Some partners start fighting and others get increasingly more distant.  Both re-enact painful memories of early bonds with parents who were unwilling or unable to value and validate their basic worthiness.

How to Target Interventions to Calm the Amygdala

Helping couples understand how they get hijacked is critical.  It helps them understand that it is not their fault and that they are not deliberately trying to hurt one another.  They are just wired that way.  With our help, they can learn how to rewire, both autonomously and collaboratively.  Here are a few suggestions to get started:

1.  Name It to Tame It

Educate couples about the survival brain.  Let them know that bringing conscious awareness to their ‘triggers’ is the first step in change.  If they can begin to
“name it to tame it,” as Dan Siegel says, they are already a big part of the way there.  Just by saying out loud,  for example, “I’m feeling afraid right now. . . ” will produce a marked reduction in the intensity of the feeling.  Often, partners are not telling each other what emotions are being stimulated by their interactions, but instead are internalizing and isolating, resulting in a build-up of negativity between them.

2.  Separate Past from Present

Remind partners that ‘trigger’  by definition means an emotionally charged memory ‘from the past.’  Assist them in coming into the present moment and noticing the absence of threat.  Help them stay curious about the fact that they are safe in the present, while their bodies are telling them they are unsafe and preparing for fight/flight/freeze.  Staying in conscious awareness allows the neocortex to stay online, thereby dampening the charge in their amygdala. This helps to untangle past defensive responses from their current desire to stay connected, even under stress.
3.  Soothing Self and Other

Holding individuals accountable for their reactivity is a key and distinctive feature of the Bader-Pearson developmental model.  Helping partners learn how they can calm themselves through soothing self-messages, by self-care activities, by reality-testing with partners in real time, and by reaching out for comfort when distressed.  These are essential in interrupting traumatic patterns, and place the onus on each person to work hard on their own change.

By helping couples identify and work through traumatic bonds from their past, each develops a deepening compassion for their other.  This creates a willingness to arrest and/or avoid behaviours and interactions that they know will stimulate pain in the other.  Each person becomes more attuned to the other, and more ‘giving’ in the best of ways, allowing the environment to be one that is more consistently soothing overall.  This promotes growth in a way that is impossible to achieve if either of them are in a defensive state of fight/flight/freeze.

Training to Integrate Neuroscience for Greater Effectiveness

This is just a small token of what can be accomplished using neuroscience in our work with couples.  The good news is that there are a host of interventions included in the Bader-Pearson training, that directly target these reactive states.  I am going to be sharing so much more during the upcoming training which starts January 13th, 2017.  Therapists who take the Bader-Pearson Developmental Model training have often studied other models as well. They find this training so helpful because they are integrating important components that were missing in other approaches.  New couples therapists report a confidence based on what they believe is the best in the field and are ready to take on this new area of expertise.  This training is only offered locally once per year, and the class is kept small for training purposes.  I will be letting you know how you can join the training at the end of the month, so be sure to watch for this offer.

In the meantime, I wish you a wonderful Holiday full of love and laughter.

Until next time,

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


[Part 2 in a 3-part Series]

Last week I shared my passion for doing the Bader-Pearson model of couples therapy.  I told you how it transformed my skills in a way that is making a big difference in helping couples make positive and permanent change.  I presented a roadmap for knowing how to be truly effective in your sessions with even the toughest clients.

In case you missed it, here are the 3 overlapping and comprehensive features of the Bader-Pearson Developmental Model of Couples Therapy:

  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.

The “High” of Symbiosis

In the early stage of a relationship – love is bliss.  This boding stage is known as “Symbiosis.”  This ‘falling in love’ stage can feel obsessive in nature and is imagined to last forever. Partners feel the “rush” produced by both novelty and euphoric possibility. Yet, this stage has a clear beginning and end, lasting anywhere from 1 to 2 years. In this early stage, we deposit our hopes, wishes, fears, and desires, dreaming of a future (consciously or unconsciously) filled with happy times and conflict-free pure, ecstatic love. If we don’t move on, the highs are replaced with too many painful lows.

Mature love develops over time and is grounded in the real complexities and endless challenges of life. The “rush” is replaced by a feeling of warmth & security. Mature love requires our ongoing attention to the best and worst qualities in ourselves and our partner. It stresses our acceptance that there is no ‘perfect’ person out there for us but rather commits us to growing together over time, striving to build a connection based in mutual respect and admiration.

Transitioning from Fairy-Tale Love to Real Love

This is not an easy task. There is tremendous tension and risk-taking. Along the way each partner suffers disappointments and disillusionments that must be tolerated to successfully move forward. Each person must take their partner off the pedestal or out of the gutter and place at ground level. Each must wrestle with what isn’t appreciated about him/her, and integrate that into a bigger love that can transcend daily trials and tribulations. Each partner must  also take themselves back by defining who they are outside of the relationship. This stage is known in the Bader-Pearson model as Differentiation.” Many couples get stuck in failed differentiation, usually because of either high conflict avoidance or high volatility.

What is Differentiation?

‘Differentiation of self’ is the ability to identify and express important parts of you – being able to tell your partner how you feel, what is important to you, your fears, your hopes, and your desires – especially for the two of you as a couple.  This can be scary for partners because it risks being vulnerable.

‘Differentiation from other’ involves a state of curiosity about what their partner thinks and feels, hopes and desires while at the same time, managing their emotional reactivity to what is said that they may not agree with or find offensive.

For this reason, activating either side of the differentiation coin creates tension and anxiety, especially if early childhood experiences made it unsafe to be vulnerable. Structuring couples therapy with partners who are in the early stages of differentiation, that pushes them forward, will help both to learn these essential developmental skills. Couples often enter therapy when one partner is wanting more differentiation and the other is threatened by it and continues to pull for a return to symbiosis.  This keeps them stuck, cycling in and out of early differentiation, with little movement toward the higher stages of couples development.

How Couples Avoid Differentiation

There are many ways that partners will pull for symbiosis with each other and you will see it happening in your sessions with them. Here are a few examples of what you might see:  

  1. They may be passive, not wanting to risk putting themselves out (and being held accountable) for initiating what they want.
  2. They may change the subject each time you get close to something important between them that creates anxiety or tension.
  3. They might go quickly to blaming the other person for all their apparent deficits rather than begin the painful but necessary task of taking responsibility for their own shortcomings.
  4. They may also fail to be curious about what their partner is going through and how their own behaviours are contributing to his/her stress.

These unhealthy strategies on the part of those individuals stuck on the “dark side of the honeymoon” must be addressed and encouraged to change, if any movement forward is to be made.  No parent would stop their child from learning to stand up and take their first steps – even though they will undoubtedly fall. Likewise, we must nudge each partner out of their comfort zone and into a bigger, more mature connection to themselves and one another.

Troubled couple sit with arms folded in the office of the therapist
Transcript of A Stuck Couple

When partners are stuck complaining rather than working on their own growth, it can be helpful to structure the session where it will have the most impact. This couple is stuck in a chronic pattern of demanding entitlement and placating, emotional caretaking.  She longs for him to make her feel ‘special’ in a way that she never felt growing up.


This transcript shows how I attempt to push her ‘other’ differentiation and his ‘self’ differentiation.

After some time in session, I coach Kate to ask the following question:

Kate: “Do you feel I’m giving as much as you are in this relationship?” (This shifts her from self-centeredness to other awareness)

After some silence and tension  –
John: “No, not really.” 

Another long & tense silence.  Kate is struggling with her emotions. I wait to see if she can utilize the tension to move forward with her task. Instead, she says, “I need to go to the washroom,” and quickly leaves the room.

John: “Sometimes I think you are off in la-la land Sue.” He is back-pedaling away from the enormous anxiety he is feeling, attempting to undo what he said out loud to her and wanting to blame me for it.

Kate returned. I address the tension that is palpable and point out how it results in John collapsing rather than speaking up more. He goes on to explain why he was afraid to speak up.

John: “I’m afraid you’ll blow up – you’ll snap and go to ‘all or nothing’.”

Kate gets silent and the tension begins to mount again.

Sue: “Can you tell her what the worst thing is that you imagine can happen if you do speak up?” (Pushing his self-differentiation by revealing more to her rather than keeping it to himself)

John: “Yea – that’s she’ll drink.”

Sue: “Did you know that he still had that fear?”

Kate: “No, I had no idea.”  (Takes it personal; gets sulky) “What more do I have to do to convince you that I’m not going to drink.”

John: Nothing – this is not about you, this is my stuff.”

I remind her that she can listen to understand without taking it personal.  I  suggest to her,

Sue: “See what happens when you adopt an attitude of being curious rather than furious.”

Kate: “Do you think if you speak honestly and I get upset that I’ll have no other recourse but to drink.” (Demonstrating a new interest in what he is thinking and believing)

John: Yes, sometimes.”

Kate: Has that kept you from telling me how you feel in our relationship?” (Beautiful deepening of curiosity about his worry – she is staying with him)

John: “On some level…”

Kate: Can you think of an example of what you have held back?” (An impressive ability to ask very good questions that keep them focused on his issue and his internal experience)

A long silence as he contemplates whether he can say anything and what feels safe.

J: Like when we bought the dining room suite – I didn’t feel comfortable saying anything.”

She begins to escalate into a flooded emotional state, so I step in to calm & coach her, suggesting the following:

K: “What would you have said if you felt you could have?”

J: That I thought it was too much money but then I think I’m holding you back, it’s what you wanted at the time.”

Sue: “Kate, if this feels right to you and find your own words, can you ask him,

“If you knew that I would manage my reactions better and not blow up would you speak up more about what you want?”

J: “Yes, but I also don’t like the way I sometimes speak to you.  I want to communicate in a more mature and respectful way.”

Sue: “That’s great. You speaking up in a way that is consistent with the kind of partner you aspire to be will help both of you be more open and honest and will move you towards knowing and trusting yourselves and each other more. Good work.”


Developmental Progress

The process of differentiation involves the active, ongoing process of revealing one’s thoughts, feelings, hopes, and fears within a close personal relationship, and risking either greater intimacy or separation.  For this reason, the tension is high as there is a lot at stake.  As a therapist, being a calm, reassuring presence, who encourages growth and offers developmental support, you make it possible for couples to harness the tension for their emotional and relational growth. With the guidance and reassurance I provided, this couple could explore territory that they chronically avoid and by doing so, they built more internal resilience.

My Next Blog – Part 3

In my next blog, I will expand on how this model includes the latest neuroscientific research and integrates it into sound interventions that create meaningful change. The role of the therapeutic environment is rich for new and healthier neuropathways.

I hope you have found this helpful and I look forward to hearing your feedback.  I look forward to our ongoing dialogue in this series on the Developmental Model of Couples Therapy and how it can improve your effectiveness with couples.

All the best,

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.


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.

3 Ways to Work Smarter, Not Harder, with Your Couples

The art of effective couples therapy requires unique skills that differ from successful individual therapy.  Early attachment bonds are re-lived with couples and unresolved emotional pain is triggered such that escalations occur in a split second in your office. This almost never happens when working in individual therapy.  Many therapists believe this makes couples therapy too challenging. However, with the right tools, you can look forward to your work with couples and find it immensely rewarding. With your skillful interventions, redirection and support you can help partners learn how to become a powerful team working collaboratively to create healthier selves and earn a secure attachment with one another.

Here are 3 common mistakes you may have made with a couple which resulted in more work for you and less change for them:


1. You were following when you needed to lead.

2. You got swept up in their finger pointing grievances.

3. You were doing all the heavy lifting in the session.


1. Taking the Lead with Couples

One of the easiest ways for a session to spiral out of control is by failing to be a strong leader in the room, especially with a highly distressed couple.  This is something I have learned the hard way!  It’s important to know what you want to accomplish with a couple and lay out the structure of your work together as clearly as possible. This means being very active in your role with them because if you are not, they will simply repeat what they know – which got them to this place and clearly is not working.

Being a strong leader means being up front about your expectations of them and what they can get from you in return. Spend time educating them in order to help them understand how their emotional brains will hijack their relationship and create ongoing repetitive patterns of pain.  Circumscribe each of their patterns clearly, (most often based in early attachment relationships) and explain how they ‘trigger’ each other. Then let them know that your interventions will be aimed at helping them create relationship goals based on the values of love, caring and respect.

This type of leadership fills in their developmental gaps by providing lots of positive alternatives to what they are currently doing. It quickly begins to create a better feeling state between them, which is crucial to inspiring hope for a brighter future.

By expecting them to reveal more about their desires and difficulties, while at the same time growing their ability to understand the same things in their partner, you are helping them create a solid foundation of trust in their relationship. Without trust there can be very little in the way of authenticity and vulnerable self-discovery. Creating new behaviors, and therefore, new brain pathways, takes time and effort. Old habits die hard and couples need to be both patient and willing to do the work necessary.

Providing good structure to your sessions with goal setting that promotes developmental growth is the first step in great leadership. Getting their buy-in to let you coach them with effective strategies at the first sign of their destructive patterns, will facilitate transformation in big and meaningful ways, right in your office.  All of this will communicate to them that you are in charge so they can relax and learn from you.

2. Blame is the Name of the Game in Finger Pointing 

It is not that often (if ever) that a couple will come into your office and each partner says, “I would like to know what I’m doing to contribute to the break down in our relationship.”  It’s more common for couples to show up feeling defensive, hopeless and/or entitled to more than they feel they are getting from their partner.  Like a camera lens pointing outwards on the world, each partner has a focus on how the other person’s behavior is the cause of their unhappiness. Like in Karpman’s triangle, each feels that they are the victim – perpetrated on by their partner and hoping you will rescue them from their pain – all with minimal effort on their part.

“I am Responsible”

Set the course of therapy by being explicit with them about one crucial shift you are insisting they make: that each of them refocus their lens on themselves so they can better understand how they are contributing to the impasse in their relationship. You want to show them how to take responsibility for autonomous change, regardless of how badly their partner may be acting. Once couples understand this concept it provides a sense of freedom and empowerment to become their best selves, even in stressful times.  For you, it shifts the couples’ therapy from negative reactivity to one of enjoyment and growth.

By focusing in this way, you will model that the most important change that you are promoting is through a way of “being together” that is self-regulated, caring, and curious.  Any problems they have, big or small, can then be handled effectively. Couples will learn that differences don’t end marriages – self-centred stubbornness and ineffective attempts at repair do.  By teaching them to be other-differentiated and at the same time, personally responsible to their own values and desires, this dynamic approach optimizes their ability to reach positive relationship goals, rather than remaining passively victimized by each other.

3. Couples Therapy: The ’Emotional Muscle’ workout

Have you ever said to yourself, “It seems I want them to change more than they do?”    It’s all too common for couples therapists to work harder than their couples – often feeling exhausted afterwards and dreading future sessions.

I sure used to.  I would hold out a vision of hope for a couple, ascribe exercises to practice at home, encourage participation from passive partners, and educate endlessly – only to have a couple stagnate, get worse or drop out of therapy prematurely.

It’s interesting to note that the success rate for couples who come to therapy is, as Dr. Pete Pearson says, “Exceptionally high when they have reasonably aligned goals.”  As their therapist you must help them articulate their goals, stay attuned to them and understand the degree of effort it will take on their part to bring their goals to reality.  If you haven’t done so yet, you may ask your couples to clearly define their relationship goals with a specific eye on identifying the most important change they personally will need to make in order to ease the distress in their relationship. Being  very specific like this creates the template for change and provides traction when one or both of them begins to regress into those old, familiar behaviour patterns.  These personal goals will guide the therapy and help them learn to define themselves more directly while at the same time incorporating a means of giving to their partners in order to make him or her feel loved and special. Stressing your clear expectations that they will put into practice what they are learning, to the best of their ability, leads to improved outcomes for them and takes the heavy-lifting for change off of you.

Here is how I applied this approach to a couple 

I saw recently: 

Ken and Sally showed up in my office with a lot of accumulated baggage – both from early life experiences and from many years of unresolved hurt and neglect in their marriage.  They had a lot on the line with 2 young children. Sally had read many self-help books on relationships and felt like more of an authority on their problems and just a little better than Ken. She felt entitled to tell him what he was doing that was causing problems in their marriage. There was no doubt that he had his share of ineffective behaviors but Sally seemed stuck in an angry self-righteous way, blaming him for their troubles and unable to take full ownership of her contribution.

Ken grew up in an abusive and shaming home environment.  He learned that it was “each man for himself” so when he got scared, he quickly covered it up with angry attacks that shamed and hurt Sally deeply. This triggered her because she too grew up in a violent home.  She learned early on that being vulnerable was dangerous so she was very skilled at covering up her hurt with sarcasm, dismissiveness and general disdain. She had a deep unconscious need to ‘take over’ and yet hated him for being the “3rd child.”

A part of Ken liked that Sally over functioned and was like the mother he never had – doing for him what he could do for himself, but would rather not.  However, another part of him resented feeling like an incompetent child and he would let her know, in passive-aggressive ways, by ignoring her or “forgetting” to do something important.  A part of Sally was longing to emotionally count on Ken in a way she never could do in her family growing up.  Yet, another part of her liked the control ‘taking over’ gave her.

When they came into therapy they were both blaming the other for their marital breakdown.  They fought constantly with one another and had very few tender moments together. Both were high-paid professionals and like many couples I see, their relationship had deteriorated to one of parenting children and dividing up chores.

Being a strong leader meant interrupting the re-enactment of their unresolved early trauma with one another that left them believing that their problems were between them, rather than within each of them. Setting personal goals to be their best self, helped them to understand that while they were triggering one another, it didn’t mean they had to take it out on one another.  Instead, they learned to support each other to work through the pain – to work as a team to heal.  Through this process they created new bonds with each other that did not reflect the abuse or neglect they both encountered growing up. In getting Ken’s buy-in to overcome his passive aggressive actions and Sally’s buy-in to risk being more vulnerable, they were able to become better friends and overcome the hostility and hopelessness they felt about their future. Each was able to take ownership for being the agent of their own positive change.

This approach gave them the means to outgrow the symbiotic threats: “I’ll change when he shows me he’s changed” or “She didn’t do her part, so why should I be the only one who does it.”  These immature coping strategies leave all couples spinning their wheels, unable to stop fighting, or sadly, drifting further away from one another – and all too often, into the arms of someone else.

Therapy focused on strengthening under-developed aspects of both of them, especially the parts that recognize goodness, that can emotionally regulate and self-soothe and most importantly, takes full responsibility for being a better partner and friend.

Goals for this couple included spending time together each week that focused on having fun and not being task oriented.  It involved setting limits on all threatening behaviors that undermined trust and made being vulnerable with one another impossible.  It also included paying close attention to what they appreciated about one another and giving ongoing positive strokes for any and all efforts they saw their partner making.  Setting clear and ongoing goals which revolved around creating a sense of teamwork allowed each of them to resolve their trauma rather than reenact it.  This couple went from hostile dependency to secure functioning and saved the marriage they initially believed to be beyond hope.

These tools, which I have learned over the years in my training at The Couples Institute, have helped me be a confident, effective and successful couples therapist.  I trust they will have the same impact for you.

Please feel free to email me with any questions or comments:

Wishing you much success,

Sue Diamond Potts, M.A., R.C.C.

Director/Founder – The Good Life Therapy Centre

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