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  • Writer's picturelarahammock

Hands Down the Best Couples Therapy Training

In this post, I’m going to rave about the couples counseling training program that I’ve been in for the past 18 months ( It's through the Couples Institute and centers on the Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. I am enthusiastic, bordering on evangelical, about this program and would really love for more people to know about it! I am not being sponsored or getting any benefit from this endorsement, I just really feel like the more people who know about it, the better.

I always knew I wanted to be a couples counselor, but seeing couples has always felt more intimidating to me than seeing individuals. By the time I started practicing, I had been married for over 20 years, but I still didn’t innately have great solutions for mending rocky relationships. It was something about the pressure of two people sitting in front of me expecting me to create changes in their relationship that gave me anxiety. I needed some help.


I started where I always do, by reading a ton of books. I read everything that John Gottman wrote, as well as everything I could get my hands on about Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). I’ll provide the list of books I read down below. I was all set to really focus on attachment as the glue that would bind these relationships back together when I started seeing my first couple. I soon found out that simply pushing for closer attachment just didn’t work for this couple. They were pretty attached to each other already! In addition, the attachment focus doesn’t really work for my own marriage. Right around this time, I enrolled in a free training course from The Couples Institute, which utterly changed my trajectory for couples therapy, and ultimately my approach to therapy in general.


The Couples Institute trains counselors to use the Developmental Model of Couples Therapy, a theoretical framework developed by Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson. The idea behind their theory is that couples tend to progress through predictable relationship stages, which roughly parallel childhood development. The stages are:

  • Symbiosis (honeymoon period) — this refers to the first year or two of a relationship where foundational bonding occurs. The couple sees each other through rose colored glasses, focuses on their similarities, and creates a solid sense of “we.”

  • Differentiation (growth tension) — this is the phase where the rose colored glasses come off. There is tension in the relationship as the couple contends with each other’s differences. I don’t have any real statistics for this, but in my estimation, about 80% of couples who have been together for more than two years are stuck in this phase.

  • Individuating (exploring independently) — once healthy differentiation occurs, each partner can go about experiencing and exploring their own passions and pursuits, all the while remaining connected to, but not beholden to, their partner.

  • Synergy (healthy thriving) — this is the healthy, thriving stage of the relationship where the couple is managing differences in a healthy way, each partner understands his or her own passions, and the couple is able to support each other and work together towards greater goals.

The developmental model combines differentiation, attachment, and neurobiology to provide hands-on ways to coach couples to grow and progress through these relationship stages into healthy thriving. There is an emphasis on identifying motivation and autonomous goals for each partner. Couples therapists who learned this model spend time in the early stages of therapy assessing, providing psychoeducation, and coaching, sometimes fairly intrusively. The overall goal is that, as therapy progresses, the therapist says less and the couple talks to each other more as they gain greater skills to be able to emotionally regulate, handle their differences, and work out collaborative solutions to their problems.


I am utterly obsessed with both the model and the training. Both Pete and Ellyn are gifted educators, but Ellyn is particularly talented as she intervenes gently with even the most difficult couples to push them towards growth. The training program also demonstrates an understanding of how to present difficult concepts as well as the repetition and pace required for their students to grasp, understand, and start applying the sometimes radically different concepts of a differentiation-focused approach.


This training differs from many programs in that it is a year-long program with a monthly fee. Taken all together, the fee is rather hefty, but, if you devote the time and energy each month, it is well worth it in my estimation. I have learned an incredible amount and still have much more to go and I am in my second year. Here are some of the elements of the training:

  • Paced lessons — during the first year of training, you will receive lessons approximately every two weeks. The lessons take about 45 minutes to read and include suggestions of two or three videos to watch. They recommend that you devote two or three hours per week to this training. Each lesson builds upon prior information to present concepts, skills, and tools that you will need in order to use this approach. For those who want to access all of the information more quickly, the paced nature of this program can be a little frustrating, but in the end, this slower pacing is crucial for developing a true understanding of the material. Ellyn calls it “getting it in your bones.”

  • Clinical training calls— at least monthly, the program has an hour and a half call devoted to a clinical case presented by a trainee. This is where everyone gets to see the model in practice and the trainee gets real time feedback on what they are doing right, what they can be doing better, and other options to consider.

  • Special training calls — in addition to the clinical calls, the program also conducts calls devoted to specific elements of the model. Sometimes they talk about different phases, different types of couples, a specific tool or exercise, or specific techniques.

  • Bonus calls —they also frequently present bonus calls led by therapists or experts in either a specific area or in a different couples model. If differentiation involves holding tension and allowing differences, this program really talks the talk and walks the walk. They bring in experts from the therapeutic community, some of whom have models that conflict in part with the teachings of the program. Their theory is that exposure to all therapeutic styles and ideas, regardless of agreement or disagreement, is beneficial to the community. They have some real therapeutic rock stars presenting with big name recognition.

  • Comments sections — each call has a comments section. You are really encouraged as a trainee to leave comments and share with the community. They employ teaching assistants to monitor the comments page so that almost every comment is read and responded to. This promotes a sense of community as well as gives immediate feedback to those posting.

  • TA and instructors — the teaching assistants and instructors are incredibly skilled, knowledgeable, responsive, and supportive. Everyone I’ve met through the program has been incredibly generous and open hearted.

  • Community — the community is an extension of the quality of the instructors. If you are able to log on to real time calls, you start to get to know some of the other trainees. Sharing in the comments sections also helps to build community and allow you to feel supported in an otherwise isolating profession.

  • Your cases — you have a tough case? You can get lots of feedback in a number of different ways. There is a place to post member’s clinical cases, where you can get feedback from skilled instructors. You can also post in the comment section of a call and receive feedback from members and instructors. But probably most importantly, you can write up your case to present on a monthly clinical call and get real time instruction and training from an instructor (I believe last year was the final year that Ellyn coached directly on these calls).

  • Peer groups — this is something that I haven’t taken advantage of, but if you’re interested, you can apply to be added to a peer group with other trainees. That way you have a close knit community for a consultation and learning. People rave about this and have made close friendships throughout the years.

  • Historic calls available — this is one of my favorite parts of the training. They have been recording training calls since about 2010 and have made all of those historic calls available to anyone in the training. This amounts to literally thousands of hours of training that is available should you choose to take advantage of it. I have nerded out and listened to probably 80% of the calls available for level 1 training. This represents a significant amount of time (probably thousands of hours), but I have gained so much from the expertise that this is something I regularly choose to do with my free time.

  • Advanced training 2nd year — once you complete the first year of training, you can continue to level 2 training. There are fewer calls for this level, but they are more intensive and cover more sophisticated concepts. I have chosen to continue on with the training and will be working through the level 2 calls as well.

  • Community access — after you complete both levels of training, you can pay a lower monthly rate to stay involved in the community. That means all of the historic calls and new calls are available to you, but you have completed the lessons. There are many people who stay involved in the community in this way. The members who have been involved longer help out those of us who are newbies. It is a rich and talented community and I am planning to stay active for as long as I am doing couples therapy.

I think that covers the basics. As you can tell, I border on the evangelical when it comes to this training program. I think it is the best training and best community for couples therapists. I’ve also gained a lot as an individual therapist from learning the relational concepts in this program.

Please check it out for yourself! Here’s the link again: Let me know what you think. Comments are always appreciated!

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