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Fix Your Marriage in 16 Hours

Hadley’s Intro: See how two intensive training days
transform your relationship courtesy of WSJ.COM
written by John Koten

Couples therapy—the venue for the messy job of
tackling the disillusionment, betrayals, moribund
sex lives and other issues that pop up between
partners—has a new variant. Called
“high-impact therapy,” it is rapidly gaining
fans among those who’ve tried it.

Chris and Erin van der Velde took the plunge when
they signed up for therapy with Ellyn Bader, a
psychologist in Menlo Park, Calif. The van der
Veldes, ages 60 and 59, respectively, run a
sprawling golf resort together in Bend, Ore.
Although the resort is successful, the pressures
of managing 250 employees and a flood of customers
had been taking a toll on both of them and their
34-year-old marriage.

“Our relationship suffered in part because
there’s this constantly screaming baby we have
to deal with,” says Chris van der Velde,
referring to the resort. Says Erin van der Velde:
“We were losing our sense of connection.” The
two had already tried traditional couples therapy.
But, Chris says, “There were a lot of sessions
where I left wondering what I had just paid

So this time, the van der Veldes turned to Bader,
who has helped develop the high-impact approach,
the centerpiece of which is the “couples
intensive”—16 hours of highly structured work
over a two-day period.

Chris and Erin van der Velde in Erin’s office.
She says the therapy has had a positive ripple
effect on the family.

“It was like nothing we’ve ever done
before,” says Erin. “You don’t have to be in
a crisis to benefit from this.”

High-impact therapy (there’s also a shorter
version called the four-hour mini intensive) is an
increasingly popular strategy, as both
psychologists and their clients have grown
frustrated with the drawbacks of classic couples
therapy, which they say suffers from a lack of
continuity from one session to the next.

The regular approach
Conventional couples therapy typically involves
weekly 50-minute sessions of the kind popularized
by psychoanalyst Orna Guralnik in the Showtime
documentary series “Couples Therapy.” On the
program, couples from all backgrounds arrive in
Guralnik’s New York office to try to hash out
the things that have broken their relationship.

But critics of the traditional approach say that
the relatively short (even if they sometimes seem
endless) sessions make it hard to create momentum
from session to session. New issues pop up, fresh
disclosures get made, and much of what happened
the week before is forgotten. A contentious point
in the session can re-emerge on the drive home,
sans the therapist. Or a nonsensical fight that
happened the evening before therapy may completely
take over the session.

“Traditional couples therapy has a place, but it
also can be deeply frustrating for all three
participants,” says Bader. Fifty minutes isn’t
much time to delve deeply, she says. If the
therapist talks for 10 of those minutes, there is
only 20 minutes left for each partner.

Guralnik, however, is not so sure. “I believe in
slow,” she says. “I do understand why it would
be appealing to think you could fix your marriage
in a weekend, but real change takes a long
time.” She believes the primary advantage of an
intensive is that it can bring about deep
revelations that can be further explored and
worked on.

It is worth noting that couples therapy itself is
a fairly recent phenomenon. Before the 1980s,
marriage counseling was primarily the province of
clergy and other counselors, and psychologists
scoffed at the idea that they would do this work.
Many, if not most, believed a true therapeutic
relationship couldn’t happen with three people
in the room, and that any change in the couple
would be superficial at best. Yet the rise of new
disciplines like family therapy, cognitive therapy
and gestalt helped psychologists see that there
might be room to try new things.

One of the more influential therapists
spearheading this transition was Bader. She and
her husband, Peter Pearson, founded the Couples
Institute in Menlo Park in 1984, which encouraged
therapists to treat relationships as well as

Psychologist Ellyn Bader, now the institute’s CEO, created
something called “the developmental model” for
couples. Introduced in 1988, it is a method that
its advocates say has helped tens of thousands of
partnerships in 70 countries.

The model charts the trajectory of successful
relationships from the fantasies and infatuations
of first love through four more stages that end
with a full partnership and full acceptance of the
notion that two people can work together more
successfully and happily than one. At its most
basic, Bader’s developmental model describes a
path that couples travel on as they encounter the
tensions that can arise from a continuing conflict
between the desire for autonomy and the desire for

One of Bader’s students was Lori Weisman, a
psychotherapist in Bellevue, Wash. Six years ago,
Weisman adapted Bader’s model to a 16-hour
intensive program. Since then, more than 100
therapists from around the country have been
schooled in this technique from Bader, Weisman and
other trainers. The Couples Institute just
completed its first round of training for people
who will teach other therapists the technique.
Bader herself has guided 60 couples through
intensive sessions and Weisman about 100.

‘Intensive’ preparation
A big difference between an intensive and regular
couples therapy is the early preparation that
happens before the therapist even meets with the
partners. Both candidates fill out five lengthy
intake questionnaires about themselves and their
relationship. (How do you resolve conflicts? What
do you do when you get angry?)

Couples are screened for untreated mental illness,
ongoing affairs, domestic violence and substance
abuse. Those are usually disqualifiers and the
couples will be referred elsewhere. The therapist
may then spend several days crafting the intensive
to take the couple’s specifics into account.

Sessions typically start at 9 a.m. in either an
office or a hotel. There are several short breaks
during the day and lunch is an hour (the therapist
doesn’t eat with the couple). The day ends
around 5 p.m.

The first day focuses on reviewing the intake
answers together to target areas for growth in the
relationship. In addition, couples also begin
learning communications skills, including the
importance of knowing how to actively listen
rather than to react defensively out of

There’s also a short introduction to
neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to repair
and change by creating new neural pathways. This
is central to developing new habits related to
listening and responding (for instance, don’t
argue with your partner until you have asked them
enough questions about why they just said what
they said). Couples must practice this stuff and
the therapist will give them homework to do so.
(Couples often check back in with the therapist
down the road for help staying on their new path.)

In Bader’s five-stage model of a couple’s
development, stage two is where nearly everyone
hits a rocky patch. They have departed the
romantic fantasy world of stage one—“We like
the same songs!”—and have started to become
aware of disillusioning facts: interests that
conflict, communications styles that don’t
always mesh well, values that depart on important

This transition can be dangerous if
disappointments lead to distancing, avoidance, or
out-and-out combat. In stage two, individuals also
find it difficult to separate what belongs to them
and what doesn’t—such as when one person
blames the other without recognizing that they
also played a role.

Most couples, Bader says, muddle along in stage
two for as long as their marriage lasts, unable to
see either themselves or the relationship clearly.
Some, drawn by the euphoria of stage one, decide
to regress and have an affair. Others, miserable
in their plight, tear down their partners. Bader
calls this stage “differentiation” because it
is when couples do the hard work of candidly
enumerating their differences so that they can
work through them.

The second day of intensive therapy is largely
devoted to “co-creating a new relationship,”
says Bader. “From the very beginning, I tell
people that the key question isn’t what you want
to change in your partner, but what you are
willing to change in yourself to have the kind of
relationship you want.”

The van der Veldes say they were stunned at how
much the intensive improved their marriage and
their lives..

Chris van der Velde found day two the most
difficult. “I learned that trust issues I had
with my father were continuing to affect how I
behaved in important relationships,” he says.
“It isn’t even something I had thought about
and yet here was this a powerful revelation.”

Some of the work during the final eight hours
involves setting boundaries and priorities for the
couple based on the goal they have created for
their marriage. Communication tools are introduced
and repeatedly practiced using various exercises
under the therapist’s supervision. The therapist
will encourage the couple to adopt a curious
mindset toward themselves and each other. The goal
now is to learn to respond to each other rather
than merely react.

‘Epic progress’
Because it is new, no studies have yet been done
to verify the value of intensive therapy. But
anecdotally, many patients and therapists are
enthusiastic. “People can make epic progress in
this format,” says Katherine Waddell, a
therapist who supervises intensives in
Northampton, Mass. “During an intensive, couples
can really slow down, turn their phones to silent,
breathe, focus on one another and themselves. This
prepares them to work on the issues that are at
the very core of their relationship.”

Still, intensive therapy isn’t for everybody.
For one thing, concentrating therapy into two
eight-hour days can be too intense for some
couples. Overwhelmed patients have sometimes
stormed out of sessions or completely shut down.

The cost also will give some pause. Fees range
from $7,000 to $15,000 depending on the therapist.

Still, many who have tried it find it liberating
to have so much time to reveal what they truly

Andrea Tang, a therapist in Port St. Lucie, Fla.,
says the first intensive she conducted was with a
couple in their 30s who were so cut off from each
other that they’d head for opposite sides of a
room. “They left holding hands,” says Tang.
Transformations like these, she adds, “leave me

More recently, however, another of Tang’s
couples was so emotionally barricaded that the
therapist eventually decided to cut the session
short and send the 40-something pair on their way
with a refund. “You can’t make any progress
when no one is willing to be vulnerable,” says

A final advantage of intensive therapy: It can be
easier for busy people to find a weekend to do it,
as opposed to trying to squeeze their lives into a
once-weekly time they both can reliably make. The
therapist doesn’t have to be local for a weekend
intensive. Some couples make it into a vacation.

Before the therapy, says Erin van der Velde, ‘we
were losing our sense of connection.’

The van der Veldes said they agreed to give up
their confidentiality to talk about their
experience because they want to help others. Both
say they were stunned at how much the intensive
improved their marriage and their lives.

“There’s been a ripple effect in our
family,” says Erin van der Velde. “All three
of our adult children have come to me at some
point and said, ‘Mom, we are proud of how far
you and dad have come.’ ”

John Koten is a writer in New York. He can be
reached at [email protected].

Compare the value of revitalizing your marriage versus divorce court.

Hadley Finch

And claim a gift audiobook with dozens of my radio
interviews with love experts including Ellyn Bader at

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