What Techniques Help Clients Overcome Resistance to Change in Therapy?


    What Techniques Help Clients Overcome Resistance to Change in Therapy?

    In the delicate dance of therapy, overcoming resistance to change is a common challenge. From challenging excuse-based resistance to assessing motivation for change, here are six transformative strategies shared by experienced marriage and family therapists and coaches.

    • Challenge Excuse-Based Resistance
    • Introduce the 'Third Entity' Concept
    • Address Resistance Directly
    • Confront Fear of Change
    • Engage in Interrelation Dynamics
    • Assess Motivation for Change

    Challenge Excuse-Based Resistance

    I have worked with many couples that present excuse after excuse as to why they couldn't work on their relationship. They work opposite shifts and don't have a lot of time together during the week; they are too tired after work and just want to relax; they are introverts who like their alone time at home rather than going out, etc. When clients present all these limitations that are keeping them from connecting and changing the relational patterns they are in, they are showing me that they are more willing to fight for why they can't change than they are to fight for their relationship.

    When this happens, I tell clients, 'If you fight for your limitations, you get to keep them.' What I mean by this is, if you continue to use these limitations as excuses, they will always be there because they don't magically go away, especially if you keep giving them power by holding them up as excuses. This opens the conversation to ways they can be intentional in working around those limitations, ultimately making them disappear.

    Rachelle Staubach
    Rachelle StaubachMarriage and Family Therapist Associate, MAC Counseling Services, LLC

    Introduce the 'Third Entity' Concept

    In my practice as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I've encountered many couples struggling with resistance to change, which often stems from fear, misunderstanding, or simply the comfort of familiar patterns. A memorable instance involves a couple who came to therapy due to recurring conflicts and a general feeling of dissatisfaction in their relationship. Each partner had deeply entrenched beliefs about how the other should behave, leading to a cycle of blame and defensiveness.

    The breakthrough came when we introduced the concept of the 'Third Entity,' which represents the relationship itself, separate from either individual. This perspective shift allowed them to see their interactions as contributions to this shared entity, rather than as direct personal attacks or failures. We worked on identifying and articulating their individual needs and desires without criticism or contempt, focusing instead on how these could nourish their relationship.

    One specific technique that facilitated this shift was the implementation of weekly 'relationship-building activities,' where each partner would take turns planning something meaningful to both, without room for criticism or negative feedback. This not only fostered positive experiences but also highlighted the importance of effort and intention in nurturing their relationship.

    Over time, both partners became more open to change, not just in their behaviors but in their fundamental approach to the relationship. They learned to view resistance as an opportunity to explore deeper fears and vulnerabilities, transforming their interactions into moments of connection and understanding. This case stands out to me because it exemplifies the power of redefining perspectives to overcome resistance and build a stronger, more resilient partnership.

    Kayla Crane
    Kayla CraneLMFT, South Denver Therapy

    Address Resistance Directly

    Honestly, I often find the best way is to put it back on the client. If one of the partners is really resistant, I'll say something along the lines of, 'You are here, so that tells me you want to work on your relationship, but I'm feeling a lot of resistance. Can you tell me where that is coming from?' I often request that they try an intervention they are resistant towards and let them know if it doesn't work, they don't have to keep doing it, but if they don't try it, they will never know.

    Therapy is expensive, so I'll often also say, 'This is a huge investment in your relationship right now, not only financially but also taking time out of your busy schedules to be here. You will get the most out of your investment if you try the interventions.' Honestly, sometimes resistance is due to a bad fit between therapists and clients, which is why I do a few 15-minute phone consultations because a good fit is so important!

    Other times, individuals are already checked out of the relationship and aren't willing to work on it, and instead use therapy as a way to say, 'I tried,' even though they didn't. We can't force clients to do the work; only they can do that for themselves! Hope that helps! If you don't mind linking the article if you use a quote, I would appreciate it! BrittanySalling.com

    Brittany SallingLMFT, Brittany Salling, LMFT, PMH-C

    Confront Fear of Change

    I was working with a client who was in her late 20s and was struggling with her relationship that she had been in for 8 years due to no longer feeling in love with her partner. This person was her best friend, and she came to me wanting help to fall back in love with him. I noticed whenever I would attempt to discuss the inability to force oneself to fall back in love, she would avoid the topic altogether by changing the course of the conversation.

    Noting and addressing this behavior with her was important, as it allowed me to understand the resistance. She was afraid to accept that she cannot force her feelings, as it meant ending the relationship, which she was scared of due to fear of not meeting someone else. In addressing the resistance, we were able to work through the fear, which resulted in ending the relationship that no longer served her.

    Alexandra OnoratoLicensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Thriving Center of Psychology

    Engage in Interrelation Dynamics

    One of the most effective strategies for overcoming resistance in couples therapy is to actively engage myself, the therapist, within the dynamic. For instance, I once worked with a couple where one partner habitually shifted blame onto the other without acknowledging her own contribution to the issues. This behavior wasn't necessarily intentional but stemmed from deeply entrenched defenses and shame.

    During one session, the couple missed their appointment and were charged according to my cancellation policy. The following week, the defensive partner directed her anger towards me, insisting that I was at fault and had no grounds for charging them. Her partner was about to intervene, defending my position; however, I requested his silence, disrupting their typical dynamic.

    Instead of reacting defensively, I chose to remain calm and silent as the defensive partner expressed her frustrations. After a few minutes of this, she fell silent herself, overwhelmed by the lack of reciprocal defensiveness. This allowed her to access her vulnerability, leading to a breakthrough where she tearfully admitted her own mistake. This moment of honesty marked a significant turning point in therapy and her relationship with her partner, fostering a deeper understanding of her shame and paving the way for constructive dialogue within their relationship.

    Rachel Goldberg
    Rachel GoldbergLicensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Rachel Goldberg Therapy

    Assess Motivation for Change

    Asking for reasons to change (i.e., listen to their partner and practice sharing back what they heard) and the reasons not to change (arguing). Create a list and then assign points to each list. If the reasons for listening/not listening are close to 50%, then, with curiosity, ask if there is another goal they would like to work on. Explain that with 50/50 situations, there isn’t enough motivation on their part to continue with that goal. You can find more information on this technique from Dr. David Burns, 'Feeling Good Together.'

    Ceci WalkenTherapist, Coach & Comedian