A Dialogue for Individual Goal-Setting with Conflict-Avoidant Couples

When working with couples within The Developmental Model, it’s crucial to help partners set self-focused, individual goals to support the process of differentiation.

This presents more of a challenge with some couples than with others.

I’m thinking in particular about conflict-avoidant couples. These are couples who likely have developed well-established patterns of shying away from conflict. They may have little or no recognition of their differences.

A couple like this can merge and enmesh their issues very quickly and easily. It can be a challenge to tease out what might make a difference if each of them were to get focused on themselves.

For example, let’s say you’re working with a couple where the husband says he feels like he’s been walking on eggshells when he tries to have a conversation with his wife. Your role would be to help him work toward identifying something about himself that he’d like to change within this dynamic.

You might say something like, “So what I hear you saying is that right now you don't feel that there’s space to talk about things in your relationship, and that you're walking on eggshells. What do you think it's going to take from you to bring that about more on your end?”

Here, you’re trying to help him own the difficulty he experiences in raising issues with his wife and being able to articulate those in a straightforward way.

But here’s where things can get really tricky.

Clients can all too easily try to shift the problem back their partner by claiming, “If she would just stop blowing up and getting angry, I wouldn’t be walking on eggshells anymore.”

So how do you help your client tease apart his own personal goals when there’s a strong pattern of blame and reactivity? And how do you keep yourself from getting pulled into that dynamic?

I thought it might be helpful here to sketch out a dialogue of how I would approach a couple like this in a session:

Client: You know, I'd really like to be able to not have to walk on eggshells and be able to say what I think without her getting upset or sensitive about anything I say. Just because I have a different opinion doesn't mean she has to kind of jump all over me. She could just let me have my different opinion without getting so upset when I have that.

Ellyn: So, how about if we do this? Let’s break what you just said into two parts. You realize that you would like to not walk on eggshells. You realize that you would like to bring up more stuff, is that right?

Client: Right, yeah. Absolutely.

Ellyn: And are you aware that when you start to do that, it’s going to create some stress for you?

Client: Well yeah, because it does. When I say what I really think, she gets mad or she gets sensitive about it.

Ellyn: So, that's what she does, and each of you has your own part here. That's what she does. I think a part that's hard for you is to hold steady, to bring something up and just hold steady. It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it?

Client: Yeah. It's hard to do that when she's on top of me about it.

Ellyn: Yes, it's hard to do for anybody when they're not met initially with a really receptive, welcoming openness to whatever it is you are expressing.

Client: Well, isn't it only normal that I want that? And shouldn't she be giving that to me?

Ellyn: It's normal to want it. What's not intuitive for most people is how to get there, and when couples are changing the way that they are with each other, there are going to be some challenges in each of you doing different things. Of course it's real, real easy to focus on how she responds to you and, in fact, it will be good when she doesn't take personally so much of what you bring up. That will be really great. It's going to free the two of you up enormously. But the part that's on your side is to be able to bring something up and not back away – not do it aggressively, but also not back away from it. Because it does matter to you.

It’s likely you’ll experience some pushback from your client, at least initially. He may challenge you by asking, “Why is this on me? Why do I have to be the one to do everything?” This can be especially true when a client’s partner does do outrageous things. It can be so easy to get pulled into the reactivity.

So it’s crucial to support and validate your client’s feelings while ultimately continuing to move him toward owning the responsibility that is his.

Now in this case, the client was able to pinpoint at least the seed of an issue he wanted to address – feeling as though he was walking on eggshells. But what about couples whose level of differentiation is so low they can’t even see it? Most of their daily interactions are in reaction to each other. How do you begin the process of helping each of them identify independent goals then?

I’ll have more to say about that next week.


  1. If you’re interested in learning more about Goal Setting with couples, check our DVD here.
  2. And I’d be interested in hearing about what you’ve found to be effective in helping couples set individual goals. Please leave a comment and tell me about your experience below.

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Marcia Naomi Berger
Marcia Naomi Berger

Thank you, Ellen. I use a version of the form you made available some time ago to help clients set goals as separate individuals who come for couple therapy. It’s very helpful and if they’re stuck about what changes they can make to help improve the relationship, I can help them fill in the blanks with a gentle conversation but that’s usually not necessary.

I also find the marriage meeting structure (marriagemeetings.com) useful to diagnose where they get into trouble in their interactions. I suggest more effective ways to communicate which show visible results in warmth and connection growing when they dare to do it differently, which makes for a shift in their system of relating.

Marcia Naomi Berger
Marcia Naomi Berger

sorry, I mean Thank You Ellyn.


Such great language! I love hearing what it sounds like in the room. Thanks, Ellyn!

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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