Challenging Communication with your Conflict Avoidant Couples

About two weeks ago late on a Monday afternoon, I sat in my office listening to a couple describe twenty years of conflict avoidance and intimacy avoidance.  Their communication was packed with vague unspecified references and their reported behavior was overflowing with examples of passivity.

I thought, “This is going to be a challenging session. Do I have the energy for it? Am I up for the task? Will I be able to have an impact, to make a difference?”

Some couples work very hard to avoid any intensity. They seek stability, security, and harmony. I know from experience that they do not change from insight. I’m going to be looking for how I can be sure that what goes on in the session will be significantly different from what would happen if I wasn’t there. I want a higher intensity level than they would be able to handle, tolerate or allow on their own. Even though I know it is their experience in the room with me that will make the difference, I still wonder, “Will they allow me to direct, confront and support them? Will they tenaciously hold on to old patterns that feel safe? Will I get repeatedly ensnared in their communication process?”

These partners avoid direct communication on any potentially charged topic. They rarely initiate or express desires. They don’t know how to turn up the heat and will communicate in a way that obscures any possibility of turning up the heat. They are acutely tuned in to any indications of anxiety in each other and will rapidly dance away from being direct in order to diminish their anxiety. Anxiety is never viewed as a signal for growth waiting to happen. Instead of moving towards the discomfort, they quickly move away.

So, for this month’s blog, I thought I’d ask you to do some self-evaluation.  I am going to list some ways that therapists contribute to this problem and get inadvertently stuck. Ask yourself, “Do any of these fit me?  Do I know when I am in it? How do I extract myself?”

How Therapists Unwittingly Contribute to Conflict Avoidant Communication

  • Being overly empathic or being too supportive when a client responds passively to a question you ask
  • Talking to only one partner at a time rather than asking partners to talk to each other, especially when there is intensity emerging
  • Offering too many insights and blurring the intensity of your one main confrontation
  • Allowing tense issues to quickly drop out of the discussion
  • Keeping the work in the room too behavioral
  • Being too nice!

Feel free to add others that might confound you….

Working with long-term conflict avoiders is challenging work. It will take consistent energy and internal fortitude from you. At times you will be the only person in the room who tracks the direction that the session is going. You must surface tough issues, initiate intense topics and be able to structure sessions to keep the couple in the developmental tension.

One of my favorite sentences is “Let’s back up.” This is designed to take the client back to the moment where they escaped from any emerging intensity. The intensity may come from a self-confrontation or from discussing something with their partner that has previously been avoided.

Another challenge is your willingness to be silent while you are sitting with them allowing their communication process to impact you. As I sat with the couple two weeks ago, asking myself so many questions, I finally realized what I wanted to ask.

“Bill, will you tell Sally how lonely you feel in this marriage?”  And Sally, will you tell Bill how you ache to have his arms around you, but would never dare let him see how much you yearn for him?”  So, we went off into the unknown, dancing where they had not gone before.

Do I delude myself that it will last? No. I know next session will probably begin with the passive plea to one another, “What shall we talk about today?” I know they will need to follow me on many more journeys into the unknown before they will do it on their own and before they know in their own guts what Helen Keller said, “Security is nothing but an illusion. There really is no safety or security in nature.  Everything continues to change.”

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Ann Langley
Ann Langley

Wow, Ellyn. I love that you got right to the emotional
crux of the matter with this couple. I’m curious as to how they responded to your intervention. Bravo for your emotional courage in the room. You are a wonderful role model for them. Thanks for your blog. As you know, I’ve been doing couples work for many years and I am thoroughly enjoying the discussions. I look forward to the conference in April 2012 in San Francisco.
Ann Langley, Ph.D.

Michelle Ogle
Michelle Ogle

Ellyn, thanks for this input about conflict avoidant couples. I reflect on the one i just presented last month as I saw them yesterday and really pushed them to communicate differently. They are considering a separation and possible divorce but I still felt at my core that they hadn’t really given a different type of communication a chance – to be more assertive about what they were really feeling. I suppose it was this ‘last chance’ feeling I had that pushed me to be a more assertive and proactive therapist and force them to ask each other some difficult and uncomfortable questions. I was then validated to read above how you said that you have to keep pushing them into an uncomfortable place before they will learn or risk doing it on their own. I thought it went well and they were paying attention for sure!! And it felt good to be a little more pushy than I usually am. I think I’m too nice LOL. By the time they left they were considering a different approach as opposed to tossing in the towel and standing behind their conflict-avoidant styles and resentment. Who knows, they may still want to separate, but I feel confident that I was able to show them that it will be uncomfortable to walk through some tough conversations but that after 10 years of marriage wasn’t it worth it to be a little uncomfortable and be sure that separation was the answer?
Thank you for this article. LOVE all the blogs and opportunities to grow and learn with you. Thank you!!
Michelle Ogle LMFT

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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