Ellyn Bader

When you are working with a conflict-avoiding couple, it is especially difficult to create positive forward moving momentum. These couples merge boundaries often and it can be a challenge to disrupt the status quo. If you search for openings in the issues they present, you will find choice points that enable you to disrupt their symbiosis.

  1. First, start by supporting their interactions that are truly positive and that are part of a healthy relationship. This is important because, once you start disrupting their symbiosis, it will be scary for them. So, the more they sense that you're in their corner – with them as a couple and as individuals – the safer they're going to feel, and the more able they will be able to risk new behavior.
  2. Look for openings to encourage an increase in differentiation. When partners organize their relationships symbiotically, their own desires get obscured. When they disagree with one another, they don't know how to express their desires and live in the tension of exploring the unknown. So, when one partner expresses a different opinion or a conflicting desire, that is a place where it's possible for you to push the differentiation farther.

What you are looking for are openings where a partner has begun tiptoeing into some differentiation. These openings will allow you to stretch and support their changes.

Let’s look at how this unfolded with Joe and Sally. They are discussing their process of buying a house and choosing where to live. Historically Sally has not defined her desires. She avoids discussions because she does not want to upset her husband. 

This is such a poignant expression of symbiosis, because she over accommodates without any discussion with him.

Let’s drop into their session:

Ellyn: I’m going to go slowly so you learn how to make a good decision together. Sally, go back and see if you can say what you’d like in the house you buy.

Sally: It’s hard for me to trust what I like and to even believe I like what I like.

Ellyn: I know. You rarely state your desires. You filter your wishes through what others want. It’s hard for you to trust that you like what you like because your likes have implications.

Sally: I’m not used to looking at things through a filter of “do I like this or not.” I look at things through a filter of “how does this function for everybody else,” and then “what are the repercussions of living here or choosing this or liking this.” So, it is very hard for me to even focus and trust that what I like is okay. And to know that I do actually like that and then express it.

Ellyn: Sally, try this out with Joe. Just experiment to see what you feel. “Joe, it would feel amazing to me if I could really identify what I like and then trust what I like. I’d like to trust you to like what you like and then figure out how we make the decision together. If I liked it and you were all in, that would be amazing.

Sally: Yeah, if I liked it and you were all in and you didn’t change your mind, that would be very good and make me very happy. I’d feel so much safer in the decision like we made a choice together. It wasn’t all you and it wasn’t all me.

Ellyn: What are you feeling as you’re saying that to him?

Sally: It feels nice. Feels calm. Part of me is like, why is this so hard for me?

Ellyn: There are a lot of reasons why. It isn’t just one reason. But a big one is you have not been able to trust yourself to know what you desire and stand behind it. Being open with your desires makes you more exposed. You’ve made a lot of decisions in the past where you give much more credibility to what the other person wants. I think you are scared that Joe will do the same and you’ll both end up unhappy and in a house that neither of you really wants.

Sally: If I could trust you not to do what I do that that would be amazing. If I could trust you not to fool me that would be really positive.

Ellyn: (to Joe) Joe, she’s scared that you will do what she does, and then you’ll have an excuse to be unhappy later.

Joe: I make decisions really fast, especially if I think I am giving her what she wants. I’ll put something out and it sounds definite.

Sally: I can see where I’ve been feeding off of your wants. I blend in and I’m lost in the shuffle. I pretend this is a decision we made together but it’s not.

Ellyn: Sally, I love what you are seeing today. And how you are noticing the repercussions. Let me say it in my words. A coping mechanism for a lot of kids is over accommodating. It sounds like this, “I’ll take care of everybody else before I pay attention to myself. I feel anxious about wanting something different than you, so I give myself up to agree with you.”

Kids can be very vigilant about accommodating other people so they feel safe or secure; but in the process of doing that, the child doesn’t grow. The child doesn’t know what’s important to her, what matters to her, what she wants, what she hopes for. It’s all smooshed down in that vigilance of over accommodating other people in hopes of indirectly being loved and cared for. It never ends up being genuine self-care because it’s all filtered through that lens of someone else’s desires. 

As adults it stifles both people when that continues. What would it be like, if you really made this decision in a different way?

Sally: It would be an enormous relief.

Differentiation begins when a partner learns to internally self-reflect and define what they want – what their desires, thoughts, or feelings are. Next, they develop the ability to articulate those desires clearly to the spouse without collapsing or abandoning themselves in the process.

  1. Keep your focus on strengthening their differentiation at home as well as in your sessions. We wrapped up this session with Joe and Sally agreeing to go together to see four open houses. After visiting each open house, they would independently write down what they liked and did not like about each house. Then they would share their lists with each other.

I wanted to give them homework that would ask each to focus internally. I wanted to disrupt the usual process between them. 

Ideally you want to further each partner’s development. A homework assignment like this one will be very diagnostic. Start the next session asking how the homework unfolded and what each partner experienced. This will give you clarity about how their differentiation is evolving and where to focus. 

It takes ongoing interventions to strengthen each partner and prevent them from returning to their familiar coping strategies.  

Please share your comments below. Did anything stand out to you in this session? Would you like to read more as the work with this couple evolves?


Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., 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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Helen Mounsey
Helen Mounsey
2 years ago

Ah…so useful and right on the button for two of my couples at the moment. Thank you!

2 years ago

Thank you – very reinforcing of my understanding of symbiosis. Presented in a way that is very clear and easy to follow. Would love to hear how this couple evolve.

2 years ago

I like the idea of the homework and getting each of them to reflect

maria bran
maria bran
2 years ago

Thank you for this example!

What about couples who avoid conflicts through extramarital affairs?

2 years ago

Very clear and insightful. Would love to know how the couple fared

2 years ago

Yes, I’d love to know how this turns out.

2 years ago

Found this helpful. I like the idea of the homework that gets each to write their experiences separately. I am going to try that!

Cathy Ray
Cathy Ray
2 years ago

Excellent! Read 3 times & took notes…a lot going on here to unpack and digest. Homework assignment a doable action step towards growth as individuals and as a couple. Would like to hear the follow up sessions with this couple. Thanks for sharing Ellyn.

A Glossary of Terms that are sometimes Confusing

Couples Therapy is a counseling procedure that seeks to improve the adjustment of two people who have created an interdependent relationship. There are no standard procedures to help two people improve their adjustments to each other. Generally, a more experienced therapist will offer more perspectives and tools to a couple. Length of treatment will depend on severity of problems, motivation and skills of the therapist. A couple can be dating, living together, married or separating and may be gay, lesbian or heterosexual.

Marriage Therapy is a term often used interchangeably with marriage counseling. The term marriage implies two people have created a union sanctioned by a government or religious institution. The methods used in marriage counseling, marriage therapy and couples therapy are interchangeable and depend more on the specific challenges of each unique couple.

Psychotherapy is one or more processes to help improve psychological and emotional functioning. Examples are psychoanalysis, cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, Gestalt therapy, Transactional Analysis, Rational-Emotive therapy, or group therapy. Many forms of psychotherapy are blends of different approaches. For example, newer forms of psychotherapy called energy psychology draw upon recent advances in brain and neuroscience. These approaches often build on cognitive behavioral methods.

Clinical Psychologist. After graduating from college, it usually takes about five years of graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Psycholgy. It then requires an additional two years of supervision and passing a written (and often) an oral exam. There are a few states that allow psychologists to prescribe medications (with additional training) but that is uncommon.

Psychiatrist. After graduation from medical school, there is a generally a 4-year psychiatric residency. After the completion of this training, psychiatrists must pass an exam issued by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to obtain certification and legally practice in the field. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications.

Clinical Social Worker. This profession usually requires two years of study after obtaining an undergraduate degree. While specific licensure requirements vary by state, most require clinical social workers to obtain 3,000 hours or 2 years of supervised clinical experience, after obtaining a Masters degree. Social workers can also specialize in diverse fields such as human services management, social welfare analysis, community organizing, social and community development, and social and political research.

Marriage and Family Therapist. Obtaining this license requires a Masters degree which takes approximately two years of post graduate study. The license also requires 3000 hours of supervised work and passing written exams.

The Couples Institute. We have assembled a group of top notch therapists at The Couples Institute. Whatever marriage help or marriage advice you are looking for, we are here to serve you. While most other therapists see only a few couples a week, we specialize in marriage and couples relationships, working to develop and bring you the most current and effective approaches to couples therapy. For more information about couples therapy or marriage counseling, see our couples therapy section.