Ellyn Bader


Conflict avoidance comes in many forms. Do you recognize these?

1. Some couples avoid so many issues that you feel enormous tension just sitting in the room with them. For years they have shied away from discussing any issues that are potentially high-conflict.

2. These friendly conflict avoiders are warm, gracious and engaging. They just can’t bring any depth into their conversations. In fact, their shadow side is often completely denied. To avoid shame or humiliation, they won’t acknowledge negative feelings or impulses.

3. Passive-aggressive partners rarely set positive goals and won’t initiate much positive action. Self-activation and internal self reflection are either too hard or they never learned in their early years how to recognize and identify feeling states. They avoid saying no directly. Instead they let their behavior say it for them. These partners are known for many unfulfilled promises and commitments.

4. There is another type of couple who have avoided conflict, and their pattern may not be immediately obvious. This is the symbiotic-practicing couple. This couple usually comes to therapy with what appears to be an overt conflict. The “symbiotic stage” partner says, “My partner is gone all the time. They are never home. I fear they are having an affair.” Or “I just don’t understand why the love and attention seems to be gone.” The “practicing stage” partner says, “I feel smothered and trapped.” As they express these dynamics to you, there is tension and intense emotion in the room.  The conflict intensifies in the struggle between “don’t leave me/ leave me alone.”

Unless you understand a core dynamic in these relationships, the conflict will be deceiving. These partners have not successfully withstood the intensity that results when both partners are differentiating at the same time. This type of problem typically results from the intersection of three developmental processes.

1. The couple did enjoy an intense positive phase of bonding, falling in love and mutually satisfying symbiosis.
2. When the history is reviewed, you will find brief failed attempts at differentiation by one partner.
3. External sources (work, friends, therapists) have supported and reinforced individuation in one partner.

As a result, these couples are not able to negotiate mutually satisfying solutions to problems. They usually don’t ask about each other’s thoughts, feelings, wants, and desires. Or when one does express a differentiated desire, the other partner will collapse and not express their own.  Or they will move to quell what the other person has expressed.

To work successfully with these couples, it helps to establish goals focused in both partners developing more solid differentiation. It is imperative that the individuating partner not be viewed as the “healthier” partner. An early stepping stone is a focus on loss and grief. Each partner is sad about the loss of the early symbiosis. The individuating partner fears another loss – the loss of self – and thus demands independence quite strongly. The “symbiotic” partner is frantically trying to recreate the early stage, loving feelings.

A skilled therapist can help these couples mourn what was lost, activate themselves into full-blown differentiation and provide support as they learn to withstand the intensity of early  differentiation.

If you would like to learn more about working with conflict-avoiding couples, go to Creating Intensity in Conflict Avoidant Couples. Here you will find downloadable print and audio versions of a teleseminar that Pete and I conducted on the subject.

You will learn:
1. Typical presenting problems of conflict-avoiders
2. Why conflict-avoidant couples can be a bigger challenge than they first appear
3. Further description of the friendly and tense types of conflict avoidant couples
4. Principles of treatment
5. Characteristics that are helpful in the therapist who is working with these couples

We always welcome input on anything you have found particularly helpful with these challenging couples.

And above all…We’re hoping you will enjoy the beauty of summer and the slower pace of life.


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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