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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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.