Thanks a lot to those of you who took time to write your thoughts about the transcript I last posted about shifting relationship impasses in a conflict avoidant couple. You were processing many of the issues involved.
I picked this couple because they demonstrate many traits that are common in intensity avoiding and conflict avoiding couples. As I sat in the session with them, I could viscerally feel how disengaged they had become. I knew they would not change from insight alone! I asked myself:
- Why does the wife have so much difficulty expressing her desires?
- Why is her husband so sensitive to rejection?
I don’t want to assume I know the answer to these questions. I will have to test it out as I move along.
Regarding the wife, I think about these questions:
- Does she recognize her desires?
- Does she think about expressing them but fear the disruption with her husband?
- Does she start to express them and then back away when she notices her husband’s reactions, distortions?
- Does she fear his level of disorganization?
- Will she be able to use my developmental assists to engage in tense discussions with her husband?
And with the husband, I am curious to know:
- Why is he so fearful? Has his wife rejected him frequently?
- Were his early attachment relationships insecure? Was he frequently threatened with loss?
- What developmental assists will he take from me in order to move beyond his comfort zone?
Her husband quickly reacted to the small bit of initiation from her. First he felt rejected and then he tried to merge with her. Now I know I must focus my work on helping them change how they are with each other. Intellectual understanding without substantial change will not be sufficient.
They feel disengaged and disconnected and are fearful.
Ellyn: (To husband): It seems difficult for you to focus mainly on your wife’s experience. If she wants to be away from you, if she is enjoying herself apart from you, it seems to frighten you. Is this correct?
Husband: That isn’t how I imagined marriage to be.
Ellyn: I am curious about your fear.
Husband: This might mean we are incompatible.
Ellyn: So, if you hear her wanting time away with friends, and she doesn’t feel the same strong desire to be together with the whole family or with you, you fear dire consequences.
Husband: She’s always the one wanting to be away.
I acknowledge his fear four times, but refuse to allow it to be crippling. I ask him to pursue the conversation in a direction he would never take on his own. Indirectly I am supporting her timid initiation by asking him to continue talking with her, rather than allowing his fear to dominate.
Ellyn: And when you feel as frightened as you do right now, you aren’t able to get to know your wife better. What does this trip mean to her? Would you be able to ask her some questions and then we will talk more about your fear. Can you ask her about the fun she imagines having?
Husband: What would be fun?
Wife: Walking on the beach.
Husband: Would you want to go to an expensive restaurant?
Wife: I have no idea. I like the thought of not planning.
Husband: Do you want to talk to your friends about our marriage?
Wife: Not really, I may not even want to talk much. Reading and walking on the beach sounds best to me.
Ellyn: Your wife seems to want some time off, some relaxed time.
I am aware of how anxious the husband is and that this is a choice point. Do I continue to see if he can stay with his wife’s experience and facilitate her describing what freedom is for her or do I work with him on his fear that is so powerfully activated?
What would you do and why?
There are no right answers here. I just want us to discuss the pluses and minuses of different choices. I look forward to reading your comments on the blog. I hope you’ll dive in.