Ellyn Bader

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:

  1. Does she recognize her desires?
  2. Does she think about expressing them but fear the disruption with her husband?
  3. Does she start to express them and then back away when she notices her husband’s reactions, distortions?
  4. Does she fear his level of disorganization?
  5. 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:

  1. Why is he so fearful? Has his wife rejected him frequently?
  2. Were his early attachment relationships insecure? Was he frequently threatened with loss?
  3. 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.

About 

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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  1. Hi Ellyn,
    Thanks a lot for sharing this transcript of yours. I loved it.
    The husband seems to be in pursuit of a symbiotic relationship, whereas the woman has some individuation needs separate from the relationship. I very much liked how you dealed with the husband’s fear in a progressive way rather than regressively, or to quote from you, refusing to allow it to be crippling.
    I would first stroke the husband by pointing out that he stepped out of his safety zone in spite of his fears of rejection and loss. I would say something like that he is beginning to have a glance at his wife’s needs which are different than his. I would also add that this is entirely normal, that partners in an intimate relationship inevitably begin to experience their differences sooner or later, that he shouldn’t take what she says personally (as I learned from you in the training course). Then I would also stroke the wife as she also stepped out of her safety zone by beginning to verbalize her desires. After giving the message that what happens here is perfectly normal and developmentally necessary for their relationship, I would inquire about their reactions. If they seem to connect with what I say, I might say, let’s continue a bit more with getting into your wife’s world and then we’ll recap and discuss what has happened here.
    Ümit

  2. I would want to help him stay with his wife’s experience a little more. Even if he doesn’t completely succeed, it would create a little “milestone experience” to which we could go back in future sessions. I think it would be good for both of them to experience a little of the differentiation stress in the protected therapy setting. I think interspersing comments and questions about his fear when he gets disregulated could help him to stay engaged longer with the Inquirer role. We would go back and forth (from wife’s experience to his own fears)

  3. experience speaks volume here: both are illustrating the same and the solution is evident.
    The cause of the symptom which is so pervasive and disguises its’ true self as fear and doubt, close cousins, fright, afraid, conflict, rebellion, resistance, not to be forgotten the Grand-daddy of them all anxiety, as well as so many other faces.
    Simple solution; only requires both to make a fundamental shift from their emotional attachments to their self interests to an understanding of how to(look/see here – listen/hear now)give and forgive, the learned response of operating from a place of love within the heart.
    Unless they get centred; get out of their heads; find one something to agree on which will have them facing the same direction; there is power in agreement, here now they can begin operating from a place of peace. Otherwise their outcome is easily predictable; and it is not pretty.
    “Love and PEACE are not emotions, rather the way of life.” Bill

  4. Hello! Have any of you ever attended couples counseling? Would you mind talking about it? It’s for an article on taking couples counseling while dating. If so, please respond to this comment. Thanks!

  5. Hi,
    I would be interested to see if hearing his wife’s answers as well as your normalizing comment of “your wife seems to want some time off” calmed him. If it had a soothing affect I might continue another few minutes with helping him being curious about his wife’s need for freedom. Perhaps prompting him to ask her why having freedom to just relax is so valuable to her. This might help him feel less anxious about this trip.
    If he seemed still very anxious than I would move to try to help him. This help would have to be in a form that calmed him. Maybe ask him what he hears his wife saying (a re-cap). I found your statement interesting about not letting his fears be crippling. I think it would be key to keep this going,so he could feel in the session how to begin to manage his fears better.
    Janae

  6. I am excited by the various interventions I have read in the comments to date. And each has sound thinking behind it. I feel like each of you has contributed to my thinking from more angles than I would alone.

    As I try to imagine myself with this couple, my inclination would be to acknowledge and honor the husband’s shift to exploring his wife’s feelings, and encourage him by commenting on how what he is doing is one of the most difficult things to do in a relationship–and also how it is crucial to growing closeness and emotional intimacy. I would name what he is doing–holding his feelings separate enough to be curious about his wife’s experience—and encourage him to inquire a bit further. And then, monitoring his fear, checking in with him, before he might become overwhelmed, I would ask his wife how it feels to have her husband asking her about her feelings and exhibiting interest in her experience—Depending on what is happening then, how open they each are, I would share my excitement at their having been able to communicate VS defend their territory. I might summarize toward the end of the session, that we can explore underneath each of their protective patterns, to better understand what triggers his fear of abandonment and her sense of feeling engulfed.

  7. This couple strikes me as more enmeshed than disengaged…severely lacking self-differentiation. I see major developmental deficits in the interchange. Husband cannot tolerate the idea of a separate self in his wife, and is threatened by anything that would suggest this: her wanting time off, wanting to be with friends rather than with him, her even having needs outside the marriage/family or expressing them. He seems to suffer from a deep sense of self-invalidation, and any hint of his wife being separate or different seems to heighten this insecurity. I see him “outsourcing” a vital ego function (self-validation) to the relationship/wife, looking to the outside for the missing validation. When that outside resource does not mirror him adequately, that is devastating, even terrifying to him. Small wonder he is so fearful!

    As for the wife, it’s hard to tell at this juncture whether she herself lacks a sense of identity or is in touch with her needs, or has learned to hide it, fearing her husband’s insecure response, which has already surfaced abundantly in the I-I dialogue. Can she be reproached for her timidity which has ample justification based on his fear-based responses? She may be asphyxiated by this need-to-merge relationship, but may not possess any more self-differentiaion (or self-validation) than her spouse. It has been observed that individuals tend to choose a partner at the same level of self-differentiation.

    This situation strikes me as intrapsychic (individual) issues/deficits seeking a relational solution. It never works when the solution is sought in the wrong domain.

    As far as interventions, I would explore for negative self-cognitions that fuel their insecurities, making the unconscious assumptions conscious. In addition to teaching how to recognize and counter negative self beliefs, I would help them learn to self-validate (I’m borrowing from Schnarch here) as well as validate each other. Once they acquire a stronger sense of self (not mainly dependent on being mirrored), the next major task is for the couple to learn to stay connected even while experiencing differences…in other words, learn differentiation. The I-I dialogue is a great venue to achieve this.

  8. I would absolutely take the opportunity to stay with the husband’s fears and help him to explore early experiences that may be driving his adult reactions. Perhaps in doing so he can learn to tolerate his wife’s expression of herself and not view them as threatening.

  9. I think if there were time in the session I would encourage the husband to stay with his fear (with his permission), allow it to intensify by exploring the wife’s desires and access deeper emotional responses with a view to facilitating partners’ greater understanding and empathy for the other.

  10. I have no idea how that “face” got in my comment! It has no meaning, I assure you.
    And, Ellyn, I also like your comment about the husband’s
    being frightened “right now” and how that affects him.
    I would think that those comments help to build trust with him.
    The wife, of course, needs help in being more clear about her feelings. They trip all over each other not to run into conflict and so they must end up “conflicted” and uneasy and not knowing each other.

  11. i would offer the husband a positive comment in reference to his asking his wife “Would you want to go to an expensive restaurant?”
    Evidently, he is “catching on” somewhat to what it means to inquire about his wife’s thinking. I would try and build on that small bit and encourage that kind of inquiry from him.
    His fears, I think, may be calmed a bit by experiecing his wife’s responses.
    They have had a different vision of marriage, maybe for a long time. At some point, I would explore that and see what the similarities and differences are and what that means in terms of how they might structure their relationship.
    I am concerned that the communication may need to precede the “deeper” emotional connection. Seems to me like the emotional connection follows the communication. Of course, that may not be true for all couples and I would have to find out how that has worked for them.

  12. It seems that your empathic comment “And when you feel as frightened as you do right now, you aren’t able to get to know your wife better” freed up the husband a bit and allowed him to be curious about his wife. he was able to ask questions about her experience of being on her own. I think it would depend on how he responded to your comment “Your wife seems to want some time off, some relaxed time.” if he pulled back, I might stop and check in with him to see how he was feeling and try to explore his fear. If he continued to be curious about his wife’s need for time off, I would continue down that path.

  13. I would shift attention to his anxiety and work with it either by helping him calm down before we continue (so he doesn’t become disregulated) or using a mindfulness
    approach to move more deeply into his experience of fear.

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