Conflict Avoidance: Shifting Relationship Impasses, Part 1

About a year ago, I wrote a series of newsletters dissecting one session with a particular couple. It seemed to motivate readers to exchange ideas on the blog. I’d like to revisit that format and ask you to think developmentally along with me, this time about shifting relationship impasses in a couple with the pattern of conflict avoidance.

Suppose this is a new couple that has come to see you. They’ve been married for 12 years after dating for 3 years and have 3 children ages 11, 8 and 6. They report feeling disengaged. They say they can handle logistics well, but there is no emotional or sexual intimacy. You teach them the Initiator-Inquirer process early in therapy and soon after you ask the wife to initiate.

I’d like you to read how it begins, consider my direction with the couple and describe what you are learning about them. In a couple of weeks, I will take you deeper into this session.

The wife has enormous difficulty initiating. It takes about 10 minutes for her to select a topic. Finally she starts.

Wife: I would like to go to Half Moon Bay for an overnight with two of my friends, but I am very afraid to ask you.

Ellyn: For right now, you are not asking him for something. I’d like you to express your desire much more. Why do you want to go?

Wife: I’d like to go because it sounds like fun and freedom.

Ellyn (to husband): Can you ask her to express more?

Husband: It is difficult for me. I don’t want to hear more rejection. I can tell she doesn’t want to go with me.

Ellyn:  Maybe yes, and maybe no. You are making a quick leap without finding out much about what the trip means to her.

Husband: Okay. What does it mean?

Wife (taking a long time to respond): It’s an escape from chores, kids, responsibilities.

Husband: Maybe you and I could go together?

Ellyn: This isn’t about finding a solution. This is about you starting to understand your wife better.

Husband: I’ll try. What do you mean by escape?

Wife: A chance to do what I want. Read a book. Walk on the beach.

Ellyn (to wife): Will you tell him more about the escape you are craving?

Wife: Oh, craving is too strong a word.

Ellyn: Will you tell him about the freedom and fun?

Wife: It is hard to describe. I’m afraid you will get angry if I keep talking.  I make so many lists at home.

Husband: We do have fun at home when we all have dinner together.

Please involve yourself here on the blog. Click the “comment” link at the bottom of the article to write your observations:

•    What are the central dynamics that are emerging?
•    What are some thoughts in your head as you sit listening to them?

For now, don’t think so much about your interventions. Think about what developmental capacities might help each partner.

And “hurray” for you for taking your time to contribute to a growing community of dedicated couples therapists!

If you like looking at the subtleties of couples sessions in this way, you can immediately do more in my online training program. You get written lessons and conference calls for the next 12 months, plus online access to all of the transcripts that I have taught previous participants. There are transcripts on 1) Getting Started: Organizing Complex Information, 2)  Addiction, 3) Infidelity, 4) Encouraging Differentiation in New Couples and many other important topics. To learn about this innovating training program visit Developmental Model.

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Denise Fitzpatrick
Denise Fitzpatrick

Wow, so good to read. I think I often take direct communication for granted and think of it as being so easy. so when I’m in session I may sometimes assume people can communicate in ways that they have never done before. Good self awareness for me.

In reading this I see the wife so afraid to express her desires b/c of husbands need to mask differences. The wife is trying to differentiate and this is threatening to the husband who is trying to maintain a symbiotic relationship.

Wife avoids expressing feelings and desires to avoid conflict with husband and withdraws from the relationship possibly from built up anger and resentment.

The husband needs to figure out how to maintain self even when wife is away and wants to pursue her own interests. And also begin to define himself, his own thoughts, desires and interests. Husband has difficulty managing time apart which indicates a low level of differentiation.

Bev Hulme
Bev Hulme

Hi Ellyn
The wife would like to differentiate but she seems frightened of her husband’s responses and his possible tendency to interpret her request as a sign of rejection. The initiator inquirer model could work well to perhaps promote empathy.
Ellyn, I so admire the way you work. Your skills show so much in this one.
I have just completed my second year and plan to continue.

Michael Griffith MFT
Michael Griffith MFT

After 11 years of raising kids their relationship seems to be shifting…the husband sounds passsive, oral, enmeshed …the wife might fear she might hurt him by rejection, doesn’t really sound like trauma fear on her part…would work to help him be more assertive, to work on self esteem…he could be anxious preoccuppied having trouble understanding wife’s assertion, which could be framed as a great wake-up for the relationship. Hard to say without more info…
Let’s see where this goes Ellen.

Jennifer Druckman
Jennifer Druckman

What I notice is how hard it is for the husband to put himself in the inquirer mode, and I see this a lot with couples. He very much wants to problem-solve and fix the situation. In this sense the I-I process has been so helpful for me to use with couples because it creates an entirely different way for them to experience each other–just learning to empathize, and to manage their anxiety about differentiating in the process.
For him to begin to hear her feelings without taking it personally is so difficult. Developmentally, he needs to be able to tolerate his anxiety when she talks about her feelings, and learn that being empathic can create a new level of richness in their marriage.
And she would benefit by developing a clearer sense of her own feelings, and then be able to feel safe expressing them, which is another great outcome that the I-I can lead to.

Paula Wiemers
Paula Wiemers

It seems both are afraid. He of losing the symbiosis with her and she at hurting or receiving criticism from him. This makes their communication VERY passive and limited. I like how you kept asking the wife deeper questions Ellyn, so that the husband could hear (and possibly) understand.

Elany Mueller
Elany Mueller

This couple both have fears of expressing their needs & desires. It sounds as if the wife doesn’t want to appear as if she wants too much (ex: craving as a corrected feeling, making too many lists at home, taking up space with too much talking, etc)….maybe she fears her husband’s anger in regards to wanting something more that he can’t provide (freedom & fun). The husband expresses being fearful of rejection. I wonder where else in the relationship he feels rejected. (Fear of not being enough for her). They each fear losing the symbiosis. I wonder what it would mean to acknowledge that the relationship can’t always meet all of their needs and that time apart could be as nourishing as time spent together. This would be the beginning of moving in the direction of differentiation.


The central dynamics seem to me to be; the wife is having some thoughts of wanting to differentiate as demonstrated by her bringing up the trip but is very timid about asserting her thoughts to husband. The husband admitted he sees her request as a rejection of him which leads me to think he is symbiotic and feels a threat at wife’s attempts to differentiate. She commented on how she was afraid he would get mad if she continued to talk about it which may be true or it may be a projection on her part of her anxiety about differentiating. I would want to check this out more. Also husband’s ending commenting about how much fun they have at home clearly was expressing his desire she not leave/differentiate.
They appear to be a symbiotic/symbiotic couple with her attempting to differentiate.
Looking forward to more!

Jim Walker
Jim Walker

I agree with what others have said about the symbiosis of the couple at this stage- avoiding conflict as if hurting the other person is equal to hurting themself.
I am aware for my own part of how easy it would be for me to follow the husband’s ‘reasonable’ request and miss the opportunity to help the couple communicate at a deeper level.

Alison Ramsey
Alison Ramsey

In addition to many observations made by folks above, I am immediately wondering about family of origin issues for each of them. Off-the-cuff guesses might be an enmeshed parent for her and a critical parent for him? Not sure, of course, but I’m interested to know when/if you might investigate family of origin with them, and how to help them discover the links for themselves. A growth edge for me is definitely learning a more subtle art of leading them to self-discovery versus a heavier emphasis on presenting them with alternatives.

Looking forward to seeing more!


I am happy to see you thinking and writing responses. I especially like comments like Jim’s about the “reasonable request”. I believe it is so important for us to continually ask ourselves how we can facilitate our clients going to those places that scare them, but help them reorganize at a higher level of differentiation.
Keep those comments coming-

Shawlom Francis
Shawlom Francis

I’m kind of new to this approach. I appreciate getting the chance to be part of this. I noticed Jim’s comment as well. In my mind i see the husband as being a good “guilter”, to keep his wife where he’s comfortable. I would have done the opposite of Jim, and wondered how he views a dinner with the family as equivalent to a few days away with friends?

Jana A Pochop
Jana A Pochop

I am also new to this approach and agree with most about the couple’s individual stages, he is still in symbiotic stage, she wants to differentiate. Is this, however, a main problem in this relationship? In the hx above is stated ” they have no emotional or sexual intimacy.” From this point of view husband’s timid request for a trip together makes more sense; build the emotional closeness first before fixing communication. Does anyone remember Leo Buscalia and his approach to teaching “LOVE”? I feel that the husband is rightfully threatened by his wife’s request for differentiation if there is no emotional closeness. Also his feelings are not being recognized as if his feelings were wrong and her’s were right by default. 🙂

Reply to  Jana A Pochop

As part of this discussion, it would be excellent if you would add what you would do to build emotional closeness.

Lola Fatas Garcia
Lola Fatas Garcia

Thank you Ellyn for posting this transcript: I always learn so much when I “see” your interventions.

Some capacities that might help this couple would be:

Wife: She could learn to accept/feel more comfortable with the fact that her husband feels threatened, rejected, angry.. and keep expressing her needs/desires despite her own anxiety.

Husband: He could learn to tolerate more his own discomfort so he can introspect and understand better what it means about himself and his needs.

Gloria Lee
Gloria Lee

I agree that both partners at the symbiosis stage of development with the wife struggling to move on to differentiation. After this many years of being together, I’d like to explore what is going on with the husband that he’s not yet moved on to differentiation. In what ways has she been enabling him to stay stuck? With just this much dialog, I hear fear under his controlling and inability to hear her. I think I’d want to do some individual work with him to help bring to light what may be deeper issues that’s preventing him from being supportive of her attempts towards differentiation.

Shawlom Francis
Shawlom Francis

I would throw that question to the couple. What could they do to build a closer emotional closeness?
Giving each the chance to express emotional desires and what would block each from providing those needs. Initially this would provide an opportunity for each to be heard and we would work on having each feel understood.

Skyelar Napier
Skyelar Napier

It’s great being able to read others responses. At this point, I would likely shift to focusing on the husband’s experience of what is happening for him as his wife describes her vacation. If he can tune into his fear and connect it to something familiar in his past this could be the beginning of him recognizing why he becomes so triggered when his wife expresses a want or need different from his. In this way he would gain a visceral understanding of his reaction that can help him in future discussions/confrontations with his wife. Recognizing the feeling in his body can help him “remember” how to respond more effectively when next he gets triggered (because he surely will!)

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader 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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