Couples Who Avoid Conflict, Part 2: Principles & Techniques

In my last post, I shared 4 key insights that can help you lay the groundwork for counseling couples who shy away from conflict. In looking at the challenges posed by this pattern, it’s clear that conflict avoidance reveals itself in many ways. Your first clue may be the long, tense silences that follow when you pose honest questions. Or the fact that one partner tends to dominate the conversation, offering lengthy explanations that gloss over the issues you’re trying to explore. Whatever pattern you’re seeing, you will benefit from having a strong strategy that addresses the couple’s unique situation and helps them move forward. Addressing fear of conflict, step by step  Here are 4 core principles for dealing with conflict and intensity in couples therapy that I have shared in countless workshops. Rather than thinking of them as being in a fixed sequence, you might approach them as benchmarks in your work with partners who are afraid to explore their differences.
  1. Test each partner’s capacity for differentiation. Can both partners articulate their own thoughts, feelings, wishes, and desires with relative confidence? This ability is quite limited in long-term conflict-avoidant couples. In explaining what brought them to you, do they use “I” statements, making their feelings known? (For a quick refresher on differentiation in couples therapy, take a look at this article.)
  2. Help partners ask each other over and over again about their thoughts, feelings, and desires. This new habit will require constant practice, since partners must overcome the tendency to project or back away from any intense conversation that may expose disagreements.
  3. As the intensity builds, help partners stay in the developmental tension. Offer continuous reassurance as the couple learns to recognize, but not overreact, to the feelings that arise when they differ.
  4. Help partners bring tough issues to the surface. As they learn to feel safe when tension rises, they will gradually find the courage to face their disagreements. Ideas that can lead to healthy new ways of relating will emerge as partners practice the skills you are teaching and modeling.
Specific techniques that support the 4 principles  Though these principles may seem logical and natural, the work itself is far from easy. In fact, as treatment begins you may feel that creating the required intensity between partners is like trying to light a match underwater! As the therapist, YOU are the catalyst that sparks uncomfortable conversations so that both parties can practice engaging, listening, and offering one another understanding – the foundation of successful conflict resolution. Here are some ways to generate intensity and guide couples through it.
  • Plant your feet. You will need to slow the interaction down so that the couple will not move away from the feeling of intensity before they can experience it and learn to tolerate it.
  • Frame strong reactions as signs of progress. This might mean saying, “I think your tears (or your silence or your angry words) mean we are getting closer to an important issue. It may feel hard, but this is a good sign.”
  • Invite feelings and desires to surface and linger in the room. Affirm that both partners have permission to be vulnerable together because they are actively creating a safe space for each other.
  • Spend more time with one partner during a session, when that makes sense. Freeing yourself to do this will allow you to delve deeper into individual patterns that must be addressed. You can also offer greater encouragement for a partner whose fears are especially strong.
  • Model the ability to speak one's truth. Stating your own personal observations in clear, thoughtful ways will help partners learn how to express their own feelings and beliefs.
Bringing up tough issues: an example from one therapist’s experience  The story of a seemingly small everyday conflict helps show how the principles and practices might come together. A therapist was working with a shy, quiet couple whose levels of differentiation were fairly low. Both were children of first-generation immigrants and had learned traditional values from their families of origin. The husband freely admitted that his own family put pressure on both partners to stay within the bounds of cultural expectations. The wife had reluctantly surrendered much of herself to child-rearing and homemaking, and while she was harshly critical of herself, she could not broach even the smallest differences with her husband. The therapist noticed that the wife was quietly tearful in most sessions. In the beginning, this pattern seemed to last throughout the session – possibly indicating that the wife was terrified of the entire process. As specific issues arose, the couple would rapidly shift into problem-solving mode. In their effort to reduce tensions, they failed to hear and understand the other’s position before jumping to band-aid solutions. In one session the wife wanted to take charge of the dishwasher’s operation – how it would be loaded, when it would be run, and how the dishes were to be put away. However, the husband made it very clear that he felt controlled when she expressed this wish. As he spoke about the issue, the wife again broke out in tears. The therapist affirmed that her feelings might indicate growth wanting to happen.  She suggested that they discuss the dishwasher in the next session, giving the partners a chance to think about the issue ahead of time. She explained that the goal would be to discuss it in a way that allows each partner to feel understood rather than rushing to solutions that would not work. With this agreement in place, the therapist supported open dialogue. She planned out ways to slow the conversation and ask each partner what really mattered most, recapping each point to model active, compassionate listening. As the wife expressed her desires, it became clear that she felt so disempowered. Her husband ran so many projects at work and made so many decisions. She wanted an area where she prevailed. She was able to understand why her husband felt controlled, because in fact she wanted control. And as he came to understand how few places his wife felt in charge, he was able to lessen his grip on the dishwasher! Working out a conflict this modest in scale helped this couple learn to enter the tension rather than rushing for solutions. How will you apply these principles in your practice?  I would like to hear your thoughts about healing conflict avoidance in couples. What has worked for you? Are there other techniques you’d like to share with other therapists? Tell us more in the comments section below.

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Dr. Jose Gonzalez LMHC
Dr. Jose Gonzalez LMHC

The 4 essential principles and techniques seem insuperable to me, congratulations for what you have achieved and for sharing your experiences with us. I am not a couple’s therapist, but in my work I frequently have had to do with families, children and teachers, which includes parents (couples), although often separated. I think it could be good to keep in mind that usually avoidance conflicts go beyond the couple and tend to be social avoidant conflicts and are much more evident in what people are silent than what they say to each other and in what they project. When the therapist is genuine, respects the other as different and tries to make the encounter as close as possible to what each one really is instead of remaining at the level of everyday life, and what is traditionally considered correct, communication is guaranteed and it may be halfway between counter culture and conservatism but certainly a mix of philosophy, religion and therapy.

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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