Learning to Work With Conflict-Avoidant Couples

This month we will explore some of the dynamics and relevant issues with the conflict-avoidant couple. These couples look deceptively easy when they first present for therapy. They are often friendly and kind, and there is no obvious tension. In fact, that is a primary source of the difficulty. There is no tension! Frequently, they present with the complaint of “no passion.”

Conflict avoidant couples often have spent years being superficially nice to one another. They may even be revered by friends and family for “being the perfect couple.” They have been nice for so long that the partners no longer know what they think or feel as individuals. One couple said they organized their relationship around three principles -caring, compassion and politeness.

However, all is not well in paradise. The price paid for that emotional security is the surrender of strong individual desires. The “we” has trumped the “I” in most areas of interdependency. Their enmeshment provides the illusion of security. Over time they evolve into either the friendly/companionate type or the very tight, restricted, rigid type.

The therapeutic challenge depends on the amount of time the enmeshment has lasted, their risk tolerance, and on how comfortable you are stirring up some conflict or tension. Because they have avoided their differences and conflicts for so long, they tend to continue avoiding exactly what will spice up their relationship!

The severely enmeshed couple often organizes around a particular symptom when one person has:
-A drinking or drug problem
-A psychosomatic disorder (or in one of their children.)
-Long-term depression

Here, psychosomatic, borderline, or alcoholic symptoms begin to dominate and then a symptom becomes central to the interaction in the system. The partners organize around these, and normal growth and differentiation are inhibited. Partners look to one another for how to define themselves. They frequently have low self-esteem paired with a very limited capacity to be self-soothing and a high reluctance to be self-defining. Even saying, “No, I don't want to visit your family this Christmas” may be “too much” differentiation and depression may evolve as a way of saying no. The addiction and ACA literature has done a good job describing the insidiousness of the pattern of co-dependency that evolves in drinking couples. One valuable resource is “The Alcoholic Family in Recovery,” by Stephanie Brown and Virginia Lewis.

It is quite typical to find a partner with a personality disorder in the long-term enmeshed couple. This partner may be highly anxious and tend to excessive clinging. They are very fearful that even the slightest conflict will result in the demise of the relationship. One woman like this reported feeling anxious if her husband spent his evenings in a different room in their house than she did.

I have never forgotten how Samuel, the husband in a 30-year long marriage responded when his wife Alice timidly requested to drive by herself..

Alice: Someday I would like to drive the car by myself.

Samuel: If you do, I know exactly what will happen. You will be driving up to San Francisco, your car will break down on the freeway, someone will stop to help you, but really they'll be there to rape you!

In his total panic about his wife's new desire for more independence, he used his fear to try to scare her. Partners like Samuel often have high levels of separation anxiety. They may have low levels of object constancy and their high anxiety will lead them to defend by merging with the partner. This may be as simple as rarely saying where they want to go for dinner or what movie they want to see.

More destructive examples of this dynamic occur when a partner gives up all of his or her own friends because the other does not like them. Alternatively, a spouse may agree to numerous moves around the country to follow the other person's career dreams. In doing this, they relinquish their own support network. They leave friends, extended family members, jobs, and community involvement without negotiating for their own desires. Eventually the grief, loss and depression become overwhelming, and these partners begin to recognize the cost of their conflict avoidance and merging.

We've listed below some of the issues to focus on during couples' treatment. Before reading them, ask yourself about your own level of conflict tolerance. Are you able to raise high conflict issues with these couples? Are you able hold a tight frame that asks partners to respond to uncomfortable issues that you instigate? Are you able to confront them if they idealize you, but they are not making much progress in therapy? Working successfully with these partners depends a lot more on you as a person than on the techniques you use.

Here are some issues to focus on while treating the conflict avoidant couple:

1. Will they let you make individual contact with them? Will they let you in or is their bond too tight?
2. Is there one partner who wants individual therapy, but is afraid to tell the other partner?
3. Develop a self-focus, so that each partner understands how he or she is limiting himself or herself in the relationship.
4. Help them re-align boundaries so they can have space that is more personal and more time for individual pursuits.
5. Confront limiting beliefs and symbiotic expectations. One husband frequently said to his wife, “I didn't get married for you to go out two nights a week.”
6. Help individuals identify their own thoughts and feelings and express them congruently.
7. Reinforce emerging differences and help them tolerate conflict and recognize that conflict and constructive expression of anger will not destroy the relationship.
8. Facilitate partners' being able to signal each other when they are holding back on discussing something that is creating anxiety. A good signal is, “I'm censoring myself right now. Is this a good time for me to take a risk and say something I would not normally say?”

Good luck! If you sometimes have sessions with these couples where you feel like nothing is happening, as if you are walking around in a swamp, remember that you are. The long-term conflict avoiders are especially difficult, and you may have to raise the tension level!

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David Stewart
David Stewart

If she and I have used avoidance for 31 years effectively, why am I in hell,and though I feel I am at a growth point where I need to change, she will not even cooperate on things like budget and finances? RNs, both in hospital work. Are we even supposed to be together? We have been floating along too long. My heart is broken. Do we have the foundation to even stay together?

Reply to  David Stewart

Thank you for responding, and for sharing your situation. I’m sorry to hear that you are in so much pain. I need more information from you in order to offer you adequate guidance and advise you on next steps. I invite you to call our office at 650-327-5915

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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