Conflict Avoidance: Shifting Relationship Impasses, Part 3

Helping partners develop clearer separation between self and other

This is the third part of a series in which I have shared sections of a session on shifting relationship impasses in a couple with conflict avoidance and encouraged comments and questions from readers. Thank you to those of you who have participated in our dialog on the blog.

In this portion of the session, because the wife has taken more of a risk, I decide to stay with helping her express more while simultaneously seeing if her husband can get any separation from her.

By separation I mean,

  • Can he see her as a separate person?
  • Can she have feelings that are her own and not a reaction to him?
  • Can he stay involved in the discussion without personalizing her feelings?

Ellyn: I can see that this conversation is scary for both of you. (To husband) I think your wife is trying to describe to you an experience she is missing and wants to have. It may not have anything to do with you. Could you try for a few more minutes to focus just on her? Perhaps you could ask her what writing so many lists at home has to do with fun and freedom?

Husband: What did you mean about writing lists?

Wife: (She is quiet for awhile and then cautiously says) I seem to never catch up at home. I’m always scrambling to be on a schedule.

Husband: Like what?

Wife: There are meals to cook, groceries to buy. The kids need stuff for school and every school has a different schedule and different requirements. Sometimes I can’t keep it all straight.

Husband: But I thought you liked going to meetings and volunteering at school.

Wife: I do like volunteering. And don’t you want me to do it? I thought you were glad I was keeping an eye on the kids at school and seeing their teachers in action.

Husband: Yes, I am thankful that you are doing that.

Ellyn: I am struck by how easy it is for both of you to move away from her desire. (To wife) Your wishes are just beginning to be expressed. I think it would help you to dig deeper and see what this desire symbolizes.

Wife: All I can think of is I get away from responsibility for two days.

Ellyn: So let’s assume that matters a lot to you – an escape from lists and responsibilities. Will you say more about the freedom?

Wife: Yes, I could walk on the beach, read and go to dinner if I wanted or not go to dinner. And I would not have to cook it.

Ellyn: (To husband) Will you ask her how she would feel not being on a schedule?

Husband: Okay. What would you feel?

Wife: Like I could breathe – a lightness.

Husband: Do you ever feel that way when we go out at night?

Wife: No. I worry about being home in time for the babysitter and if you are having a good time.

What are you learning about this couple and about them as individuals? Please think about that before you read the rest of this transcript.

  • What are some of the wife’s struggles?
  • How is the husband doing with my assists?
  • Has he progressed or is he still responding mainly from anxiety?

Ellyn: (To wife) You seem to drive yourself pretty hard.

Wife: I do like to get it right and get it all done. But, sometimes I am overwhelmed by the amount to do.

Ellyn: And is it hard to stop making demands on yourself?

Wife: Very hard.

Ellyn: (To husband) Are you learning anything about your wife?

Husband: That she has a lot of chores.

Ellyn: And how is that connected to her desire to go away?

Husband: I just had an insight. My work is finished when I come home at night. Hers lasts into the evening. I can get a break and she can’t.

Ellyn: Will you tell her what you understand about her reaction to having so many chores?

How would you wrap up this session? Please take a few minutes to share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Again, I really appreciate your participation on this blog. Creating a lively discussion here allows everyone to stretch and grow. And I like the idea of couples therapists from around the world – professionals who often work in isolation – engaging in a stimulating exchange of ideas and recognizing that they are part of a lively group of dedicated professionals. Keep up the great work.

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Lee Crespi
Lee Crespi

Hi Ellyn,
It’s great watching this session develop. I think she has a hard time not feeling other peoples needs and they block out her own desires. It’s hard for her to be separate so she needs to go away from everyone to be able to “breathe”. Still I think it’s a great first step that she is able to articulate that – it is a step toward greater individuation. Especially because as a conflict avoidant couple it has been difficult to assert her need for separateness for fear of upsetting the relationship. The husband at first seemed not to get it, but by the end, his recognition of her situation as a Mom and homemaker compared to his job and being able to leave it behind was a great indication that he is also starting to be able to see/hear his wife as a separate person with different needs and desires and not feel rejected by that.
I think to wrap up the session I would first want to check in to see how they each feel about it and what they got from it Then, I would try to share my thoughts with them, perhaps saying to the wife, I can see how hard it is to make room for yourself when you are feeling the pressures and responsibilities of your family, and how much you need to get away to feel some breathing room. Perhaps as we continue our work together we will be able to help you create that kind of space for yourself without needing to leave town to achieve it. And to the husband I would want to reinforce how well he did by being able to understand and validate the difficulty his wife faces in being able to set boundaries when there isn’t a clear demarcation between work and rest. Also, I would want to say something to both of them about how I hope that they feel more confident (based on their success with this discussion) about being able to share difficult feelings and conflicts and that they can see that it will take them to a better understanding of each other and ultimately a closer relationship. As I write this, it all sounds kind of wordy, but I would hope it come out more smoothly.
Thanks Ellyn, this has been interesting to follow.

Carol Morris
Carol Morris

I agree with Lee, Ellyn. It seems very difficult for the wife to ask for help and to set boundaries in a way that would help her to ease the pressure on herself. I would want to know what it would mean to her to ask for help, either from her husband or a family member/friend. And I would want to strongly reinforce the husband’s insight.

Lauren Sokolski
Lauren Sokolski

I was struck by the fact that even when they go out together as a couple, she is worrying about whether he is having a good time. She is very other-focused, and finds it really hard to focus on herself and have a good time regardless of what her husband is experiencing. I might point this out as another point of differentiation and explore more around this. Perhaps just highlight it in this session if there isn’t enough time and re-visit in a subsequent session. I think there is a lot that could come out of this point – is it okay to be happy, content, satisfied when your partner might feel differently to you? What does this mean for your relationship? Etc etc…

Nancy St. John
Nancy St. John

The previous comments are excellent and cover what I’d want to say. I’d tell them they are learning to communicate in a way which will help each of them become more known to the other and this will help them create a better relationship.
Thank you for the way you presented this Ellyn. Splitting it over a few months helped me to digest it slowly and appreciate the subtleties of your approach.


Thank you Ellen. I am a “beginner”couples therapist so this is very helpful. I actually had a similiar session last night with a couple so this is very interesting. I think that I would end by asking the wife how it feels for her in that moment to hear her husband “get” her. What is that like for her? How is it for the husband to shift his focus to his wife? I appreciate the comments. Thank you!

Michelle M.
Michelle M.


Thank you for this rich experience. I’m an intern and haven’t had the opportunity to work with couples yet, so your website is invaluable to me. It’s interesting, and unfortunately, all too common for the wife to be focused on others and not even know what it is to have a seperate identity apart from members of her family. I think I would end the session by asking each person what was the “take away?” In other words, what did each individual learn or get inspired by during the session.


All of you get gold stars from me for taking the time to digest this case. And additional strokes for risking making your suggestions. I will write the final installment later this month.

Ümit Çetin
Ümit Çetin

Hi Ellyn,
In wrapping up the session, I would stroke them both as they really stepped out of their comfort zones. I would tell them that the more they open up to each other and get to know each other, the more vitality they will bring to their relationship. Then I would elicit their reactions.
Your transcript provides so many learning points. One such point is that, you acknowledge their anxiety_ “I can see that this conversation is scary for both of you” _in a matter of fact way. You tell the husband, that is, the initiator, to not take his wife’s wishes personally. I imagine that your tone of voice, your demeanor were both neutral and holding, and respectful so that he was able not to resist the process and went on.
Thanks a lot,

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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