Ellyn Bader

conflict avoidant couple at impasseTranslating Internal Conflicts as an Emotional Bridge

Before sharing the final part of this transcript from a session on shifting relationship impasses, I want to answer the questions I asked you last month.

What are some of the wife’s struggles?  
As I listened to the wife, I was aware that she drives herself very hard. She has a lot of expectations of perfection. She must do all her tasks well. It is rare she feels any break from multiple responsibilities and from being parental at home. Performance dominates her life.

How is the husband doing with my assists?
Her husband is struggling in this dialogue. It is extremely difficult for him to recognize that she has her own struggles separate from him. He puts himself in the center and assumes any personal space she takes is a rejection of him. His reactivity results in more withdrawal from her. This pattern has been going on for a long time.

Has he progressed or is he still responding mainly from anxiety?
He responds mainly from anxiety. My question, “Are you learning anything about your wife?” allowed him to step back slightly. His first step in de-personalizing is very concrete. He recognizes that she has a lot of chores. This is a small inroad into depersonalization. It is very small but it is a beginning. I am curious whether I can assist him to go farther before the session ends.

Here is how the end of the session evolved:

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

Husband: You think a lot about all you have to do.

Ellyn: (to husband) I think it is much more than that.

Ellyn:(to wife) I think you drive yourself and try to do so much so you will feel valuable. Am I right?

Wife: I never thought of it like that, but now that you say it, it makes so much sense. I had three sisters and I had to work really hard to stand out. And I like to do my jobs well.

Ellyn: When you are around any authority figure, you are always measuring yourself. Are you good enough? Do you measure up?

Ellyn: (to husband) I think she believes you evaluate her as much as she evaluates herself.

Husband: Really?

Wife: You usually have a right way and a wrong way. I don’t have the right food in the house. I am late getting dinner on the table.

Husband: It’s not my fault. Are you blaming me?

Ellyn: Let’s not go down the blame path. You have an opportunity here to learn something mighty important about your wife. Can you see that she hears you the same way she hears the demands in her head?

Husband: Is that right?

Wife: I have so many lists that I don’t know if they come from you or from me.

Ellyn: (to wife) When you are running around trying to finish one of your long lists, what do you wish your husband would say or do?

Wife: Just let me go away without feeling rejected.

Ellyn: I wonder if you’d try saying this to him? Dear, I’d like to feel okay letting down. I’d like to be okay without performing.

Wife: (starts to cry) Yes, I’d like to believe it’s okay to take time for me, with friends without being afraid of your anger.

Ellyn: (to husband) She can’t say it yet, but she wants to know you love her, just her, not her chores, not her work around the house, not her doing things for you. That you love her and can tell her you love her.

Husband: Is that really, really right?

Ellyn: Her feelings about herself have been so based in performance that she withdraws from you when she is afraid she isn’t measuring up to your expectations. Then, you feel rejected by her withdrawal and act angry with her. Can you begin to see what a difference it would make if you viewed her requests for time with friends or alone time differently? What a stepping stone it could be if you recognized what a rich gift you have to give her.

As the session ended, do you think the husband had moved in his ability to view his wife as separate person? Do you see any likelihood that the husband is beginning to depersonalize his anxious response to his wife’s need for free time? What are they?

If he succeeds in not putting himself at the center of her struggles, what options will that open for him and for them?

Please share your ideas below. I look forward to reading your comments and hope they lead to a lively discussion. I also always welcome comments about your reaction to this form of learning.

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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. I had a hard time gauging the husband’s reactions without nonverbal queues and tones of voice. I’m not sure I could hazard a guess if you’re getting through to him without a little more information.

  2. Hi Ellyn,
    In providing the developmental assists, I am really struck by how smoothly you went between the two like a conductor of an orchestra. This must have been an unforgettable session for them.
    I think, the husband began to depersonalize his anxious response to his wife’s need for free time, when he says, “Really?”, “Is that right?” “Is that really, really right?”
    Their relationship will ultimately be filled with more vitality and intimacy as they use their anxiety as a cue to differentiate; more specifically, as the wife self-differentiates and the husband other-differentiates.
    Thanks so much for sharing these transcripts of yours. They are so inspiring and I love this form of learning.
    Ümit

  3. Hi, Ellyn
    I think the husband is just beginning to see his wife as a separate person and will need further assists from you to stay with this. As you stated earlier, this pattern is longstanding. In my experience, in the beginning, couples “fall” back into old patterns fairly easily. I also really like your use of the word “assist”. For some reason that really struck me today. I felt another shift in how I see my role when I’m working with couples and believe this will help me keep the focus on them and their process even more than I have been able to do after completing Levels 1 & 2. Again, I am grateful for your willingness to teach and share your wisdom with us!
    Thanks lots!
    Patti

  4. Hi Ellyn
    Thanks for the posting.
    Yes, I think the husband was surprised to even think of his wifes desire and hunger for his love (is that really, really, right?), If he is able to see her need as personal from her, then he first needs to able to see her separate from himself, as a person with own needs. It is not entirely clear to me in this sequence, that this is so. As it ends with you , Ellyn, explaning to him more about his wifes struggles with him and hre needs. His next answers would, to me, ber more revealing about his state.
    Best regards, Bea

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