Ellyn Bader

 

You’ve seen the pattern before. A couple comes to you, seeking help with tension that they just can’t understand or resolve. As you’re working to build openness and trust with them, you begin to notice that one or both partners react strongly when there’s the slightest hint of difference or disagreement. 

What happens next may vary widely. Perhaps one partner withdraws from the conversation, almost seeming to disappear from the room, while the other rattles on. Or both fall silent, shooting glances at you as if to ask, “Where do we go from here?” 

This is a well-worn path, and every couples therapist must develop a set of sound strategies for helping partners who withdraw or disengage when intensity or conflict arise.

Despite their avoidance, these couples do realize they’re in trouble. Most intuitively sense that running away from conflict is getting them nowhere. 

Your role is to help them stay engaged before it’s too late. Because what they may not realize is that conflict avoidance is a strong predictor of danger ahead. 

What research tells us about couples who fear fighting

A study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology measured psychological distance in couples and related patterns of communication. Couples in therapy, including those who had already decided to split, had far higher rates of conflict avoidance than those who said their relationships were happy and stable. Unhappy partners were markedly more distanced and withdrawn, communicating in ways that reflected the increasing distance between them. 

Paradoxically, this keeps them from going anywhere near topics that lead to conflict. Over time, issues simply build on one another, eventually tearing the relationship apart from the inside out. 

In other words, conflict avoidance is dangerous for relationships. 

Principles for shaping your therapeutic strategy

Fortunately, divorce is not inevitable. It is possible to help conflict-avoidant couples adopt a new way of relating to one another – one characterized by resilience, honesty, and respect. 

Years of successful practice, along with our work in supporting fellow couples therapists, have taught us that there are 4 helpful principles for you to remember as you are getting started with conflict-avoidant couples. 

  1. Acknowledge that you will be asking the couple to move out of their comfort zone. When you see one or both partners withdraw – even when the conversation seems relatively calm and matter-of-fact – realize that they have their own sense of what constitutes conflict, which may differ greatly from your own. Alert them to your intention to move them into addressing their differences.
  2. Search for the underpinnings of their fears. Why does avoidance seem so necessary? Do one or both partners belong to a culture that emphasizes harmony at all costs? Were these tendencies reinforced by the adults who raised them? Have they experienced traumatic conflict? Did they come from a family with domestic violence? Are there health, career, or current family issues at play? Do one or both partners suffer from relatively low levels of differentiation? Seeking out clues early will help you find the best ways to foster a sense of safety and trust.
  3. Expect partners to be vague, passive, and resistant. These are signature behaviors of people who tend to flee from any intense exchange. You will be working around these tendencies during your sessions and encountering avoidance when giving these couples an assignment to complete at home. You will want to acknowledge their fears, yet hold them accountable for the work.
  4. Consider your own capacity to handle conflict. If you’ve struggled with this issue in the past, you will want to be mindful of how your own fears are entering into the work. Your success in overcoming your own fears will give you greater compassion for both partners and empower you to engage with them thoughtfully and strategically.

In our next blog post: focused techniques for helping conflict-avoidant couples

These principles are just the beginning when it comes to working with partners who shy away from intense conversations. Next time, I will share specific strategies that have worked for me, including samples of conversation from couples therapy sessions. You will learn more about how to affirm a couple’s progress, re-engage one or both partners when they turn away from one another, and much more. 

Please comment below on whether you prefer working with fighting couples or conflict avoidant couples. It would be especially interesting to hear the reasons for your preference.

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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Nelson Simas
Nelson Simas
8 months ago

ThankYou Ellyn.

Matthew Ackenhausen
8 months ago

Thanks for sharing! I find it easier when working with conflict-avoidant couples. The real intense fighting couples can be draining at times. It takes so much energy containing their anger.

Sue Diamond
8 months ago

Hi Ellyn, I really love this article. It is concise and so helpful to have clear strategies. I have been working with a conflict-avoidant couple who have made real gains in therapy. They say they are getting along better and are very warm and cuddly with each other in the session. They came into therapy because of an emotional affair the husband was having. While we had done some work on this, I knew there was much more. I waited patiently as we discussed other difficulties, with kids, aging parents, etc to see if they would circle back around.

In the last session, I found myself feeling ‘bored’ by what was happening and that was my clue that we were not focused in the most helpful way in our session. I decided I would bring it up and ask what is left to look at around the affair. After that, you could have cut the tension in the room with a knife. He got immediately defensive – really scared he would be judged, and she cried, stating there were still things that ‘haunt’ her about it. All this to say, that you have taught that we have to take a proactive stance with these couples, as often they just won’t go there on their own.

Thanks for your ongoing direction, Ellyn. I’m such a better therapist for it.

Mary Johnston
Mary Johnston
8 months ago

I feel I am more used to and can work more effectively with fighting couples
It can be more difficult to work with conflict avoidance couples and help them to raise the issues they have a pattern of not addressing

Sarah Cornally
Sarah Cornally
8 months ago

I work in organisations so if I consider that context the people I’d like to advance my skills with is those who deflect, they make a statement which is designed to shut down the conversation but they do so in a fighting manner so they are conflict avoidant and using conflict to avoid.

A Glossary of Terms that are sometimes Confusing

Couples Therapy is a counseling procedure that seeks to improve the adjustment of two people who have created an interdependent relationship. There are no standard procedures to help two people improve their adjustments to each other. Generally, a more experienced therapist will offer more perspectives and tools to a couple. Length of treatment will depend on severity of problems, motivation and skills of the therapist. A couple can be dating, living together, married or separating and may be gay, lesbian or heterosexual.

Marriage Therapy is a term often used interchangeably with marriage counseling. The term marriage implies two people have created a union sanctioned by a government or religious institution. The methods used in marriage counseling, marriage therapy and couples therapy are interchangeable and depend more on the specific challenges of each unique couple.

Psychotherapy is one or more processes to help improve psychological and emotional functioning. Examples are psychoanalysis, cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, Gestalt therapy, Transactional Analysis, Rational-Emotive therapy, or group therapy. Many forms of psychotherapy are blends of different approaches. For example, newer forms of psychotherapy called energy psychology draw upon recent advances in brain and neuroscience. These approaches often build on cognitive behavioral methods.

Clinical Psychologist. After graduating from college, it usually takes about five years of graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Psycholgy. It then requires an additional two years of supervision and passing a written (and often) an oral exam. There are a few states that allow psychologists to prescribe medications (with additional training) but that is uncommon.

Psychiatrist. After graduation from medical school, there is a generally a 4-year psychiatric residency. After the completion of this training, psychiatrists must pass an exam issued by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to obtain certification and legally practice in the field. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications.

Clinical Social Worker. This profession usually requires two years of study after obtaining an undergraduate degree. While specific licensure requirements vary by state, most require clinical social workers to obtain 3,000 hours or 2 years of supervised clinical experience, after obtaining a Masters degree. Social workers can also specialize in diverse fields such as human services management, social welfare analysis, community organizing, social and community development, and social and political research.

Marriage and Family Therapist. Obtaining this license requires a Masters degree which takes approximately two years of post graduate study. The license also requires 3000 hours of supervised work and passing written exams.

The Couples Institute. We have assembled a group of top notch therapists at The Couples Institute. Whatever marriage help or marriage advice you are looking for, we are here to serve you. While most other therapists see only a few couples a week, we specialize in marriage and couples relationships, working to develop and bring you the most current and effective approaches to couples therapy. For more information about couples therapy or marriage counseling, see our couples therapy section.