Posted by: ellyn on May 26, 2011
About two weeks ago late on a Monday afternoon, I sat in my office listening to a couple describe twenty years of conflict avoidance and intimacy avoidance. Their communication was packed with vague unspecified references and their reported behavior was overflowing with examples of passivity.
I thought, “This is going to be a challenging session. Do I have the energy for it? Am I up for the task? Will I be able to have an impact, to make a difference?”
Some couples work very hard to avoid any intensity. They seek stability, security, and harmony. I know from experience that they do not change from insight. I’m going to be looking for how I can be sure that what goes on in the session will be significantly different from what would happen if I wasn’t there. I want a higher intensity level than they would be able to handle, tolerate or allow on their own. Even though I know it is their experience in the room with me that will make the difference, I still wonder, “Will they allow me to direct, confront and support them? Will they tenaciously hold on to old patterns that feel safe? Will I get repeatedly ensnared in their communication process?”
These partners avoid direct communication on any potentially charged topic. They rarely initiate or express desires. They don’t know how to turn up the heat and will communicate in a way that obscures any possibility of turning up the heat. They are acutely tuned in to any indications of anxiety in each other and will rapidly dance away from being direct in order to diminish their anxiety. Anxiety is never viewed as a signal for growth waiting to happen. Instead of moving towards the discomfort, they quickly move away.
So, for this month’s blog, I thought I’d ask you to do some self-evaluation. I am going to list some ways that therapists contribute to this problem and get inadvertently stuck. Ask yourself, “Do any of these fit me? Do I know when I am in it? How do I extract myself?”
How Therapists Unwittingly Contribute to Conflict Avoidant Communication
- Being overly empathic or being too supportive when a client responds passively to a question you ask
- Talking to only one partner at a time rather than asking partners to talk to each other, especially when there is intensity emerging
- Offering too many insights and blurring the intensity of your one main confrontation
- Allowing tense issues to quickly drop out of the discussion
- Keeping the work in the room too behavioral
- Being too nice!
Feel free to add others that might confound you….
Working with long-term conflict avoiders is challenging work. It will take consistent energy and internal fortitude from you. At times you will be the only person in the room who tracks the direction that the session is going. You must surface tough issues, initiate intense topics and be able to structure sessions to keep the couple in the developmental tension.
One of my favorite sentences is “Let’s back up.” This is designed to take the client back to the moment where they escaped from any emerging intensity. The intensity may come from a self-confrontation or from discussing something with their partner that has previously been avoided.
Another challenge is your willingness to be silent while you are sitting with them allowing their communication process to impact you. As I sat with the couple two weeks ago, asking myself so many questions, I finally realized what I wanted to ask.
“Bill, will you tell Sally how lonely you feel in this marriage?” And Sally, will you tell Bill how you ache to have his arms around you, but would never dare let him see how much you yearn for him?” So, we went off into the unknown, dancing where they had not gone before.
Do I delude myself that it will last? No. I know next session will probably begin with the passive plea to one another, “What shall we talk about today?” I know they will need to follow me on many more journeys into the unknown before they will do it on their own and before they know in their own guts what Helen Keller said, “Security is nothing but an illusion. There really is no safety or security in nature. Everything continues to change.”