Have you ever been sitting in the room with a couple and they are both looking at YOU to take charge of their relationship. Their lack of motivation for creating change seems to suck the air out of the room.
While there may be a role for the therapist to take charge right at the beginning of therapy, in the long term it is important that therapist holds the “developmental tension”. It is this tension within the couple that holds the potential for creating change.
This is particularly important with conflict avoidant couples. While few therapists like couples who are volatile and aggressive in sessions, many of us would say that the conflict avoidant ones are the ones that make us feel like useless therapists.
Within the conflict avoidant pattern, we see that there are two main ways couples try to maintain Symbiosis.
Some of them come in session after session, nice and polite and full of praise for you ….. and nothing changes. This is typical of the “friendly” type of conflict-avoidant couple.
As therapists it’s easy to fall into the trap of colluding with their avoidance and, as a consequence, it can feel very hard to define and/or keep the focus on the issues. Often the first stage in working with these couples is one of psycho-education that unpleasant feelings do not necessarily mean anything is going wrong.
The therapist has to shine the spotlight on the developmental tension, to give it permission to exist in this system. The therapist’s role is to guide the couple towards directly and actively engaging with each other, with the aim of increasing their tolerance of the inevitable anxieties this raises and deepening their awareness of themselves and their partner.
Then there are the “tension-filled” conflict-avoiders. Their communication patterns deflect conflict, they apologise easily and are hyper aware of criticism. As therapists we can feel the tension in the room, despite the appearance of good manners.
The invitation is for the therapist to do something, anything, to try and de-escalate the tension. If, instead, the therapist highlights it (e.g. by pointing out incongruities between verbal and non-verbal behaviour) and normalises it (e.g. by providing an explanatory framework, such as the stages of development) then we are supporting them to move out of Symbiosis and into the Differentiation stage of development.
For both types of conflict avoidant couples, by allowing the tension to remain, whilst providing a supportive context, a therapist can show a couple that there is such a thing as “good trouble”.