Is Conflict Avoidance Hurting Your Relationship?
Conflict avoidance can cause a surprising amount of damage in relationships.
Despite the myth that going to couples counseling or relationship coaching is only for couples who can’t seem to stop screaming at each other, couples who never fight are often the ones whose relationships are in trouble.
As an experienced marriage counselor, I can tell you that partners who “never fight” usually aren’t addressing any of their friction points, or sharing their feelings openly and with vulnerability. When I scratch the surface of these relationships, I often find that each partner has an internal stockpile of resentments that are beginning to erode their loving feelings for each other.
Perhaps worst of all, couples who avoid conflict miss out on all of the opportunities for growth, connection, and relationship renewal that healthy conflict affords. Really!
If you or your partner have a tendency to avoid conflict, this article will help you explore why that is, why it’s a problem, and what you can do about it. Exercising your healthy-conflict muscles will not only help you create a stronger, deeper connection with your partner, it will help you feel more confident and competent when you’re faced with conflict anywhere in life.
If you’d prefer to listen, I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast all about how to stop avoiding conflict, and how to start navigating it with confidence, compassion, and skill. You can find it on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
What Is Conflict? And What Is ‘Conflict Avoidance?’
First, let’s talk about what conflict is not.
Conflict is not a sign that there’s something wrong with you, your relationship, or your partner. It’s not a problem that needs to be solved, or a signal that your personalities are fundamentally incompatible. Conflict is also not an existential threat. While you can certainly do things during a fight that can damage your relationship (which we’ll explore), learning how to have conflict in a healthy way will actually make your relationship more sustainable.
Here’s what conflict really is: a relationship skill — and a complex skill at that. It requires being aware of your own needs, preferences, and feelings, having courageous conversations about vulnerable topics, collaborating, having healthy boundaries, problem solving, and most importantly, using empathy to understand your partner, your impact on them, and what they need from you.
Conflict is also a great teacher. It challenges you to have empathy for someone else’s perspective, consider your impact on others, adjust your ways of being to become a better partner, and understand and express your own needs so that you can get your needs met.
Conflict also helps relationships grow. Just like our muscles grow stronger when we exercise, relationships grow stronger when we confront the problems within them and stretch ourselves to be better partners to each other. This process creates trust, understanding, and depth that couples in “conflict-free” relationships never get to experience.
Why Am I Afraid of Confrontation?
It’s totally normal to feel uneasy around conflict, but some of us are less comfortable with it than others. If you’re the child of divorced parents, or of parents who had big, scary, destructive fights, or you were raised by people who never fought (at least not in front of the kids), then you didn’t have the chance to see how couples can resolve conflict in a healthy way, and to learn from that example.
Many people are carrying around subconscious stories about what conflict is and what it says about themselves and their relationships. They might believe on a deep level that conflict is a sign that the relationship will fail. Or that nice people never get into fights. Or that swallowing resentment rather than expressing it is the loving thing to do.
If any of these myths feel true for you, then you are bound to feel a little scared when conflict arises. The conflict will feel more threatening and scary than it actually is if you believe it’s a sign that something is terribly wrong.
Emotional flooding is another common culprit behind conflict avoidance. When we get into a fight, we get charged up on a physiological level. Our heart rate increases, we might feel hot or cold, and our minds become laser focused on defending against possible threats. This experience is called “emotional flooding,” and it can make it difficult to stay cool and collected when you’re having difficult conversations.
Some people respond to emotional flooding by growing louder and more animated. Others tend to shut down and stop communicating, and may even physically leave the room. When two people with these different styles come together, they often create a “pursue withdraw” pattern, with one partner shutting down completely (or stonewalling) and the other getting increasingly passionate and intense as they work harder and harder to be heard.
A pursue-withdraw cycle signals that you could both benefit from learning new ways to manage your feelings around conflict, and from building skills that will help you have healthy, constructive conflict. Then you can approach conflict with greater confidence and calm.
How to Deal with Someone Who Avoids Conflict
Some of you are reading all of this and thinking, “Ok great, but my partner is the problem. They’re the conflict avoider! How can I deal with it?”
The good news is, there are actually many steps you can take.
The most important thing you can do is to remain emotionally safe during difficult conversations. Getting louder and more intense feels like the most natural thing to do when you’re struggling to get through to your partner. But no matter how “right” you believe you are, or how “wrong” you believe your partner is, none of that matters if they feel criticized, belittled, rejected, unappreciated, or unsafe when you’re trying to get your point across. When people feel threatened, they literally cannot hear you. They’re too focused on protecting themselves to be open to your message.
If you’ve had some nasty fights in the past, your partner may not fully trust that you aren’t trying to hurt their feelings, or that you have their best interests at heart. They may be walking on eggshells around you, or avoiding conversations that you really need to have. These are all signs that your relationship is lacking in emotional safety.
Here’s how you restore it — Keep your voice low and your tone neutral during conflict. Don’t start yelling, name-calling, or speaking to your partner with contempt. Don’t accuse your partner of anything inflammatory, or talk about them like they’re “the problem,” or the sole source of the problems, in your relationship. Instead, listen to what they have to say, and don’t invalidate their feelings when they express them. (Here’s a guide to becoming a better listener.)
When it’s your turn to talk, focus on your own feelings, wants, and needs, not on your partner’s flaws or missteps. It’s totally natural to respond to someone shutting you out by growing louder and more intense, but it won’t have the desired effect. Instead, use your emotional intelligence skills to manage your own feelings during conflict so that your partner feels safe enough to stay in the ring with you.
Next, avoid developing negative narratives about what it means that your partner shuts down during conflict. It does not mean they don’t care about you or about your relationship, or that they don’t respect you, or that they’re wrong and you’re right. It means that your partner feels overwhelmed and unsure of what to do during conflict… so they’re not doing anything. Lead by example and show them that conflict does not have to be a scary experience, or an experience that damages either partner, or the relationship.
Our authentic relationship experts know how to help you learn, grow, and move forward into a bright new chapter.
Skills for Healthy Conflict
If you have a tendency to avoid conflict, here are some skills you can build that will help you feel more comfortable and competent around it.
- Change your story about conflict.
Instead of believing the story that conflict is threatening, or that it reflects poorly on you, your partner, or your relationship, lean into this story: Conflict is your responsibility. You are responsible for being open and authentic about your feelings with the people who are closest to you, even though it’s hard sometimes. These are courageous conversations that create opportunities for deeper connection and intimacy.
- Build your emotional intelligence
That means being aware of your feelings, managing them in appropriate ways, and expressing them in ways that are honest and compassionate to others. If you need some support in this area, working with a good emotional intelligence coach can help.
- Helping others feel heard
If you avoid conflict because your partner tends to get a little wound up in ways that make you feel overwhelmed (or if it just seems like your partner is “always” upset), the problem might be that they aren’t feeling heard by you. Practice reflecting back what they’re telling you, asking open ended questions that encourage them to say more, and validating their feelings (even if you disagree with their point of view). If you do all of this, you will be surprised by how quickly their anger evaporates.
- Finding compromise
Once both of you feel heard and understood, the problem becomes a thing that’s outside of you that you’re both trying to tackle together. What are some possible solutions that you both could feel good about? Now’s the time to brainstorm. Whatever you decide, be sure to follow through.
- Repairing your relationship
Repairing your relationship after a fight is also an important skill. If you need to make a meaningful apology, do so, preferably in your partner’s apology language. You may need to take some steps to repair trust if it’s been damaged. Forgiving your partner when you’re feeling hurt is also part of this process.
These are skills that we all need in order to have strong, healthy relationships. If you avoid conflict, you’ll never get the chance to develop them.
Support for Conflict Avoidance in Relationships
If avoiding conflict is a problem in your relationship, getting help from a relationship expert can be game changing. This is an issue that is often better addressed by relationship coaching vs. couples counseling, because it’s really about building certain skills and challenging yourself to step outside of your comfort zones. If you do choose to work with a relationship coach, make sure you choose someone who is also a licensed marriage and family therapist.
If you’re interested in working with a coach or counselor on our team, we invite you to schedule a free consultation.
Dr. Lisa Marie bobby
P.S. — You can find more advice on building the skills to keep your relationship healthy and strong in our “Communication that Connects” collection of articles and podcasts.
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Is Conflict Avoidance Hurting Your Relationship?
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Music in this episode is by Laurence Guy with their song “You Do Your Best to Hide the Best Parts of Yourself.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://laurenceguy.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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