Is Conflict Avoidance Hurting Your Relationship?

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. 

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. 

  1. 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.

  1. 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. 

  1. 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. 

  1. 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. 

  1. 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

With love, 

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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Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you’re listening to the Love, Happiness and Success podcast. Conflict is a normal and even healthy part of every relationship, but not easy to do. It can be very tempting to avoid conflict, and avoiding conflict can in itself lead to a lot of relationship troubles. So how can you stop avoiding conflict and start navigating it with compassion, courage and skill? That is what we’re talking about on today’s episode. 

Today’s episode is all about something I know that so many of you struggle with in your relationships, either within yourself or because you are experiencing those with your partner or someone else you love, and that is conflict avoidance. I tell you, I see this all the time. Many of my couples counseling clients will come to see me for the first time. Sometimes after they’ve had a terrible, terrible fight, right, that it can be the catalyst for they’re arriving in my office. 

They’re scared to death or like is this over. Is our relationship ever going to be the same again? It’s been bad, but it is equally true, probably even more true that there’s a different catalyst for people showing up in the marriage counseling office, and that is when they are not able to have productive conversations or aka conflict about things that matter. They are actually actively avoiding talking about things at least with one partner, and because of that, their relationship is really, really struggling as a result. 

At the end of the day, to have a bad fight, even when people say regrettable things is not nearly as cumulatively damaging to the health and wellness of a relationship as not talking about important things at all, because whenever we avoid conflict, our relationship problems get worse. We get further and further out of alignment with each other until the situation doesn’t feel tolerable anymore. 

If we’re not talking about important things, and actively resolving issues in a courageous and direct way, it’s very easy to become resentful. If we’re not talking with our partner, we began talking to ourselves, right? We start believing these negative stories that we have going on in our heads about our partner, about their character. 

If slash when we finally can’t take it anymore, and all of that resentment and kind of negative storytelling finally does spill over into a fight, it is likely to be one of those really nasty ones that’s hard to repair and move on from, especially if you haven’t been kind of developing that relationship repair muscle, right? That’s actually one of the biggest strengths and most positive things is when you are able to address conflict or differences openly and authentically and well. 

You are developing relational skills. You are learning how to manage yourself, to manage your communication, to manage your partner in productive ways that contribute to problem solving, contribute to positive change. If you’ve been avoiding things all along and haven’t been developing those skills and abilities, when you do have a serious for real a capital F fight, it’s like you don’t have any roadmap to guide you in that situation. 

You don’t know what to do, and that’s one of the reasons why conflict can feel so scary. It’s not the conflict itself, but it’s not feeling competent to know how to deal with it, right? So we’re going to talk about this today.

If you are someone on the end of the spectrum who tends to avoid conflict, that is completely understandable. Conflict, especially if we aren’t skilled in navigating it or understanding what it means or even if we have negative perceptions or net relatives about what conflict is that we may have inherited from our family of origin, right? Conflict can feel very, very scary and intense, so we want to back away from it.

I mentioned the family of origin thing, because if you come from a family, where people didn’t model how to have disagreements and talk about them in productive ways that if you didn’t watch your parents kind of having very normal relationship patterns, where there’s a gap, there’s a difference, and then you see them talk about it, and they come back together again. 

If that wasn’t modeled, I mean, if your parents, even if they did have conflict, if they had this core belief that they couldn’t do any of that in front of the children, right, and if they were working through things that was happening behind the closed door of their bedroom, you didn’t get a model for how to do that, so that can be one really common reason why conflict does feel bad for people. 

So in these moments, when conflict kind of flares, or there’s some sort of difference or disagreement or like, oh, actually, I think I’m experiencing something, should I say something about this, it can create a lot of anxiety inside of yourself, right? Our natural response to fear is typically flight or freeze, either of those can be appropriate when we’re in really scary situations. If conflict feels scary for you that might be what you do. 

Now, of course, there is also the fight response to fear, and that can be problematic in itself. If your way of managing conflict is to also go full frontal scorched earth in those moments, because that is what you’ve had modeled for you, that is also typically not helpful. So what we’re going to be talking about today is the middle path, right, how to be able to address differences, address issues out in the open in a respectful and authentic way and really develop that important relationship skill that will not only prevent big, nasty fights, it makes your relationship stronger and much more sustainable along the way. 

So we’re going to be talking about many different facets of this today, so this is a good one to pull out your notepad and take some notes if this has been an issue in your relationship and as a little activity to support the health and growth of your relationship. I mean, if you’re listening to this by yourself for the first time, that’s awesome. You can absolutely create so many positive and systemic changes on your own in your relationship. 

If you are learning and growing and trying to do things a little bit differently in your interactions with your partner, you’re going to get better results, and that’s fantastic. So you can just do this on your own, and it might be a really interesting experiment to listen to this podcast with your partner or potentially if they’re open to it and send it to their partner and encourage it to listen on their own, and then talk about the things that we talk about together today. 

So let’s dive right in. First of all, to define our terms, which is always so helpful, let’s talk about what we mean by conflict, right? What is conflict? So conflict, essentially, is any kind of exchange that we have with someone where we have differences, right? Our needs, our wants, our perspective is not in alignment with another person’s needs or wants or perspectives, and there is a misalignment that needs to be addressed because it can cause us to feel threatened. 

It can cause us to feel hurt, frustrated, even unfulfilled, right, when we have misalignment in our relationship. When that misalignment isn’t important enough for us to feel threatened necessarily, like if it’s not a super serious thing, those are easier to manage, right? We can call that a difference of opinion. We can call it tomato, tomato. We have preferences, right? Those can be somewhat easy to manage, even if you do avoid them because they’re not existential threats to your relationship or something that’s really making either of you feel hurt. 

Like there is certainly a lot of wisdom even sometimes in acknowledging differences and opinions and preferences and letting stuff go. That’s completely fine. It is also a myth that in every couple or in every relationship, you do need to be aligned with everything, right, including and especially differences in opinions, preferences, but even bigger than that. I mean, you can have differences in some values. 

You can have differences in life goals and dreams and significant differences even in personalities or ways of relating or ways of problem solving. As I have talked about in previous podcasts, these differences can actually be a source of great strength and satisfaction in a relationship if we can acknowledge them and also appreciate them and value the differences that our partners bring to a table, the table. 

So I don’t want you to think for a minute that I am saying that all differences signify a need to get into alignment. There can be lots of space, lots of differences, lots of variability in a healthy relationship, and that is a good thing. I see a big mistake that many couples make is big vicious fights about trying to make the other person be more like them, rather than working to appreciate their partner for who and what they are. 

So I just wanted to say that before we get further into the topic of conflict, but aside from that, there are conflicts. There are issues that carry with them more emotional weight than that. Again, going back to that idea of it’s a difference that feels threatening, it is a difference that is making it so either my needs aren’t getting met or your needs aren’t getting met, it’s causing frustration. It’s causing hurt, and it feels problematic, right? 

First of all, it’s important to know that this is very normal, very expected, and just because you have this experience in your relationship, doesn’t mean that something is wrong. It doesn’t mean that something is wrong with you, or your partner, or your relationship. It is only saying, oh, I am having an emotional reaction to something that I just learned is important to me. You’re having a feeling. 

A previous podcast was recorded recently. We talked about how to listen to your feelings, right, how to get connected to your emotions. Going back to the ideas in that podcast, all feelings are information about things that are important or important to you, right? So that is all this is. I also wanted to very openly dispel the myth of what conflict is because one of the reasons why people have so much fear and anxiety and have so much difficulty in addressing conflict in the first place is this narrative that conflict is bad. 

Conflict is something that only happens in maybe not so great relationships. If we’re having conflict, that means that maybe we’re not compatible, or maybe we have problems in our relationship that are like big deal problems. No, that is not true. Literally, every person has differences with the people that they’re connected with, and in every relationship — Even the healthiest relationships — there are differences that feel significant, significant enough to be triggering. 

The only difference between couples that are happy and satisfied and successful long term and the ones that aren’t isn’t the presence or absence of conflict, it is how do we handle this conflict with each other in the moment? Yeah. So it’s also really important to understand one of the things that happens in conflict that I alluded to a minute ago is this fight or flight response. 

When we are having an emotional reaction to something, when we are getting triggered by something right, it is a physiological reaction that changes the way we think, the way we feel and the way that we behave. Whenever we go into a physiological stress, right, that fight, flight, freeze response is actually changing our systems biologically and physiologically. Our heart rate increases. Our breathing might speed up. You might feel hot. You might feel cold. 

The other thing that happens when any of us are ever stressed is that when your physiology changes in response to stress or anxiety, our cognitions also change. We start becoming focused on threat or potential threat, so we are now kind of primed to notice what’s wrong, threats, problems, issues. Because helpfully, our physiological response is trying to protect us, right, and it can be protective to be wary, to be on the lookout, right, for hostility or for problems or for threats of an evolutionary kind of space, right? 

If you are about to be attacked by a mountain lion, it’s a good thing to be paying attention to possible threats, and is that a shadow or is that a mountain light, that’s a good thing. When it comes to relationships, that just the way we work, it can make us more primed to experience our partner, or the conflict itself as being more threatening, more dangerous than it actually is. This is just really important to know. 

This is what we’re also kind of talking about is the experience of emotional flooding, which I have also discussed on previous podcasts. What it tends to do is that when we are flooded emotionally, when we’re experiencing a lot of threat, a lot of emotions, one of the ways that we cope with this, particularly in the context of a relationship with someone that we care about, is to shut down and thinking about this rationally. 

Like it doesn’t make sense. We have just been talking about how normal and healthy and productive conflict can be and how essential it is to having a good relationship, and I think we can all hear those words and say yes, okay, conceptually, I agree with what you’re talking about conflict and learning how to manage conflict as a healthy relationship skill. Sure. In the moment when we are feeling those feelings and feeling emotionally flooded, that becomes much harder to do. 

There’s a big difference in thinking about things in a cool emotional state, like maybe you’re feeling right now just listening to this podcast, or how you would feel reading a self help book or even talking to a marriage counselor, right? There’s a lot of emotional safety that a couples counselor, a marriage counselor creates just by virtue of their presence, so we can be talking about these things in a very rational way. 

Still, when you experience conflict in the moment, and you are having all of these intense internal experiences, it creates a reaction inside of us that creates behaviors that are sometimes inconsistent with who or what we think we want to be, because we’re sort of going into survival mode, right?

One of the biggest reasons that we avoid conflict, I think, happens on a very subconscious level, and I think, forgive the genderization of this language but this is based on my clinical experience, and I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years, and I’ve also been married for longer than that, is that many times the tendency to withdraw and avoid conflict can be more present in men than it can be in women. 

I think that there are a couple of reasons for this. In a conflict situation, we’re being pushed into this physiological fight, flight, freeze kind of response, right? Particularly for very nice men who love their partners very much, who value the relationships very much, it feels like the internal choice is to either withdraw — aka flee — or fight, right? Maybe that guy is feeling flooded, is feeling angry, is feeling all of these different things. 

The sort of emotional logic right there is, if I say or act on what I’m feeling right now, it will be hurtful to my partner. It will damage the relationship. It will make this situation worse instead of better, and I don’t know what else to do with that, so I’m not going to do anything at all. I am going to try to exit the situation as quickly as I can. In doing so, feel like I’m protecting my relationship. 

I would rather be kind of unhappy on the inside and cope with it and stuff this rather than create a big scene or say something that I’ll regret later, and I’ll just shove it down further, right? Again, in this sort of cool emotional state that we’re sitting in together right now, intellectually, rationally, I think we all know that this isn’t a great long term strategy, right? 

Because we’re not talking about important things, it is creating an experience in the partner of this person is pulling away for me when I want to have important conversations about things that feel really important to me. I’m feeling kind of emotionally abandoned in this moment. I feel like they’re saying whatever I want to hear, so they can get out of this situation that feels like caring about their own comfort more than caring about me, right? 

So that is often how that is received by the partner. But for the person who is avoiding the conflict, to them, it feels like the best choice they can make in that moment. I think that this is more prominent in men many times because I think that compared to women, men are generally less socialized into how to have calm, appropriate, productive conflict, where we talk about feelings, we take turns, we validate what the other person is saying. 

I mean, these are very verbal, relational skills, and I think to this day unfortunately, many men are socialized not to be vulnerable, to be authentic, to talk about feelings. A lot of men aren’t even aware of all the feelings that they’re having. The only thing that computes is, I feel happy. I feel mad. I feel sad, and that’s about it. So, if men having less well developed emotional intelligence skills, sometimes, they literally do not know what else to do in those moments except withdraw. 

I just wanted to say that, because I think that if you’re in a relationship with someone who habitually avoids conflict and withdraws from it, it can be really easy to develop that negative mental narrative about what that means. They don’t care about me. What I’m feeling is not important to them. They won’t stay in the ring. They just shut me down, so they don’t want to talk about anything. 

Really missing what is the truth in these situations is a different narrative, which is my partner is feeling really flooded. They’re feeling really overwhelmed by this right now, and they do not know how to navigate this situation. They’re handling it in the very best way that they currently know how to do. It is not ideal, but this is a learnable skill, and they’re doing this because they’re feeling scared. Maybe they’re feeling incompetent. They’re worried about making this worse, right?

This is not a safe feeling situation for them. So this is just a very different narrative, and I wanted to offer this because if you are in a relationship with someone who habitually avoids conflict, you’re really understanding what this is about and using your own emotional intelligence skills in this moment. So we’re talking about the emotional intelligence, skill of empathy, right, being able to step into somebody else’s shoes and see the situation from their perspective, also the emotional intelligence ability of being able to sort of see into the mind of someone else, right? 

What is this other person needing right now? How can I behave? How can I communicate in a way that would help them feel safer and more comfortable with me, is incredibly important, because what typically happens in this kind of dynamic with somebody who really wants to talk about important things with somebody who’s like, no, thank you. I’m gonna go over here now is that the person who wants to talk about stuff will get more and more escalated, more and more angry, is having to work harder in order to be heard in that relationship. 

The volume goes up. Maybe they start escalating. They start using more intense language, which I mean, if we have empathy for them, they’re feeling unheard. They’re feeling uncared for. They’re like, why don’t you listen to me and trying to make their person understand, right, which is also contributing to exactly the outcome that they don’t want. The situation is now 10x scarier for the conflict avoidant person. 

All their worst fears appear to be coming true about what conflict means. They’re feeling more flooded. They’re feeling more escalated into fight or flight. They have less verbal ability in that moment, and they feel more like they have to really get out of there. So I just wanted to call into our awareness that dynamic, that’s really easy to happen in a relationship system when conflict avoidance is in play. 

The more you push a conflict avoidant person to talk in ways that feel increasingly aggressive, the more you are going to get increased conflict avoidance and shutdown and vice versa. I think in the mind of the conflict avoidant person who says I am going to shut this down ASAP so that this doesn’t get bad, and the degree to which you are, and John Gottman calls it stonewalling, meaning like refusing to talk about important things, the more it is that you are creating a situation inside of your partner where they will be escalating emotionally because they are feeling shut out by you and uncared for by you. 

So there’s a lot of circularity here, and I just wanted to talk about this, because as we’ve discussed in many past podcasts, I mean relationships are always systems. It can be very tempting to have conversations even like this one about here are the 97 reasons why it’s not a good idea to avoid conflict, and in doing so, creating a narrative about the problem of conflict avoidance as oftentimes living in one partner, right? 

It is the conflict avoidant partner that has the problem, which is really limiting, because without understanding the systemic dynamics that are in play here, it can be very disempowering, right? When we don’t understand the impact that we ourselves are having on the people that we are in a relationship with, then it becomes, gosh, I sure do wish that person were different, as opposed to a really healthy growth mindset, which is what can I do in this situation to have a positive impact on the results that I’m getting here. 

So I hope that that just adds a layer of locus of control and personal empowerment to this conversation, because we are not here to demonize any person’s position, conflict, conflict happy or conflict avoidant, but as understanding the interplay between the two. So there are, as we’ve discussed, even though this is a systemic issue that is the problem of two people in a relationship, not just one people, and that the solutions are very systemic as well, I do think that it is helpful just to talk a little bit more about why this is a problem. 

I know we addressed it a little bit in the beginning of our time together, but I think it bears a kind of further exploration. The biggest reason why it is crucial to develop these relational skills for any relationship is that every relationship has issues, has differences, etc, as we’ve discussed, and these issues do not go away on their own. In fact, they tend to become bigger and bigger and bigger. 

So people can tell themselves stories about what’s happening in their relationship. They can play sort of little mental games with themselves. Oh, yes, of course, our relationship is happy and healthy. We never fight. When I talk to a couple or a person who tells me that they never fight in their relationship, my immediate reaction is, oh, dear, this is serious, right, because there is so much stuff that is not being addressed, that is not being resolved. 

The reason that it’s usually not being resolved is it people feel so overwhelmed by it. They don’t even know how to start. So they’re stuffing it. They are stockpiling resentments. They are perpetuating the problem, oftentimes. Also, I just wanted to put this out there, they’re missing a lot of opportunities to grow together, both as a couple, but also as individuals. I mean, there is a very important ongoing growth process that we all need to be engaging in in a very deliberate way. 

If we are going to be happy and healthy and well in any domain of life, be it our career, be it within ourselves, be it with our health and happiness and wellness, but also certainly in our relationships. Whenever we are in a conflict or a difference with another person, it is an incredibly valuable opportunity not just to learn about them, but to learn about ourselves to think, hmm, why do I feel this way? Why am I wanting XYZ? Where does this difference come from? What is that? Why am I having this reaction? Why do we communicate in this way, right?

These are opportunities for us to observe ourselves and to say to ourselves, is this reaction based on old core beliefs that aren’t really helpful to me anymore? Are these old reactions based on old ways of being that maybe made a lot of sense in previous chapters of my life, or my family of origin, but really aren’t getting me the results that I would like to have in my relationship here and now, right? 

So what do I want to do differently here? Any conflict is just such a beautiful opportunity to illuminate all of these things that you will never even think about, if you’re bopping around left to your own devices, outside of a conflict situation, conflict, conflict, just just like adversity. Those are greatest teacher, right? 

So there’s a huge personal growth opportunity, but also for the relationship itself, what is just true, true, true, is that every relationship grows and get stronger through a tear and repair kind of process. It’s like lifting weights or something, right, where you are not not that I engage in such behaviors, but from what I understand when other people lift weights. There is a process where your muscles are actually torn a little bit, microscopic tears, but then your body repairs and it grows back together again. 

This analogy works for relationships, because when you have a conflict, you are being hopefully, if you’re doing it well, open, authentic, vulnerable, real, talking about your real feelings, talking about real problems, stretching yourself to have empathy for somebody else’s perspective, stretching yourself to participate in constructive problem solving and find compromise, stretching yourself to maybe even consider changing ways of being that you may not have known before felt problematic for someone else. 

These are all uncomfortable, and they’re not easy to do. They are the engine of growth. There’s an old saying, right, “You can’t change for someone else. You can’t grow for someone else.” While I certainly do agree that at the end of the day, all growth does need to be intrinsically motivated. I do disagree with this idea that growth should be happening outside of a relationship system. In my experience, both personally and professionally, people grow because of their relationships. 

They are confronted with growth opportunities, because of their relationships that they would not have had if they were totally just single and weren’t partnered with somebody for whom it was very important that they made certain kinds of changes. They’re just not challenged in the same kind of way. It can also be because of caring about a partner or caring about the health of a relationship or the strength of a family, that we get the motivation to grow and change that, maybe we wouldn’t feel that it was quite as important if it was just us, right? 

So, to honor the engine of growth, the opportunity of growth, that relationships afford, I think is really, really important. Another fantastic growth opportunity for a relationship is the fact that as you are addressing issues, solving problems, making positive changes, understanding your partner more deeply because of how honest and authentic they’re being about their needs and their hopes and fears and dreams and feelings in the conflict process, you will ultimately feel more secure in your relationship. 

You will feel that it is stronger on almost like a visceral level, because you have had many experiences of managing conflict in healthy ways, talking through problem ones, creating compromise. You’ll also know your partner on a deeper level than you would in the absence of conflict, and you’ll also feel like they know you better in order, too, to successfully resolve conflict. It will require both of you to move in each other’s direction. 

That might not always be the outcome of every single conflict, right? We can resolve conflicts without both people compromising sometimes, but over time, each of you will have been bending in each other’s direction. Sometimes you will have been taking influence from the other person. You will have been taking on board what it is they’re saying about what is bothering them, and you know what, I see what you’re saying, and I am going to work on that. 

Because of having that experience with each other over time, there is increased security. There is increased trust. There is increased a felt sense of love to have witnessed each other, working on yourselves and on the way you do things in service of the relationship, that is what builds the foundation of a relationship. It is not feelings of love. Feelings of love are what we have, oftentimes, in the first few years that we’re dating, right? 

It’s the exciting like, oh, I think you’re great. What mature love and what is, and I think what it actually looks like in a relationship, is you saying to somebody that really hurt my feelings, and that other person saying, crap, when I look at it from your point of view, I can understand why you would feel that way. I think this is coming from old stuff. I think my parents used to do this, and I understand that this isn’t helpful in our relationship now. 

I am going to work on this. I know I need to figure out how to do this differently, so this is definitely a growth moment for me because right now, I don’t know how to respond differently. But, I want to work on this together, and so let’s talk to somebody or maybe I could read some books or listen to some podcasts, because you deserve better than this from me. That is what love is, that is what it looks like in an actual long term relationship. 

That is a brick in the wall of the love experience. It is not a feeling. It is an action. It is a response. It is a follow through. It is how we show up for one another. So when you are having this glorious opportunity in the form of conflict to be loving and responsive to your partner in the way that I just described, you will quickly understand that every difference, every conflict is this amazing opportunity for connection that doesn’t come in any other way. 

So to reconceptualize conflict in that way is a very, very powerful tool that will help you not just feel more eager to engage in those conversations, but also to really understand them for what they are. This is an opportunity for authentic intimacy, and for us to show each other love in a really real way right now. This is all this is. So I hope that that perspective helps you, and I hope keeping that in your mind helps you the next time that you are in this situation, because you will be in this situation again. 

So before we end, too, I really want to talk about some of the nuts and bolts of understanding more deeply some of the reasons why conflict avoidance happens, and also some of the things that you can do to develop your competence, develop your skills and abilities to handle these moments in a really helpful and productive way. 

We talked about one of, I think, the most common and really underlying issues of why people avoid conflict, which is just that emotional flooding there and fight or flight and of the options they have flight feels better than fight in terms of the outcomes or their relationship. 

So if we crack into this though a little bit more deeply, if we make it nuanced, and also you know, I should I should say, too, I did share that many times men can struggle with or people who were socialized as males can struggle with conflict avoidance because of the having had less of an opportunity to develop emotional intelligence skills from childhood than their their female socialized counterparts. 

But conflict avoidance is also very common in females, and unfortunately, I tend to be on this side of the spectrum as well. Even though I was socialized as a female, I did so in a home with people who were themselves not fantastic with conflict. So I do arrived into adulthood without having a great map of, what do I do with us? So I think that what I sort of developed over my life is a tendency to try to pacify smooth things over make things better, problem solve, which is also not the same thing as healthy conflict resolution skills. 

I don’t think I avoid conflict, like I will have conversations with people about whatever they want to talk about. I am not an attacker when it is coming into conflict, but I have noticed in myself an eagerness to solve whatever problem is, and like, okay, I’ll just agree to yes, okay, let’s do that in order to get through it more quickly, in a way that is not conducive to the health of my own relationships. I’ve done a lot of work on this. 

So as to where I am now, I have a lot more skills and abilities, but historically, this kind of was my MO, and this style, too, has negative outcomes for relationships, because what would happen is that the other person would be like, okay, good, thank you, right? In myself, I was agreeing to things that I wasn’t fully on board with. I was not having courageous conversations about things that were important to me, to my own detriment, right, and that would impact the health of my relationship. 

Also, I think, the strength of some of my relationships, if addressing a conflict openly, and having to get radically honest with someone just felt too hard for me, it would be easier to be like, yeah, I don’t know if I want to be friends with them anymore, right? So I think sometimes I would exit relationships, and again, this is when I was much, much younger. I have evolved since then, thankfully, but that can be an outcome of this too. 

On this topic, if you would like to learn more about this sort of way of being and where it comes from and what to do with it, I would refer you back to another podcast that I recorded on the subject of people-pleasing. You can find that back on the podcast feed for your listening pleasure. Okay. So but what often goes on in that people pleasing kind of conflict avoidance is really, I think, rooted in kind of low self esteem, this core belief of if I am radically honest and say what I really think and feel, I am going to be rejected. 

I will be judged. I will be abandoned by this person, right? I will potentially lose this relationship. This person will get mad at me, right? So avoiding or pacifying the conflict in those moments relieved that anxiety, right? The anxiety, of course, that’s the dark side, now tolerating things that I don’t really like, but that is the price that I have to pay to maintain this relationship with this person that I care about, because to do anything else feels really scary. 

The thought that they could be mad at me is not something that I’m willing to bargain with, right? So that can be one reason. If you notice this in yourself in your own kind of conflict avoidance tendencies, or if you suspect that this is the root of what is going on with your partner, the solution here is really just a different narrative. I have not just a right but a responsibility to be authentic in relationships that I care about. 

Me hiding my feelings does not serve anyone. It is detrimental to me. It is detrimental to this relationship. It is okay for people to have their own feelings. There are limits to how much I can control somebody else’s feeling. If their reaction to me being appropriately, courageously, lovingly, vulnerably authentic is to get mad at me or reject me, that has just taught me something really important about that relationship, right? So it’s not about me. 

I can only control my side of the street, and being a good friend, a good partner right now means showing up in a courageous way. So that’s a different narrative than, ooh, they’re gonna get mad at me, and that means bad things. If you are suspecting that this is the MO of your partner, it is really important to say that out loud. I know that it feels threatening to talk about how you really feel. 

I’m guessing you might be worried that if you tell me how you really feel, I will get mad at you or I will punish you or something bad will happen. But I want you to know that I love you, and more than anything, I want to understand your perspective so that we can figure out a path forward together. If you don’t tell me what’s really going on inside of you, we can’t do that together. So please trust me to be an emotionally safe person for you, and tell me how you feel. 

Then of course, follow through just saying this as your helpful neighborhood marriage counselor, I often see people in this relational dynamic where one person is conflict avoidant, and they’re really worried that if they tell their partner how they really feel something bad will happen. Their partner will get angry. Their partner will punish them, and their partner is like, just tell me how you feel. 

I really want to know how you feel, and then they tell them how they feel. Their partner is like, damn it, how dare you, and they get really mad at them, and they punish them. So if you want your partner to be less conflict avoidant, it is really, really important that you are committed to being an emotionally safe person for them to do that with. Okay, so just going back to that relational dynamic, sad to say that. 

Another common reason for conflict avoidance is lack of confidence in our own conflict resolution skills, which is super real and valid, right. I mean, I’ve talked significantly over the course of our time together today about how I would say most of us do not have good role models for how to manage conflict and healthy and appropriate ways. Again, maybe our parents avoided all conflict. 

Maybe they were super scary screamers, who were saying terrible things to each other. Maybe your parents got divorced, which is also extremely common. At the end of the day, the kids are going to be alright, but one of the emotional legacies, I think, of children of divorce is if something goes wrong, we are going to get divorced. So conflict is therefore bad, relationship problems are bad. If we have relationship problems, that means that I might lose my person, it just contributes to all of this anxiety.

Furthermore, if you are the child of divorced parents, it sort of means like, by definition, that you grew up in a household with two people who did not know how to resolve their conflicts with each other. Because if they did, they probably wouldn’t have gotten divorced, right? So in all of these situations, what it means is there’s a lot to learn here. 

So, first of all, basic emotional intelligence skills that are often a lot of what is happening in high quality relationship coaching with a marriage and family therapist who has specialized training and experience in counseling psychology in couples and family therapy, like not some garden variety relationship coach on TikTok, sorry to be so judgmental, but truly, there are so many people who are positioning themselves as being like relationship experts. 

I’m a relationship coach who do not have literally any training, education, expertise, legitimate expertise, and their coaching is a completely unregulated profession, so they can do that. It’s totally legal to do that. Please don’t do that with just a no relationship coach that you find off the street. 

When I am talking about relationship coaching, I am talking about a very, very specific kind of personal growth work that I believe is best conducted by someone who is a licensed therapist first and who has a strong foundation in all of the basics counseling skills, counseling psychology for couples and family relational work to have learned about couples and family, theories, techniques, systems models, attachment theory, all the stuff that goes into it. 

So to be working with a marriage and family therapist, who does relationship coaching, who offers relationship coaching services. The reason why I make this distinction is because therapy, psychotherapy is by definition for the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions. It is behavioral healthcare.

So if you are doing psychotherapy for relationship problems, particularly with a therapist who doesn’t have a background as an MFT, what that means is that that therapist is sniffing around for the problems for the mental health stuff for the old wounds, right, for the old trauma, and then is focusing on healing that in one or both partners, which in many cases can be highly appropriate, maybe there is trauma. 

Maybe there is an anxiety disorder, or a depressive disorder that really does need treatment before a relationship can improve. If that is the case, Godspeed, but that is very different from a coaching model, which says, in summary, that we all are getting results, because of the behaviors that we are engaging in. Our current reality is what it is because of the accumulated impact of what we have been doing, and that you can get different results when you do things differently. 

Here are the things that you can do differently that will get you the results that you want. Obviously, it goes a little bit deeper than that, because whatever we’re doing behaviorally, our behaviors are always an outcome of our core beliefs, right? Our actions follow what we’re telling ourselves about a certain situation, that is why we behave the way we do. So we can certainly go into that a little bit more deeply. 

But at the end of the day, if you would like to have a different result in your relationship, particularly when it comes to things like communication skills, we don’t need to be sniffing around for early childhood trauma necessarily. We need to be talking about communication skills, and really like learning how to do things differently, which is the most, in my opinion, the most direct way of creating positive change in a relationship in the absence of underlying mental health stuff, right? 

So in working with a competent relationship coach that might start with basic emotional intelligence skills, like developing awareness of how you feel in the moment. Many people react to each other kind of matched to flame, right? They don’t even know that they’re having a feeling. They just say something, but to slow down. How am I feeling right now? What do I do with that feeling? 

How do I manage my own feelings so that I am able to behave in a way that I would like to behave that will get me better results in my relationship? What do I want to be telling myself in these moments that will help me behave in the ways that will help me have a better relationship? This goes into self management, also building those empathy skills that we talked about earlier. 

Not everybody can understand easily, or intuitively how someone else feels or what it is that they’re needing, or the subtext of conversations, but these are learnable skills, right? Then once you have those things in place, to be able to know how to engage in emotionally safe communication in listening skills. So okay, your partner is kind of coming at you right now, and they’re saying things about how upset they are. 

Now, you’re noticing how you’re feeling. You’re noticing how you’re thinking, and what do you do in this moment, right? Very tiny example, and there’s 100 different skills like this, but to say, thank you so much for telling me how you feel. I wasn’t aware of this. Let’s go sit down. I’m gonna get something to write on so that I can take notes. Clearly what you’re saying is very important, and I want to make sure that I’m understanding this, so please tell me more. 

That is a really important relationship skill. If you even did that one small thing, if your partner is elevated and escalated, they will be like, oh, great. Yes. Let’s go sit down. I would love to tell you more about how I feel. Thank you so much for asking. I mean, you’re not having a conflict anymore. You are having a conversation, and one that is likely to go very, very well if you keep that up, right? 

So I mean, there are many relationship skills like this. Also, how to set healthy boundaries can be part of learning how to communicate and handle conflict courageously, learning what your boundaries are, what are other people’s boundaries, being able to manage yourself versus being able to try to manage somebody else. Communicating in such a way where people know that they are heard and understood and validated. 

You may check out another previous podcast that I did on what to do if you’re feeling invalidated by your partner for kind of a tutorial on some of those validations skills. But also, it can be really helpful to understand how to do relationship repair after the fact, you know what that looks like. If there have been relational traumas or attachment traumas that have been sustained, how do we actually forgive, rebuild trust, right? 

We don’t forget, but what do we do with this in a constructive way that we come out the other side stronger. But like, what do I need to be telling myself about that? What do I need to be telling my partner or does my partner need to be telling me in order to create that outcome that we both want? So those are all very concrete and learnable conflict resolution skills that are learned, and I think that as adults in long term relationships, we all have a responsibility to be learning in very active and intentional ways if we would like to have a good relationship with the people that we love the most, right? 

So other quick reasons that conflict avoidance can happen is if you don’t trust your partner, if you have had many experiences with them where conflict became destructive, where conflict had negative outcomes rather than positive outcomes. If it turned into a big screaming situation, if there were destructive things that happened between the two of you. If there is a pattern of invalidation, if there is a pattern of like name calling, or belittling, or punishing behaviors, or even gaslighting, those are actually really good reasons to avoid conflict with someone. 

If they have taught you that it is not going to end well, it is probably emotionally safer for you to not try to engage that person in a very direct way. What I would advise is that you get some very real help for your relationship. 

So working with a marriage and family therapist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, ideally, somebody who can utilize a coaching model if that is appropriate in the situation, and take it into an environment with somebody who can be an ally for you and be able to collaboratively work with both of you to help illuminate what is happening in those moments in terms of those systemic reactions that you’re having to each other, and do some very serious psychoeducation around why some of these behaviors are really destructive to the relationship, and what each of you can do differently in order to get better results and give your partner the opportunity to work on this with you in an intentional and hopefully productive way. 

If your partner currently cannot tolerate or engage with conflict in a way that doesn’t become destructive, that would be a good indication to me that there’s a lot of stuff historically where those kinds of behaviors were modeled to them. Maybe they don’t know how else to be. Maybe they really struggle with emotional regulation. Maybe they feel super threatened. Maybe there could be an anxious attachment style can contribute to that sometimes. 

If this is somebody that you love and care about in the relationship is important to you, it’s worse getting help, if you can, if they are open to it, if they refuse to participate it in it or can’t engage in that kind of growth work even in the context of like a really emotionally safe situation with a competent couples counselor. Then you will have more information about your options, right, and what you want to do with that, but I think it’s usually a mistake, at least to not try. 

Unless of course, we’re talking about a domestic violence kind of situation in which case, my advice to you would be to get some help on your own and not try to turn it into a couples counseling situation, because it’s not safe for you to do that. So I think that we have talked about the highlights. This is such a big, big topic. I could do multi hour podcasts on this subject, and I’m not going to subject you to any of that. 

But I think that the big takeaways here are understanding why conflict avoidance happens, understanding the systemic nature of conflict avoidance, like what kinds of behaviors people engage on on both sides of that dynamic that support conflict avoidance. Also, we talked a lot about the negative impact of conflict avoidance, and so why it’s so important that we make positive changes in this area. 

Then lastly, you know, some of the ways to begin to correct this through, truly like, educating yourself on how to do this differently and become authentic, courageous, vulnerable, emotionally safe partners for each other, and giving each other the opportunity to develop conflict resolution skills in the process that you will be strengthening your relationship. You will be showing each other the love and respect that you both deserve, not in spite of your conflict, but because of it. 

So I hope that you found this conversation today helpful. I certainly had a good time talking about it with you. If you would like more info on this or many other topics, you are invited to come to the blog at my practice growingself.com. I referenced a number of other podcast titles as we were talking, and you can find links to all of them on their blog, what are we calling it, the communication that connects Content Collection, so you’ll go to grwoingself.com/blog-podcast. 

From there, you’ll be able to enter the love collection, and in there, you can then select, I believe it is called the communication that connects collection. It could be called the healthy communication collection anyway. But if you go in there, then you will have access to all the podcasts I was talking about today, also, a bunch of written articles that I have written or other people on our team have have written with great advice for developing communication skills, listening skills, emotionally safe communication, emotional flooding, conflict resolution. 

We have podcasts about how to talk about difficult conversations, and in that collection too, I have actually put together a Spotify playlist just for you on healthy communication and communication that connects, so you’re invited to check that out. You know where to find it. Please stay in touch with me if you have additional questions, or topics that you would like to hear me talk about that would be helpful for you on upcoming episodes, and that same blog and podcast homepage.

You can submit your question through a little form. You can also leave me a voice message if you would like me to play your question on the air, and I’d be happy to. In the meantime, I will be back in touch soon with another episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast. Bye for now.

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