The Challenge of Conflict Avoidance in Relationships

Conflict avoidance in relationships

Conflict avoidance is common in marriages; it decreases intimacy and pleasure and increases resentment between spouses. Unresolved long-term conflict avoidance leads to distancing and even divorce. This doesn’t have to happen! Partners can learn skills to embrace conflict, grow as individuals, cultivate intimacy, and move toward amazing relationships.

Putting an end to conflict avoidance tactics and cultivating successful conflict resolution skills can be challenging. I wrote a motivational rhyme that’s  a helpful reminder that challenges can be conquered when approached in doable parts. Memorize this rhyme and value your time!

Break steps down into doable parts, doesn’t matter how you feel it’s important that you start, trust you can do way more than you think, first step, second step, third and repeat.

This article you will help you identify patterns you may be using to avoid conflict and provide you with positive coping tools to manage conflict successfully. Why let conflict ruin a relationship when you can build a great one?  

Let’s look at some common conflict-avoidance patterns:

  • Procrastination: Thinking “I’ll address this later” or “we can discuss this on the weekend” but then keep putting it off.
  • Denial: “She thinks I have a drinking problem, but I don’t, so let’s just drop it” or “we don’t need a therapist, we can solve our problems ourselves.”
  • Getting angry and escalating emotions: Overreacting becomes the focus rather than the core issue, such as decreased sexual desire, co-parenting differences, chores around the house, etc.
  • Joking and diversion: Making light or using sarcasm: “I bet you want to have one of those ‘feeling’ talks.”
  • Working too much: Is a very common way to avoid having time for meaningful discussion.
  • Walking out: Disagreement is uncomfortable, and walking away is an easy tactic to avoid discomfort and frustration.

I’ve seen many couples in my practice with exquisite strategies to avoid dealing with disagreement.

Susan dodged difficult discussions with her husband by yelling, ‘sitting on the pitty pot,’ and other deflective and defensive behaviors. When Susan’s husband, Dan, tried to broach the subject of Susan’s excessive drinking, she yelled back, “If I didn’t have to do all the work around the house, I wouldn’t drink so much!” Susan didn’t want to admit that she habitually drank up to eight glasses of wine a night, so she made anger and other emotions take center-stage. Gradually, Dan began avoiding bringing up tough topics, thinking “What’s the use? Susan will just react with another Oscar-worthy emotional performance.” Over time a wall of resentment went up and they stopped making love. Three years later, they were in divorce court—but they could have avoided a complete marital breakdown by getting help early.

In my practice, I too frequently see couples who wait to seek help until it is too late to remedy problems, and by then, divorce seems inevitable. If couples seek help early, many can make needed changes with only 6-8 sessions of counseling. Workshops for couples and reading about couple coping skills can also help.

Tips for coping with conflict

Step 1: Get in touch with your thoughts and feelings

Invest time to discover what you’re feeling and to discern the message you want to deliver. Some people need considerable time to connect with core feelings such as sadness, anger, fear, frustration, confusion, or guilt. Keeping a journal helps you to identify your emotions and sort through thoughts.

Joe was disconnected from his emotions due to growing up with an alcoholic father. It wasn’t safe to show emotions as a child, so he learned to suppress his feelings. He began writing about his feelings in a journal, and step-by-step he shared with Marcie that he felt alone and sad in their marriage and had little sexual desire for her because of these feelings. This was hard to share, but Marcie was able to take it in as Joe expressed it in a clear and collaborative way.

Step 2: Contain your feelings

Don’t get distracted by a tearful or highly emotional partner, and contain your own emotions when listening to your partner’s side.

Rose cried when her husband, Mike, tried to share that he was having fantasies about a woman at work. Mike actually wanted to be closer to Rose, but didn’t make this clear at the start of the conversation. When Rose began crying, Mike felt guilty and thought, “I’m hurting Rose, so I better hold off continuing this discussion” Rose needed to learn to tolerate some pain and sadness in order to keep an adult conversation going. I suggested that Rose try to tolerate and contain her emotions for 20 minutes (sometimes less) while she focused on listening to Mike.

I teach partners not only to manage their emotions, but to also take turns speaking and listening in order to thoroughly understand one another.  

Contain your feelings

Step 3: Investigate your partner’s side of the issue

Many people become stuck trying to defend their side of the story and don’t listen to their partner. Overcome this by taking time to ask questions of your partner, mirroring their thoughts and feelings by repeating what they said. Think of yourself as a news reporter asking good questions.

Some examples are:

  • How long have you been feeling this way?
  • Are you aware of any other feelings besides anger?
  • Many people feel more comfortable expressing anger, when at a deeper level they are actually hurt or scared.
  • What does it mean to you when I want to do things with my friends?  

These are just a few suggested questions that you might ask your partner to better understand their feelings and their side of conflict issues.

You can make your relationship truly amazing by ending conflict avoidance and practicing positive conflict resolution skills. Just remember—first step, second step, third and repeat

But what if your partner is the one who displays conflict avoiding behaviour. Conflict avoidance is damaging for a relationship no matter which partner exhibits this behavior. To have a healthy relationship you must ensure that both you and your partner should not exhibit conflict avoidance patterns.

What should you do when you have a conflict-avoiding partner

1. Pay close attention to their body language

Body language can reveal a lot of unspoken feelings. If you feel that your partner tends to avoid conflicts and suppresses their feelings, then you should observe their body language closely. You should make a mental note of the moments in which they display aggression in their bodily gestures and evaluate the probable causes behind what might be bothering them.

2. Encourage them to express themselves

Conflict avoiders generally don’t voice their concerns because they don’t want to deal with the reaction of their partners. If you suspect that your partner is trying to avoid conflicts, then the reason might be that they are afraid of your response. What you can do in this case is encourage them to express themselves and assure them that you will react in a mature way. This goes a long way in avoiding conflict in relationships.

3. Validate their concern in a positive manner

Once you have got your conflict-avoiding partner to express themselves, then you must react appropriately. This will ensure they won’t curl back into their shells and will keep the channel of communication open.

Invest time to learn coping with conflicts and help your partner do the same. This will help you save time for the time of your life!  

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Patrice Wolters
Psychologist, PhD
Dr. Patrice Wolters has been a licensed psychologist for over 25 years, specializing in relationship therapy and early identification of mental health conditions in young people. As a relationship expert, she enjoys helping couples communicate effectively, resolve conflicts, overcome the trauma of an affair, develop intimacy skills and develop team parenting skills. She has developed a model of change Go from a Maze to Amazing that helps people identify where they are stuck, learn skills to get moving and develop the capacities to get to amazing. She is also a teacher, poet and performing artist with a special interest in writing mental health lyrics.

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