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Conflict Avoidance Can Be Hazardous To Your Mental Health

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Fighting in a relationship can be exhausting. Who really wants to do it? Isn’t it much nicer to have peace? To have calm? Of course! The only problem is that we can’t have real peace, real calm, with knowing how to work through what sometimes feel like insurmountable differences. We all have to pick our battles; it’s knowing which ones to pick and how to get through them and come out the other side feeling closer to our partner than before. Easier said than done.

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Why is conflict necessary? Arguing, and working through an argument makes us emotionally stronger and more resilient and allows our partnership to grow and evolve. It deepens our connection with our partner and makes our relationship more supple, more resistant to stress.

Without conflict, and resolution of conflict, our relationship remains static. All intimate relationship involve two strangers, people who come to the marriage with their own script from their family, often without knowing what’s in the script. In his Op-ed for the New York Times, philosopher Alain de Botton wrote a great piece called “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.” He writes about how we all have “a bewildering array of problems that emerge when we try to get close to others. We seem normal only to those who don’t know us very well. In a wiser, more self-aware society than our own, a standard question on any early dinner date would be: ‘And how are you crazy?'”

Enter conflict. And conflict avoidance. When I say conflict avoidance, I don’t mean the “pick your battles” kind. We ALL avoid conflict at times. It’s a requirement for life. Someone once asked Ruth Bader Ginsburg the secret of her long, happy marriage. She responded, “Be a little deaf.” Wise words from a wise woman. When I say “conflict avoidance” I mean the kind of aversion to conflict which becomes chronic and repetitive, when meaningful differences are swept under the rug, when one-or both-people are suffering from too much (sometimes quiet) tension, or misunderstanding. Relationship pressures are unacknowledged, unaddressed and unresolved.

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The close proximity of an intimate partnership means that we end up changing our partner, for better or for worse. It’s the law of Relationship Physics. We can’t be in that kind of primal, unconscious emotional connection without contagion. When a couple comes for therapy and I notice that one person has become overly careful with his or her partner, one of my favorite questions is, “When did you stop trying to change your husband/wife?” They usually protest, “I don’t want to change him!”, but of course that’s not true. We all want, and need to change some aspects of our partner to create a dynamic, fulfilling partnership. And they need to expand our personal operating system to accommodate what’s important to them. It’s not always comfortable. But it’s how we get our PhD in becoming a person.

What does conflict avoidance look like in a relationship?

Here is a partial list.

  1. The bickering couple: Believe it or not, constant bickering is often a sign of conflict avoidance. Bickering is a proxy for a real fight. Each partner is not letting the other one in, is not hearing their partner, is throwing stuff back, and they keep throwing stuff back at each other without looking at what’s really being said, or being asked for. It’s conflict that’s not allowed to emerge, full flower.
  2. The couple who “never fight.” That’s what I call the Mask of Family Unity. I worry more about the couple who never fight than the couple who have occasional big-time blowouts. Couples who “never fight” often have an unconscious contract about the balance of power in the relationship. Nothing is supposed to change. The problem is that power fluctuates, and should fluctuate in a relationship. Relationships, circumstances, life, change people over time and these changes need to be acknowledged and negotiated.
  3. The couple where one partner is always accommodating/agreeable or cautious. They may keep their partner on a pedestal. The message is: Partner Big. Me Small. A person in a relationship like this may be so low maintenance that they barely express a preference or a need. There is a carefulness in the way they relate to their partner. This easy-to-get-along with person barely expresses any personal desires; they are an exaggerated version of go-with-the flow. Someone who almost NEVER makes waves is responding to an unconscious contract with the partner who may be signaling: Don’t ask me to change. Don’t ask me to give up any power.
  4. The affair: This is the most painful version of conflict-avoidance in a couple. In my over thirty years of clinical practice, having seen many couples dealing with the trauma of an affair, in each and every one the relationship was infused with avoidance of conflict. It could be the person who had the affair was terrible at asking for what they needed, or afraid to make waves. There are, of course, many versions in the Department of Affairs, but conflict avoidance is nearly always a part of it.

How Do I Know If I’m a Conflict Avoider in my Relationship?

Again, a partial list.

1. I am in a relationship and I’m depressed. As we said in an earlier post, scratch a depression and you get anger. Are you feeling controlled by your partner? Or unheard? Or my partner is too passive. I don’t feel that I matter. Ask yourself, if I were to “make trouble” for my partner what would that look like? How would he/she react?

2. I have a strong preference for things to be pleasant and feel anxious when anyone is upset or angry. People who are worried about strong emotions, especially anger or conflict, often come from a home where there was too much of both. They naturally develop a fear of things going “out of control” and may monitor relationships to keep things on an even keel.

3. I hate to ask for what I want. Some people worry a lot about rejection or abandonment. This may cause them to bury their genuine needs rather than risk emotional isolation.

4. When an argument starts I want it to be over as quickly as possible. This is the person who is more worried about emotional intensity, where conflict feels dangerous, and they feel they can’t risk it. They often grew up in a home where conflict did feel, or actually was, emotionally dangerous.

Conflict avoidance in a couple becomes especially troublesome when kids are involved. Often what ends up happening is the child gets unconsciously inducted into the impasse between the couple and ends up carrying the problem for the parents. We’ll talk more about that next week.

Please feel free to comment about your own experience with conflict and how you handle it or don’t.

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