If you dislike conflict, and can't bear the thought of having one, you're not alone. So many people would much rather have a filling at the dentist than have a confrontation with someone.
Whether it's a romantic partner, colleague or family member, for some people, conflict is something they habitually avoid. I know I used to be one of them.
Reflecting back, I think I adopted this avoidance pattern from childhood. My mother was always shouting and screaming the house down. I'm one of five children, and we all avoided her, including my Dad. She was also emotionally, and sometimes physically, abusive. We lived in fear, not knowing what might set her off, or what mood she was in, so conflict avoiding became the only way to survive my childhood and teenage years.
Unfortunately, not dealing with conflict doesn't mean the conflict isn't there anymore. In close relationships, conflict avoiding often makes the problem worse; as resentment builds and avoidance brings additional negative tension to the relationship. The repressed anger, stress and disappointment also hurts a lot more too, as there is no outlet. We carry the burden and the pain inside us.
The more we don't communicate a problem or issue, the greater the chance it will be repeated.
Anyone close to you will be able to sense you are upset; and when you don't explain why, you leave them to "guess" what is wrong and make it right. Expecting a partner to guess is unfair—and a disaster for a happy, close relationship.
If you have been in a relationship for several years and never argue or disagree, that may not be a good sign. Holding in grievances, only to erupt later, is not a successful way to remain connected. Passive-aggressive behavior does just as much damage to closeness as angry outbursts do. This can be in the form of sarcasm, guilt, or distancing. When used to replace sharing feelings, the couple cannot move forward; instead, they become stuck.
Here are some signs you or your partner are avoiding conflict in your marriage or relationship:
- Putting off conversations. Thinking or saying "I’ll talk about it later" or "we can discuss this on the weekend," and it never happens.
- Denying a problem is there. Refusing there is a problem, and refusing help.
- Joking and diversion. Using humor to deflect away from topics, or sarcasm.
- Using children or guests as an excuse. Of course, children need protecting; but sometimes, this is used as an excuse for months on end. Saying it's never a good time won't help the relationship.
- Working too much. This is a very common way to avoid having time for meaningful discussion.
- Walking away. Walking away is the easiest way to avoid the discomfort of confrontation.
- Outright refusal to address topics. This is the hardest to overcome. If there is a refusal to discuss something that's important to one in the relationship, it's going to cause long-term damage. How can you fix an issue you cannot speak about?
Conflict avoidance not only prevents you from getting what you want in life, it can bring more of what you don't want.
Conflict avoiders often fear one, or a combination of, these three things:
- Rejection, criticism and judgment from the other person
- The other person's overreaction, aggressiveness or extreme upset
- They themselves may overact and explode
The truth is, when we live in fear, we create a low-frequency energy which attracts more negativity. The more we focus on the fears above, the more we will fear them.
Another truth is we can only control ourselves, not others. You can control what you say, how you say it, when you say it. That is in your power. You cannot predict the outcome, nor control it.
I had to decide whether to let go of those things bothering me, or address them and face whatever reaction may come my way. When I started sharing my thoughts and feelings, to my surprise, the relationship improved. My boyfriend loved the openness, the depth—and it's definitely more bearable than my sulking.
I became more attractive, as I was expressing all sides of me; and I felt free from resentment and stress, as the air was cleared regularly.
Here are a few tips to help you if you avoid conflict:
- Explore your fears. What is the absolute worst that can happen if I share this? Can I deal with those consequences, even if they get mad or reject me? Is my fear of bringing this up rational or irrational?
- Always use "I" statements. "I’m feeling upset about xyz, and I'd like to talk through it."
- Have an outcome. I am a solution-based marriage specialist. I don't believe in purely going over problems; give a clear indication of what you would like instead, or how you can move forward together.
- Remember we are ALL responsible for our own reactions. How your partner reacts is his or her choice. You are responsible for your own feelings and actions, no one else's.
- Be proud of yourself. It's mature and healthy to express yourself.
- Respect, Respect, Respect. This is the last piece of wisdom: Respect yourself by speaking up when you need to. Respect your partner by speaking respectfully, and by listening in return.
Conflict is not easy to deal with, but it is far better for you—and your relationship—than carrying tension, stress and anger inside of you.