If you’re a conflict avoider, then, by definition, you’re a conflict creator (or co-creator) – and this holds true whether it’s a personal or a professional relationship.
When another person does/says something that you don’t like there are consequences: frustration, anger, hurt, annoyance, resentment and so on. And those feelings will out. Some people have pretty healthy ways of dealing with the feelings; they tell the other in a non-reactive way what they’re feeling/perceiving and what they’d like to do (or have done) about it. But others believe that stress or conflict in a relationship is to be avoided… as if it could be. Often, these are people that experienced (or passively absorbed) significant conflict in their earlier lives but likely never even recognized it as such. After all, if something is the norm in our families, we don’t perceive it as unusual. But then we’ll be hypersensitive to it in our other relationships. So people will have come from families in which there was significant criticism or chiding or substance abuse or anger or depression… or any number of things – and yet they’ll never have recognized it as such. The bottom line is that they did indeed experience it, albeit unwittingly, and then they seek to avoid it in their other relationships. And though counterintuitive, they’ll often enter into relationships that create many of those same early feelings. This is the selection factor process to be discussed in a later post.
In any case, though you may believe that you’re ‘just avoiding the drama’, your feelings about the problem will indeed surface. In fact, when people tell you they ‘don’t want drama’, they’re generally participatory in it – yet so passively that they don’t recognize it’s happening. So the sequelae of avoiding conflict are palpable because the feelings about the conflict still remain; and it often becomes a slow burn of anger. They can be subtle, e.g., you pull away a bit, you get those looks on your face or your voice has an edge that you don’t even notice (but that your partner feels), you take longer to answer a text or message, you don’t take the garbage out… Or they can be more pronounced, e.g, you haven’t felt like having sex (or find yourself frustrated/annoyed while doing so), you get bothered easily, pick small (or large) fights, you bail on a date, keep forgetting to do something important the other wants or needs. The list is endless.
Thus, If you’re conflict avoidant, you’ll likely trigger stronger reactions in the other than you would by just facing and talking about it. But most avoiders wonder “why is this person reacting so badly?” Think of it as setting a fire and then running, leaving it to others to clean it up.
Often people say “I don’t want to disagree (or tell that person the truth) because “I want to spare his/her feelings”. But it’s really about sparing one’s own feelings; one is afraid the other will take offense, and thus it gets avoided. But you’re not doing your partner a favor – because as stated: the resentment will out. It takes courage to discuss the real issues because it requires a level of non-reactivity to help manage the other person’s annoyance/hurt/anger/silent treatment/pulling away. When people have those reactions to what we say, our own security in the relationship feels threatened. But if you come to understand that the relationship will deteriorate more rapidly by not discussing things, you’re ahead of the game. After all, we lose people because we’re afraid to lose them (see separate post).
Conflict is necessarily part of being human; unless the other is a clone, you’re going to disagree on things. So it’s not that conflict itself must be eschewed, it’s rather to learn to:
1. find reasonable ways to problem-solve disagreements and
2. to avoid selecting people who, when conflict happens, become: overly demanding, manipulative, guilt-provoking, or who are unable to perceive their role in the conflict.
A patient in his 40’s had come in describing major conflict with his various girlfriends and was now leery of it all. He felt that no matter what he did to please them, they pointed out all the things he didn’t do. So he’d agree to go to the kinds of parties she liked, or to be with her friends more than his, or to stay in with her on a Sunday morning when he really needed to exercise. As he learned to experiment by not necessarily assenting to things he didn’t want, he began to feel stronger and more optimistic – and reasonably so. He’d begun to offer things like: “Hey, I know you’d prefer me to stay in this morning, but I’m going to go ahead and play tennis as I’d planned. We can meet up later for sure, but I’m going to do this today… and maybe we can come up with a plan to vary our Sundays so that we each get a chance to choose”.
Take Willy: He says he wants to keep things chill, and so he lets his girlfriend scream at him, tell him he’s ‘not a man’ and frequently threaten to leave – but protests that he’s ‘sure’ he’s not angry with her. Although he thinks he’s avoiding further problems by not contradicting her or putting a stop to the tirades, with further data, we see him:
-hiding behind the veil of playing ‘devil’s advocate’, acting as if he’s an impartial observer when it’s actually a way for him to disagree (and judge) without looking as if that’s what he’s doing. So his girlfriend feels angered by it yet doesn’t quite know why, and then fulminates more.
-justifying that role because otherwise ‘she’ll get out of hand’ – and yet the devil’s advocate position itself is largely what’s infuriating her, because it’s as if he’s not arguing when he actually is. Not angry? Not a chance!
John lived with Alana for three years. She was prone to angry outbursts, judging and commenting on anyone who annoyed her (and many people did, including John), and was rude to service people. She’d go around comparing them to other couples, generally deciding that she and John were superior (though he never seemed to feel the benefit of that). Although John was often hurt or embarrassed by things Alana did, he felt it wasn’t reasonable to disagree, because ‘she was usually right’. The problem is, he was becoming so viscerally turned off by it that he ultimately left her – thinking he ‘just fell out of love’. But, “Just falling out of love” isn’t as simple as it seems (see upcoming post). A whole host of things go into how that happens and in many cases, if not most, it could have been avoided.
In fact, conflict avoiders are most often the people who ‘fall out of love’.
If you’re beginning to date a new person who says this is what happened in their last relationship, beware; it’ll likely happen again. It reveals absolutely no understanding of the dynamics that went into it, and in particular, his/her role in that process.
Ann is a conflict avoider: She does this by ‘being nice’ to everyone, going along with what they want to do, their choices, and their agenda. She believes she’s being moral and caring (this was her role in protecting her mother who was generally depressed and drinking while Ann was growing up. But she ends up getting annoyed with all of these people and then either pulls back, becomes avoidant, gives the silent treatment, and generally feels/believes that ‘people take advantage of her’. But she doesn’t see that she herself is the one who sets up that dynamic.
In all of these cases, the person can indeed learn to address and manage conflict – particularly when they come to understand that everyone in the interaction tends to better off by having a different set of responses.