On Being Conflict Avoidant

Why is it that being conflict avoidant works quite well for some, and spells disaster for others?

Len and I typically dealt with conflict by retreating into silence. Both of us grew up in homes in which voices were rarely raised. Perhaps intuitively we knew how threatening short-tempered or critical comments would feel. When we withdrew, I think we were able to mull over and better define what was at stake, and avoid impetuous hurtful remarks which would be difficult to forget.

Then, soon the yearning to once again be close drew us into intimate talk. Important questions were asked with each of us becoming better known to the other. Compromise, or even yielding completely, became a gift of sorts. And by the time one of us reached out with a tentative touch, the steam of resentment or anger had escaped.

But here’s the twist: With many divorcing couples, their story begins in the very same way.

On the day first day I meet with a mediating pair, I talk with each of them alone and ask how they resolved disputes during their marriage. Frequently both partners say that they hardly ever dealt with differences as they arose. Disputes were pushed aside and either ignored or only brought up in passing, perhaps as one or the other was walking out of a room. But for them, resentments were stored away for far too long. Important questions were not asked. The steam did not escape.

Another twist: When I press further with clients about how issues finally did get resolved, very often both parties describe themselves as always being the one to give in. In private, the thought each voices is: I just went along to get along.

How can this possibly be the reality? Yet, I think the perception is sincerely expressed. By the time they are planning a future apart and their conflicts have taken over center stage, each believes they accommodated to the others’ wishes or demands. Now they look back and regret having been submissive, not seeing this as proof of love, but as a restraint on their authenticity, their true identity. And for some, in the days, weeks or months of conflict avoidance, with only polite or mundane exchanges at home, a more sympathetic ear is found, away from home.

What of those whose childhood experiences are completely different, one raised in a home in which disputes were freely aired, the other home devoid of confrontation? Do they have a particularly difficult time reaching a level of comfort when dealing with discord? Is this something discovered before a commitment is made? Talked over? No doubt it should be.

Oddly, even in relationships that work, both partners often perceive themselves as having been the most accommodating to the others’ wishes. Are these the moments we most remember, when we submerged our own desires, forgetting when the gift of compromise or victory was received? And, when we gave in and just went along, did our loved one always know?

Many divorcing or troubled partners speak of having slowly and silently drifted apart, avoiding difficult conversations. So, it would seem conflict avoidance can be a prelude to a sweet reconnection, for those who timely attend to each others’ need to be better known, but erode such possibilities when conflicts are too long ignored.