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How Conflict Avoidance Can Harm Relationships

By Edited Jun 9, 2016 1 4
Couple talking
Credit: Oscar Rohena Oscalito on Flickr/CC BY 2.0 with Attribution

In many relationships it is not uncommon for one or both partners to have a tendency to avoid conflict. This is often referred to as "sweeping things under the rug."

Conflict can be frustrating, uncomfortable and, in some instances, maddening. A few people can probably say they enjoy arguing with their partner, but a good percentage probably do not.  Individuals who dislike conflict likely won't seek out an argument with their partner, although it is inevitable there will be some disagreement during the course of any marriage. Sometimes fights can be avoided through quiet compromise with no ill effects, but other times it can not.

That being said, is conflict avoidance the way to go? Or is it better to face the issue to head on? In most cases, it is the latter.  While avoidance of conflict in a partnership is a common occurrence, this can be a thorn which leads to a downward spiral for many couples if it is never addressed. 

Avoidance is Unhealthy for Relationships

Some people deny there is a problem, while others recognize there is an issue but decide not to act on it. As a result of the oft perceived negative feelings commonly associated with conflict, in some instances people feel better by simply avoiding engaging in any kind of verbal disagreement; as a result issues are not dealt with as they arise and resentments can begin to grow. Sometimes to the point where it interferes in the relationship.

Conflict avoidance does not necessarily eliminate conflict because in the end a higher amount of conflict is likely to become the result. According to Smart Marriages, a website that is dedicated marital issues, the top "predictor of divorce" is a consistent avoidance of conflict. 1

Disagreements are Normal 

When the positive aspects of conflict are examined and recognized, it is realized how conflict can actually improve a relationship. It is natural for relationships to experience certain degrees of conflict. When two people spend a lot of time together, some level of disagreement is to be expected and bound to happen. It can even be said if no conflict exists in a committed relationship then something is wrong with communication in the partnership. And with conflict avoidance, this is often the case.  Disagreements are totally normal in any healthy relationship. Discussing these issues that tend to creep up over time increases the level and intimacy of communication.  In this respect, relationships can grow.

So if conflict is so good, why do people avoid it? The word "conflict" is typically associated with a negative connotation, and because of this people think it is a bad thing to occur. Kathy A. Henry, MSW, LCSW, states people tend to be "avoiders" because they want to keep harmony in their relationships. 2

But it typically does not keep harmony.  

ber-antem (fight) is a must in relationship | (c) morningshadow
Credit: Dimaz Fakhruddin on Flickr/CC BY 2.0 with Attribution

Avoidance Can Lead to a Breaking Point

When conflict is buried in an attempt to avoid it, this doesn't mean conflict is not present in the relationship, what it really means is the disparities are not being addressed. Ignoring issues that arise can lead to harm happening in a relationship because at some point the pressure from internalizing upsets will begin to reach its breaking point.

Eventually, at some point, the conflict meter will reach the maximum limit and need a release. The types of release that typically happen if long-term dissent is buried can be pretty explosive. In addition, the internalized anger could result in a lash-out argument with a partner that will undoubtedly come as a surprise, emerge in the form of an infidelity or even lead to depression. Any or all of these results can lead to problems and harm either one of the individuals involved or the relationship itself. It is better to not avoid a fight and keep things out in the open and don't spend time sweeping issues under the proverbial rug.

Healthy Expression of Anger

On the other hand, expressing feelings and any issues that arise can help increase communication, intimacy, understanding and compromise. All of these instances can help a marriage grow and become stronger. Expressing anger does not mean getting verbally or physically abusive, it means sharing feelings, even if they are negative, but in a respective fashion. In other words, fight fair. 3

While suppressing disagreeing opinions and keeping a lid on expressing feelings may avoid immediate conflict in the short term, in the long term the consequences can be disastrous in the future.

"Fighting is normal," states therapist Dana Ward in a Huffington Post article. "While some couples may think fighting is the sign of a bad relationship, it is actually is very important. The key is fighting with a purpose." 4

What "avoiders" don't realize is that conflict is a part of human nature and a natural course of personal interaction. Couples who can strike a balance and weather the good times with the ones that might get a little ugly with the occasional fight, often find in the end they become closer than ever.

Couple in love
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Comments

Dec 18, 2014 10:17pm
Wizardloo
They should not stop at just talking; they should walk the talk. It would be even worse to be in a 'talking relationship.'
Dec 20, 2014 2:50am
LeighGoessl
Hi Wizardloo, thanks for commenting.
In general, I do agree actions speak louder than words (this is a segment on another article I wrote on this topic that focuses on building trust), but I'm not sure I'm following you on this one with "talking relationship"? Do you mean just telling the other person what they think they want them to hear?
Dec 26, 2014 2:27am
Wizardloo
By quoting 'talking relationship,' I meant relationships whereby conflict resolutions fall short of action.
Dec 26, 2014 4:56am
LeighGoessl
Oh I see. Thanks so much for clarifying. Great point.
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Bibliography

  1. "Smart Marriages." Smart Marriages. 19/11/2014 <Web >
  2. "Are You An Avoider?." Family Tree Counseling . 08/12/2013. 19/11/2014 <Web >
  3. "Fighting Fair to Resolve Conflict." University of Texas. 19/11/2014 <Web >
  4. GalTime.com "10 Relationship Behaviors You Think Are Odd That Are Totally Normal." Huffington Post. 25/08/2013. 19/11/2014 <Web >

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