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The Impact of Conflict Avoidance on Relationships

A  man and woman in a doorway with a cardboard box over their head.
Avoiding Conflict is more detrimental to a relationship than engaging in conflict.

In all romantic relationships, compromise and change are necessary. However, avoiding conflict constantly can harm intimacy and connection. Many people think that a healthy relationship has very little conflict. They believe that being agreeable, cooperating, and solving problems effectively are signs of a good relationship. Conflict brings tension, unease, and stress, while resolution brings calmness. Because of this, many people choose conflict avoidance.

People can create a simple dichotomy: they prefer avoiding conflict because it creates tension and discord, whereas maintaining agreement maintains calm. While compromise, giving in, and prioritizing your partner’s needs are important in a relationship, doing it constantly can slowly wear down the individual and eventually destroy the relationship.

Those realities lead many to conclude they should avoid conflict at all costs. A simple dichotomy emerges: relationship conflict hurts and so it is to be avoided and agreement feels good so keep the equilibrium at all costs.

While being in a relationship requires compromise, giving in, and putting your own needs aside for your spouse or partner, if it occurs chronically, it can slowly chip away at the individual and eventually erode the relationship.

Relationship Conflict and Relationship Satisfaction are Unrelated

Now, here’s where it gets interesting: research tells us there is no direct correlation between relationship conflict and satisfaction. Instead, some couples always seem to be ‘going at it’ and report relationship satisfaction and certain of their partner’s love. And some adept at avoiding conflict grow distant and unsure of their relationship.

So, what’s going on?

Simply put: the conflict-avoiders lose connection with each other. Not engaging in battle signals indifference and lack of engagement. Emotionally translated, it conveys, “I don’t value you enough to fight with you. What you say has no effect on me. I don’t care enough to fight with you or for us.” Indifference is a serious relationship killer, not conflict.

It helps to reframe conflict as being engaged. Couples form and maintain an intimate bond through engagement in two areas: emotional engagement and sexual engagement. Arguing engages emotions. This emotional engagement - so critical to bonding and attachment - includes fighting. It’s a way of saying to your partner, “You and your thoughts and opinions matter to me. I care about how this affects you. I will engage in battle in order to sort this out with you. Engaging, even through arguing, signifies regard.

Relationship strife provides an opportunity to deepen intimacy. When your partner gets angry or upset you can see what's important to them and learn more about what prompted that response. After things calm down it's encouraged to further process what happened. One way to explore further could be, "I see by your response, that that matter is very important to you. Can you help me understand what it was about that that provoked such a powerful response in you?" The aim would be to help one another increase insight, and awareness and learn more about one another. Not to list those things to avoid, but rather to deepen understanding of each other's inner world. Feeling understood will bring you closer.

Research gives us even more specific insight into relationship discord. While it’s true that conflicts, tension, arguments, and disagreements are unavoidable in a romantic relationship, a key factor separates those couples where arguments take their toll on the relationship and those who grow closer because of the conflict. It isn't the resolution of the conflict that’s most important but protecting the connection.

In fact, the skill set that separates couples whose relationship suffers because of conflict from those who are more resilient to conflict is their ability to repair the emotional pain and disconnect that results from the conflict. Most couples focus on the direct issues and the ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ that caused the conflict. But the more adept and emotionally astute couples focus less on the remedy to the issue and more on restoring their emotional connection damaged during the battle. The solution to the problem is in the background and their relationship and each other are at center stage. In an intimate relationship, relationship repair is critical and not problem-solving.



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