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Sorry to bring you bad news. But what I’ve learned from doing counselling for over 30 years, backed by research from the Gottman Institute, is that constant efforts aimed at avoiding disagreements hurts your relationship. A lot!
The Gottman research has found that “masters” of relationships fight just as much as “disasters” of relationships. They just fight very differently. These “masters” have learnt to have healthy conflict, which means they speak respectfully and moderately about their differences. And if they do slip and end up arguing, they know how to make effective repairs.
Your habitual pattern of conflict avoidance is probably sucking the life (and juice) right out of your relationship. Even though you may’ve been told that too many arguments and disagreements can kill a relationship, conflict is inevitable in every relationship.
The Gottmans have studied over 3,000 couples for over forty years. They’ve found that every couple has conflict. The most common couple conflicts are about money, sex, time, mess and kids. Some also fight about politics, religion and in-laws. That’s the reality of couple life.
Interestingly, studies show that the most common reason why couples develop serious difficulties is that one or both partners withdraw due to feelings of hurt, anger, and resentment.
Because you are two individuals, you have two separate sets of thoughts, feelings, wants, and concerns. So logically it’s impossible to agree on everything all the time. That’s why I teach couples effective communication and conflict management skills.
A word of warning
I’m not talking about a relationship where you feel unsafe or abused. This needs a completely different approach – often requiring exit strategies and safety plans. If you’re having mean and nasty fights with your partner, verbal clashes where one or both of you shows hatred, hostility, contempt, and disrespect; or if your partner is violent, abusive, heavily controlling, accuses you of being crazy, threatens your safety or turns your kids against you in any way, please seek help immediately.
Many couples take pride in striving to avoid conflict and disagreements. They proudly say “we never fight”. But they’re wrong to believe that avoiding conflict is the way to remain happy. Forty years of research shows that what really makes couples happy is learning to have healthy, respectful and moderate conflict and daily, friendly communication.
Conflict avoidant couples must learn that they are stunting their individual development as well as the growth of their relationship by avoiding arguments.
Truth: Avoiding disagreements hurts your relationship
Are you a conflict avoidant couple?
If so, maybe it’s because you don’t like the uncomfortable feelings you get when you speak up. Your brain (and mine) has evolved over millennia so that the first sign of a disagreement sets off signals of threat.
Threat triggers physical responses, like a racing heart, faster breathing, or dry mouth. This is how evolution has wired your brain. It’s the reptilian part of your brain, or the lizard brain, doing what it has evolved to do to keep you safe. All reptiles, mammals and humans have this primitive part of the brain.
But you are not a reptile or a wounded deer on the plains of Africa seeking safety. And your partner is not a dangerous, hungry lion about to get you. Even though one part of your brain is responding as if both of those things are true when you sense a potential disagreement, you can learn to modify this reaction and bring up sensitive issues in skillful ways.
You can learn to use other the parts of your brain, like the Executive Functioning part which thinks, plans and tries to figure things out. Also you can learn to tune into your Social Engagement system, moderating your tone of voice, pace of speech and body language so that you create safety in your interactions with each other.
Don’t avoid sensitive issues or disagreements. You can learn new skills to manage yourself before engaging with your partner. These are called self-soothing skills. Once you’re calmer, you can practice communication skills to turn towards your partner to address problems together, calmly. It takes teamwork to manage emotional pain.
You will lose your voice if you’re avoiding disagreements
If you can’t speak up for yourself respectfully and with integrity, you’ll feel diminished as an individual. Your identity and life will get smaller. Your self-esteem will dwindle. Learning to say “no” and stating your valid perspective are important assertiveness skills we all need to learn.
If you’re frequently avoiding conflict, you’ll also weaken the intimacy, and certainly the passion, in your relationship. If you don’t rock the boat, you’ll get a boring relationship – you’ll be tip-toeing around your partner and feel as if you’re walking on eggshells. Many topics of conversation will be off limits, so you’ll have nothing to talk about apart from practical and “safe” topics. You’ll end up with a disconnected relationship and no real intimacy.
How to stop avoiding disagreements
First, learn that the long-term costs of conflict avoidance far outweigh the short-term benefits. It’s true. Avoiding disagreements hurts your relationship if you do this consistently. In the short-term it does keep you from feeling threatened, afraid, or anxious.
But the long-term cost is that you contract, you shrink. When you stop speaking up and sharing your own thoughts, desires, values, and wishes you stop expanding and growing. Your personal growth as well as your growth as a couple is arrested.
Learning distress tolerance skills to deal with the discomfort that accompanies an argument is vital. I teach you about the many available self-soothing techniques. They help you cope with tension and discomfort without feeling overwhelmed. I teach you to do this before you bring up any sensitive issues.
There are many other things you can try. But start with practicing self-soothing techniques as these will enable you to manage the distress of disagreements, learn to have healthy conflict and keep your relationship vital, growing and happy.
If you need help in learning more about how avoiding disagreements hurts your relationship, call 0421 961 687 or email us to schedule an appointment. International callers should call +61 421 961 687.
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