Why do we avoid conflict? We fear loss of control. When we can’t control a situation, we have far less ability to predict whether we will get what we need out of that situation. Also, when we have a need and recognize that our need might interfere with another person’s need, expressing our need could very well result in all kinds of responses we do not want to invite. At the lowest end of troubling responses is simply “no, I am not going to meet that need.” At higher ends of troubling responses we might find things like, “I can’t believe you thought it was okay to ask me to do that for you,” or sometimes just as bad or worse, we hear, “your need is so unimportant to me, I am not even going to respond.” Here’s the really tricky part, and we all have this problem—when we hear those kinds of responses, we sometimes learn later that we were just plain wrong, and the other person didn’t say anything of the kind. Why do we have such strong tendencies to misinterpret things during conflict? For the same reason we avoid conflict in general: we fear loss of control, which often translates to feelings of considerable insecurity and vulnerability. When we feel exposed and vulnerable, we often hear anything other than “of course I will be glad to meet that need” as rejection or hostility or both. This is especially true when patterns of conflict engagement over time cause us to be use defensive coping skills while we have conflict with others.
If I am right here about all the trouble that can come from conflict, it makes sense for people to avoid conflict wherever possible. Okay, I can get behind that. We should avoid conflict whenever we can meet our needs just as well without conflict. That’s not usually the problem though. There are not that many people that actually want to have conflict in their lives (and I didn’t say there are none). Most people do a good job avoiding conflict when it isn’t necessary. The problem is that most people do avoid conflict when they should not avoid it, with all kinds of pretty bad consequences, including actually increasing the level of hostility during the conflicts they can’t somehow manage to avoid.
There are two basic fear we have when we confront conflict:
1) we will not get what we think we need, which will make us feel bad somehow; and
2) the other person will respond to our need in a way that affect us and the relationship we have with that person.
In both cases, there is almost always more at stake then the actual immediate need we are trying to meet in the potentially conflictual situation. We also have the need to have our needs respected and understood and to have stability, reliability and connectedness in our relationships. The more important the relationship, the more desperately we want to have our needs respected and the more fear we have that conflict will disrupt the stability and connectedness we feel with the other person. This is part of why we get into arguments and sometimes say things to our partner or other family members that we cannot imagine saying to someone at work (especially our boss, even though we might have felt like it). It’s not only because at home we can’t get fired (because we can); it’s because the relationships we have with those at home carry much more powerful underlying emotional consequences for us if they lose their stability and connectedness due to conflict.
Think about finances. If you ever deal with any kind of finances at work, it’s probably fairly hard to imagine it causing the kind of conflict it might cause at home. Suppose you need to spend company money on something you know will help you do your job better (e.g. a new laptop). Your boss hears your argument, maybe even pretends or actually does try to get it into a new budget, but then comes back and says no, it’s not possible right now. You might feel irritated, like it’s a pattern with that company, or that your boss is kind of lame. Not that big of a deal, right? Now you are at home, same issue. You want a new laptop to get a bunch of creative stuff done, books, web stuff, home business, whatever it is, pretend it is important. You go to your spouse, partner, parent, whomever decides such things with you. They say no. They say there are other things we need to spend money on—a new garage door opener, a clothes dryer, food, etc. Not unreasonable perhaps, but at some level, no is no, and it doesn’t feel very good. There is a good chance that, in addition to accepting the answer, there are other feelings that go with it like a much more deeply seated sense of betrayal, dismissiveness, or resentment. Not necessarily, but likely. Again, this is because we are not only concerned about getting what we need in the moment (the laptop) but because at home we have other longer-term needs we don’t have at work which have little to do with the immediate need we are seeking (wanting to be loved, to be a priority, to be appreciated in a deeper way, more uniquely important, etc.).
When we seek to have our needs met, especially in an emotionally intimate relationship like with a family member or partner, we are always increasing our vulnerability, no matter how confident we might be in the other person’s response, so we can tend to become defensive, even when it seems from the outside there isn’t any reason to be defensive.
The most extreme level of defensiveness might be not asking at all. I’ll use a kind of funny kinetic analogy to demonstrate. If you hold your hand out in front of you to another person, they can slap it down. Even if you don’t think they will, even if slapping it down seems almost unthinkable, while your hand is out in front of you, it can be slapped down. That is a kind of vulnerability. One way to avoid that kind of vulnerability is to keep your hands to your side, or better yet, clasp them behind your back. This is where the analogy looks like serious conflict avoidance.
I’ve been describing conflict in overly simplistic ways to get started toward a basic understanding of why we avoid conflict. I’ve tried to explain that there are actually many layers of needs we might have going on when we enter into conflict. Those layers of needs include what we are saying we need right now, but also include what we need but are not saying we need. So far, I’ve only given the example of saying “I need (something)” and they say “yes,” “no,” or “I don’t care….” We know better though. We know that real conflict almost never ends there. Because after they say anything other than yes (which is actually pretty often it turns out), we have something else to say, like “why not,” or “too bad,” or “okay” (but we might say “okay” with a tone they know means this isn’t over yet). And then they say something and we say something, and so on and on and on. And even worse, no matter what happens after all of that, much of the time after things settle down, there’s still the conflict that there was, which means it never got resolved, is simmering, and is just waiting for the next time it comes up.
Once again, we have all kinds of reasons to avoid conflict: so many things can go wrong, and it doesn’t seem to ever end! This is precisely what people do then, they do their level best to avoid conflict at all costs, either in all cases, or with some people, or with some issues, because they have decided either consciously or unconsciously that there is no point in engaging in the conflict—no good will come of it. Sometimes they are probably right. Mostly, though, they are wrong, and worse, their fear of engaging in necessary conflicts will only continue the conflict indefinitely and allow the conflict to cause all kinds of problems it would not have caused if it had been addressed earlier.
Let’s put it this way, conflict avoidance is often a myth, especially in family or intimate relationships. It is an illusion. There is no such thing as conflict avoidance. There is only conflict postponement or conflict reduction. When we avoid necessary conflict, it doesn’t actually go away, it just goes underground, it simmers, it waits, only to flair up again, usually with much more energy than it had the last time. Part of this is in the nature of conflict itself and part of it is in the nature of what we do to avoid conflict.
One of the most common methods of conflict avoidance is passive aggressiveness. Passive aggressive behavior includes any and all things people do to somehow urgently communicate a need without actually expressing it directly. Think of the different things we do to each other to get a point across without saying a single word, things like rolling our eyes, glaring, crossing our arms, the silent treatment, rolling over in bed with a bit of “extra gusto” when our partner reaches over for us, the overly enthusiastic assurance that everything is “fine.” These and many other nonverbal cues are ways we tell each other, “there’s a conflict here, whether you want to see it or not, and it isn’t going away until you recognize and meet my needs.” Seems silly and funny when you look at it from a distance, but it stinks to have to deal with it up close regardless of which side of it you are on, and especially if it happens often. It can actually destroy what might otherwise be a fairly healthy relationship.
Passive aggressive behavior is an attempt to state a need likely to cause a conflict without having to take the responsibility for having the need, stating the need, or causing the conflict. We are in essence telling someone, “you should do this thing, and you should do it without needing me to tell you to do it (you should be able to guess what I want from you), and if you don’t there will be a problem.” The benefit of it this approach is not just that it avoids conflict; it avoids the disappointment or pain we might feel if the answer is no. I actually think even these two reasons do not adequately explain the frequency of passive aggressive behavior or the lengths people will go to preserve their posture in it (how long people can keep up the silent treatment). Passive aggressive behavior allows us to demand some kind of need, while avoiding having to face the possibility that what we are asking for might actually not be okay. If we didn’t ask, then we don’t have to take responsibility for that need. See what I mean? Still conflict there, but it’s just not getting worked out.
Conflict avoidance results in resentments, destructive patterns of interaction that become even more engrained. If conflict avoidance goes on too long and in too many ways, it can destroy the fabric of a relationship by destroying trust in the ability to get our needs met while also meeting the needs of others. When we become resigned to not being able to resolve even the most basic conflicts, we seek those needs elsewhere, and the importance of the relationship diminishes in serious ways. This is often the status when couples come to me for therapy, in a last-ditch attempt to save the relationship.
The way to avoid these patterns is to stop trying to avoid conflict when conflict is necessary to resolve issues that won’t be resolved any other way. A client once asked me if their marriage therapy should be measured by seeing if there is less fighting. I said I didn’t think so. The measurement should be whether their arguments were actually helping them solve problems. Conflicts need to be able to be resolved, before couples in any situation can believe the relationship can be saved. Then they can actually stop fearing conflicts in the ways they have in the past.
With so much at stake when conflict goes bad, it makes sense that we avoid conflict whenever we can. It doesn’t make sense to avoid conflict when avoidance actually makes things worse, or when our needs are really important and avoiding conflict keeps us stuck in a place that is unacceptable. If a person needs to have space in their lives to try something new and important (go back to school, switch jobs, have a free night each week to hang out with friends), but they don’t ask their partner for this, they may avoid conflict in the short term, but they may also be inviting damage to their own sense of self-worth and inviting resentment against their partner for their inability to have what the space they need to grow (even though their partner doesn’t know what’s wrong because they didn’t ask).
With so much at stake in figuring how to have conflict which is both necessary and can achieve resolution satisfactory for everyone involved, it is important to think about what it would take to feel good about having conflict when it is necessary. That leaves us with the next blog, where we will pick apart how to have conflict without the need for hostility. And no matter what kind of hostility might be involved in a conflict (short of physical or verbal abuse), how to have conflict that actually achieves the result of resolving underlying issues that leaves everyone feeling heard, important, and safe.
Copyright, 2011, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.