The Myth of Avoiding Conflict

The recent scandal involving Elliot Spitzer brings up once again the way public figures handle private problems.  At times like these, therapists are asked by their friends, clients, and sometimes reporters, why people who live in the public eye behave in ways that, when discovered, bring about their downfall and their family’s humiliation.  While no one can know what goes on in another couple’s relationship, there are some consistencies in why people turn away from their partners and toward a third party.  One of the most common reasons is that a person becomes dissatisfied in some way with the relationship and either cannot or will not resolve that issue within the relationship.  I frequently hear that a client has given up trying because it causes too much conflict with their partner.  It’s just easier to stay quiet and keep the status quo.  The main problem with this tactic is that the concern doesn’t go away, it just goes underground.

The status quo does change.  It is, however, an internal change which finds a way out in the person’s behavior.  It is like the Steve McQueen movie “The Blob” when the people lock themselves in the movie theater to escape the thing that absorbs everyone in its path.  The Blob finds a way into the theater by oozing under the doors and through the air vents and gets to the people anyway.  A person’s emotions find their way out in a very similar vein.  It is not a direct and upfront approach but one that is more subtle and often backhanded.  The conflict is still there but remains unresolved because it has become illusive and hard to pin down.  It becomes like a small leak in the roof which, if not repaired, will cause the house to rot from the walls out.

Avoidance for now

Charlie and Alice have been married for ten years.  Alice has a fifteen year old daughter and they have a three year old son together.  Finances, her daughter, and Charlie’s inappropriate relationship on the internet with another woman brought them to my office.  Alice is frustrated because the only time they seem to deal with these problems is when she forces the issue.  Charlie gets defensive and argumentative, which then leads Alice to lose her temper.  The fight escalates until one leaves the house and the subject is dropped until the next time Alice gets frustrated.  They both report they get along pretty well between these fights.  When I asked why they don’t pick a time to address the issue when both are calm and can have a rational discussion, they both stated they want to avoid a conflict when things are going okay.  I asked if they are both still bothered by the problems even when not actively addressing them and they said yes.  They also stated that the period between fights is getting less and less.  They both seemed surprised when I stated that they really aren’t successfully avoiding the conflict at all.  They are just avoiding the conflict “for now”.

Sooner rather than later

Charlie and Alice remind me of people who put off going to the doctor because they are afraid the doctor is going to say something is wrong with them.  That approach simply postpones treatment until the problem becomes so bad drastic measures are required.  If the condition is left too long it may be untreatable.  “Avoiding conflict” frequently has the same result.  I have yet to meet anyone who really enjoys dealing with conflict within a relationship.  What I do know is that couples who face their issues head on have a much greater chance of success than couples who put their heads in the sand and hope their differences will magically go away.

Disagreements in a relationship are inevitable but conflict is a choice.  Conflict really is about both people seeing their position as the only valid one and trying to get the other to see it “my way”.  It’s about not wanting to see your partner’s viewpoint because that might involve having to move out of your comfort zone and do something different.  The alternative is to “avoid the issue” and hope to outlast your partner’s desire for something to be different.  If the issue really is unimportant, this tactic may work.  Unfortunately, if the concern is serious, avoiding finding a resolution can, and often is, fatal to the relationship.

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© 2008 Cary Home Times

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