Running Away from Conflict

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Sally Connolly, LCSW, LMFT has been a therapist for over 30 years, specializing in work with couples, families and relationships. She has expertise with clients ...Read More

Have you ever felt a powerful urge to leave the room the moment a disagreement begins to heat up? If the thought of confrontation makes you want to find the nearest exit, know that you are far from alone. Many of us experience a strong aversion to conflict, preferring to avoid it at all costs rather than face the discomfort head-on. This reaction is not only common but also deeply human, reflecting a natural desire to protect ourselves from emotional distress.

The purpose of this discussion is not to criticize this instinct but to acknowledge and understand it. By doing so, we aim to provide you with the necessary tools to manage these impulses effectively. Our goal is to help you navigate through the turbulent waters of conflict with greater ease, enabling you to engage in meaningful dialogues that lead to resolution and growth. We understand that diving into disputes can be daunting, but with the right strategies, it’s possible to transform these moments into opportunities for strengthening relationships and fostering deeper understanding.


Conflict Avoidance

Do you immediately want to run away when your partner disagrees with you or makes a complaint?

Do you feel like nothing ever gets resolved between you and your spouse?

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If so, you are not alone. Many people have problems with conflict and will avoid disagreements at all costs.

Sandy felt like she could never get Jim to sit down and talk through a problem with her. Whenever she disagreed with him, he would run away from conversations. Heaven forbid that she would ever want to talk about their relationship!

Ellen grew up in a home where there was a lot of fighting. Any time that Bill raised his voice, or she thought he raised his voice, she would cry and become very upset. Bill was really frustrated because he thought that they were never able to get through any discussions and reach decisions.

While fighting is usually not good, NEVER talking things through and resolving differences is also unhealthy for relationships. When couples don’t resolve issues, when one or both of them have the conflict avoidant style, they are more likely to grow distant from each other as they each feel frustrated, hurt and disappointed.

Men are more likely then women to run away from conflict; however, many women also become flooded with conflict and are prone to struggle with how to remain in difficult conversations in calm and productive ways.

Some people directly refuse to discuss an issue and will use comments like “You are being unreasonable and I refuse to talk with you about this” or “We never get anywhere when we argue and I am not going to talk anymore.”

Other people might actually leave the room or leave the conversation emotionally and it is clear that the conversation is one-sided. Still others might agree in the moment but then act in just the opposite way. Avoiding a lengthy give-and-take conversation does not lead to “buying in” to a decision.

Those who have the conflict avoidant style also need to learn the skill of soothing themselves whenever they are flooded. I shared some of those techniques in my last blog entry, “Discover Ways to Stay Calm and Remain In Difficult Discussions”. Those same strategies will work when you are flooded and your style tends to run away from conflict.

Understanding the impulse to step back from conflict requires exploring the psychological foundations that underlie this tendency. This inclination, while common, is deeply woven into the fabric of our psychological make-up, influenced by an array of factors ranging from early childhood experiences to innate personality traits. It’s a complex interplay of learned behaviors and emotional responses that dictate how we handle confrontation.

Decoding the Desire to Withdraw

The field of psychology provides clear insights into the variance in individuals’ responses to conflict. Not everyone faces disagreements with the same strategy; while some might confront issues head-on, others perceive them as threats, leading to a flight response. This disparity is not arbitrary but has been substantiated by numerous studies. For instance, research into conflict styles and personality types has demonstrated a correlation between certain traits and conflict avoidance. Such studies validate the notion that reactions to conflict are not one-size-fits-all but are instead deeply personal and rooted in one’s psychological profile.

Further deepening this exploration, the theory of attachment styles offers a compelling lens through which to view our conflict navigation strategies. Originating from the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, attachment theory posits that the bonds formed in early childhood with primary caregivers set the stage for how individuals approach relationships and conflicts later in life. Those with secure attachment styles tend to face conflicts with a sense of security and openness, believing in their ability to resolve disputes through communication. Conversely, individuals with avoidant or anxious attachment styles may find conflicts more challenging, often leading to withdrawal or heightened emotional turmoil.

This psychological framework not only helps us understand the roots of our conflict avoidance but also emphasizes the diversity of human responses to such situations. By acknowledging the profound impact of psychological factors and attachment styles on our approach to conflict, we can begin to craft more compassionate and tailored strategies for managing disagreements, fostering healthier relationships, and promoting constructive dialogue.

Supporting Spouses 

Here are some suggestions for spouses who want to support their partner in hanging in during disagreements.

  1. Start any complaint or relationship discussion in a soft way. The more friendly you are, the more likely it is that your partner will hang in there with you during the disagreement. Some examples of “soft beginnings” are:

“I really like it when … (we work together cleaning the house, you pick up after yourself, you let me know when you are going to be late) and I wish we/you could do that more often.”

“I love you and I am not sure how to say this in a nice way, and yet, it is important for me to tell you how I feel about this decision.”

“I feel differently about this issue, and yet, I am sure if we keep talking, we can find a solution that we both can live with. Here are my ideas.”

  1. If you notice that your partner is getting flooded, offer a time out in a friendly way. Rather than pointing out that he or she can’t “handle the fire“, say instead something like this: “I know that this is a tough conversation and maybe we should take a break and think about it. Can we talk again after dinner?”
  2. Look for a neutral time, whenever possible, to begin a difficult discussion. Sharing a laundry list of complaints is never good in the heat of an argument. Right after work, when your partner is involved with a project, or at the end of the day may not be good times either. You are much more likely to have a successful discussion if you find a time that is more relaxed and you are both in a good space.
  3. Give your partner the benefit of the doubt. Believe in your partner and your relationship and make sure to keep that in your mind when you talk with him or her.

Most people are not “out to get” their partner and, while they may not be saying things lovingly, merely have an interest in a difference. Respect your partner and the difference. Carefully consider their perspective as well as your own.

Keep Reading By Author Sally Connolly, LCSW, LMFT
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