I find it’s pretty easy to avoid conflict. I kind of stockpile the issues until it gets really big and then I feel like I’m ready to talk. But the irony is: that’s actually when I’m least ready to talk. As soon as I open my mouth I know it’s not going to go well. So if avoiding conflict and bottling everything up until I burst isn’t the answer, is there a better way of approaching conflict?
We have an intriguing topic for you this week. Today we’re going to be looking at one of those things we are all doing wrong in marriage: avoiding conflict.
I know that sometimes I find myself cataloging a list of issues I want to bring up with my wife. And then I kind of realize this is going to come out as way too much at once. It’s like we villainize the other person and adopt this belief that they won’t hear us unless we have a really exhaustive list of how bad they are. Or like we have to build up a comprehensive “case” against them, rather than just addressing each small thing as it arises, or our points will be rejected as being too “small” or “petty”.
Avoiding Conflict Leads to More Conflict
I want to start by asking you to consider whether you might have an avoidance orientation in your relationship.
An avoidance orientation just means that you attempt to avoid conflict during conversations. A study from 2015 observed that couples who have this style of relationship often experience “communication difficulties and the perpetuation of avoidance ”
They studied 365 couples and found that if you’re more avoidant, you’ll be more reactive to your spouse’s negative behavior. So avoidant spouses are more likely to explode when they are having difficult discussions because they’ve been bottling up issues and resentments for so long that eventually the dam just bursts and it all pours forth.
So basically if you think that avoiding tough topics and just keeping things calm is a good idea, the research shows- and your experience probably resonates with this- that avoiding these issues actually leads to less productive discussions when you actually start talking about what matters. As we said in an earlier podcast episode: talk about it sooner before it’s a big deal.
Crucially, the study found that this was independent of relationship satisfaction and neuroticism. This is important to note— firstly because it doesn’t matter about how good or how poor your marriage is, avoidance is still not helpful. Secondly, when they say it is independent of neuroticism they are saying this is not about one spouse being a nutcase. This is not one person’s fault. It’s simply a matter of a technique that you’re using in your marriage that just doesn’t work.
Of course, I get why we do this. We want to keep the peace. We don’t want to upset our spouse. We don’t want to rock the boat. We say things like, “Happy wife, happy life” and if that means keep silent and don’t complain, that’s what we do. Does that sound like a God-filled marriage?
All over the Bible we are told both to forgive and to exhort each other. In Ephesians we are told to speak the truth in love. In Colossians we are told to teach and admonish one another in all wisdom. Gary Thomas talks about this in his book, Sacred Marriage, and he points out that the purpose of marriage is to make us holy, not make us happy. When we avoid topics we need to be talking about, we are thwarting one of the purposes of marriage: personal growth and sanctification.
Conflict isn’t fun. But: it leads to forgiveness, where avoidance does not. And, if done in the right way, it leads both you and your spouse closer God’s ideal view of your marriage.
Why Do Couples Avoid Conflict?
Before we go to the “how to” of stopping this bottling up of stuff in our marriages, let’s take a look at why we avoid conflict in our marriages.
There’s a number of reasons why we do this. Research has shown that:
- Poor marital satisfaction (not being happy and almost preferring to keep evidence rather than challenge the status quo)
- Depression (why bother — defeating thoughts, self-worth is diminished so we don’t assert on behalf of our needs)
- Relational uncertainty (I might lose him/her)
- Generalized anxiety (continuing to fret or worry over issues rather than address them)
A study from 2000 looked, for example, at the relationship between depression, marital satisfaction and couple’s use of avoidance and attacking conflict resolution strategies. They found that depressive symptoms were significant predictors of avoidance in both husbands and wives. And they found that poor marital satisfaction was a significant predictor of avoidance in husbands. I think the latter is likely due to the fact that in most distressed marriages (though not all) the most common husband-wife pattern is withdraw-attack and the withdraw of course looks like avoidance.
On the anxiety and uncertainty side of things another study looked at couples reuniting after military deployment. The returning service members described issued they avoided discussing upon reunion and over the first three months of homecoming. The researchers found that when generalized anxiety was present the service member would be willing to discuss deployment but was more likely to be reluctant to talk about reintegration issues and the couple’s relationship. In other words, it kept them from discussing what matters here and now in the present — what was going on in their relationship today.
They also noted that individuals who experienced more relational uncertainty reported more topic avoidance. If you think your relationship is in danger, better to keep quiet about issues that are bothering you then risk everything by having a serious argument or uncovering a major difference in opinion. Ironically though this belief that avoiding conflict helps secure the relationship would probably make things less secure— if you’re afraid to broach issues then you’ll never grow as a couple and you’ll spend a lot of time feeling like you’re walking on very thin ice— one wrong word and it could all be over.
Again: let’s not be hard on folks here. When you’re not certain, you don’t want to make things worse, right? I get that. But the challenge here is that the desire to not make things worse leads to not addressing what needs addressing, which keeps things worse. To be blunt: what you’re trying to do to save your marriage is not working.
And I know what you’re thinking: “Well, last time we tried to talk about it just got worse and I was on the couch for like three weeks”.
What I suggest is this. Not talking about it is not working. Talking about it is not working. So let’s change how you talk about it. And to do that, let’s change how you look at these issues.
How To Move Forward When You Want to Avoid Conflict
I think it’s really helpful here to look at the issues we face in marriage in terms of what Dr. John Gottman calls solvable and perpetual conflict.
Solvable conflict is conflict that can be resolved through positive problem solving styles. In other words, you just need certain skills in order to successfully solve these issues. And anyone can learn skills. We teach these skills, by the way, in our Talk To Me 101 course. It’s only $97 and will be a huge help to your marriage if you just need these basic skills. You can learn more about that course at talktome101.com
Perpetual conflict refers to problems that cannot be solved. These occur when there are fundamental differences in values, assumptions and dreams. For example, you dream of dying with your boots on running a cattle ranch and your wife wants to spend your golden years by the lake, just being quiet and enjoying friends away from the pressure of having cattle around. Significantly different religious beliefs can also be a source of perpetual conflict .
So perpetual conflict is a really tough one because, ultimately, you cannot solve the problem. So you need to look beyond finding a “solution”. What I want you to know is that we’ve created a practical exercise in PDF form that is available to our much-appreciated supporters and patrons of our podcast. Downloading and using this exercise will teach you how to peacefully dialog about these perpetual conflict issues. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
The thing to note here is that solvable vs. perpetual is not about how long you’ve fought over it. You may feel that all of your issues are perpetual because you’ve been fighting about them forever. But perpetual conflict is defined by fundamental differences in values, assumptions and dreams. Not about how long you’ve struggled to solve the issue.
So don’t be too quick to drop everything into the perpetual bucket and throw your hands up in the air.
The second thing to note is not only do you have to get things into the right bucket, but you come at each of the two things differently.
Address Solvable Conflict
For solvable conflict you want to use positive problem solving. There was this really neat study in 2014 by Scheeren et al. Basically they looked at conflict and said, OK, there are two ways to come at it. One is an attacking conflict style and the other is a positive problem solving style. Not surprisingly, they found that for both men and women marital quality increased when positive conflict resolution was used. So I’m going to tell you right now what works.
Positive conflict resolution looks like this:
- Avoiding personal attacks, insults and loss of control
- Focusing on the problem, constructively discussing differences, and establishing agreements
- Finding acceptable alternatives for both spouse, negotiating and compromising
So that is how you come at solvable conflict. We look at this in a bit more detail in our podcast about collaborative conflict style. Use skills, find a positive outcome, look to build each other up and be willing to compromise. Focus on the problem at hand rather than scoring points with your laundry list of previous offences and work on actually resolving the issue instead of just venting or getting angry.
Address Perpetual Conflict
Every marriage has some level of perpetual conflict. Things you never agree on. We have this in our marriage.
What matters in this situation is not whether these issues exist or not — because they do for everyone — but how you deal with them. How is most important and you need to learn to deal with these issues constructively.
So: given that they are perpetual, know that solving them is not the goal. The goal is to “find a way to go on as a couple” . “As a couple” being the key words there.
You’re looking for ways to dialogue about your different subjective realities and turn away from attempts at solutions. Trying to find solutions is just going to leave you stuck all the time because there is no solution. Instead, it becomes about how you can honor these differences and continue to get along.
Just remember the point is to find a way to go on as a couple. How can we honor the differences that can’t be resolved, and then also acknowledge as much of what we do share as possible.
Avoidance is one of these totally understandable behaviors that couples can get caught up in while thinking they’re doing things right— putting off their own concerns and frustrations for the good of the marriage. But avoiding conflict does not lead to a deeply connected, satisfying, Godly marriage. Look at God’s perfect image of marriage in Christ and the church- are there many examples of times Jesus didn’t bring something up just to keep the peace?
Maybe you know that avoiding the issue isn’t working. Or maybe not: perhaps you recognize that your arguments aren’t constructive but you think they’d be even worse if you didn’t avoid conflict some of the time. The fact is, research shows that avoiding conflict isn’t the way. You need to find a better way of addressing your problems- using constructive, healthy conflict resolution on the things you can change and addressing and reconciling with those that you can’t.
Remember that you’re coming at conflict from a place of loving your spouse and wanting to support them and help them grow. And remember that you love each other no matter what, so if your spouse says something that stings a little, or if things boil over into real argument then you can always find a way to reconcile because your love for each other goes above and beyond this kind of conflict.
 Kuster et al., “Avoidance Orientation and the Escalation of Negative Communication in Intimate Relationships.”
 Marchand and Hock, “Avoidance and Attacking Conflict-Resolution Strategies among Married Couples.”
 Knobloch et al., “Generalized Anxiety and Relational Uncertainty as Predictors of Topic Avoidance During Reintegration Following Military Deployment.”
 Henderson et al., “Change, Choice, and Home.”
 Scheeren et al., “Marital Quality and Attachment.”
 Migerode, “The No Conclusion Intervention for Couples in Conflict.”