Most couples coming into therapy identify “communication” as the main issue that caused them to call. We’re so used to the word that we forget what a complicated and fragile thing communication is. Because so many factors create communication, there are just as many factors that can break it down. Communication can break down over finances, intimacy, parenting, household duties, or any number of issues. For most couples, though, communication often breaks down in some fairly predictable ways which means that important factors in helping a couple change have less to do with their specific issue and more to do with the couple’s pattern of communication.

Frosted Leaves on IceAt it’s most basic level, communication is the process of conveying and interpreting thoughts and feelings. So, in a relationship, this means that two sets of internal ideas are brought into the open to be negotiated. After a while, articulating feelings, interpreting meanings and negotiating an understanding about all the matters relevant to the day-to-day living of a couple can get pretty complicated. We’re certain to run into conflict at some point in a relationship. Over the course of time, these conflicts can become a source of trouble.

Most couples who come in for couples counseling have come to a point where one or both of the partners has decided it is easier, maybe less complicated, to avoid conflict than to approach it. They are aware that to “go there” with their partner will likely cause conflict in the relationship, so they choose to go along with their partner rather than risking a potential fight about it. Believe it or not though, conflict avoidance by one or both partners in a relationship tends to be one of the most common causes of communication issues for couples.

Conflict Avoidance

Ice Forming on LakeIn most cases, people choose to avoid conflict for noble reasons. It seems right to be selfless, even sacrificial, for their partner and to put their partner’s needs before their own. After all, we are taught it is better to give than to receive. In general, folks often believe putting their partner first is the easiest and right way to keep peace in the relationship. Avoiding conflict can seem like the best approach, but conflict avoidance comes with some sneaky, difficult to assess costs that can add up over time and jeopardize rather than strengthen the relationship.

Take for instance a made-up couple, Ken and Sue: Ken rarely likes to go out to eat and when he does he likes to go to a certain restaurant he calls his “favorite greasy spoon.” Sue on the other hand would love to go out to eat often, but would never ever choose Ken’s favorite greasy spoon. So, when Ken surprises Sue with an invitation to go out to eat on a Friday night after a long week Sue is excited and tells him she would love to. Ken asks where she would like to go and Sue tells him, “It doesn’t matter to me at all. You choose. Anywhere will be fine.” When Ken suggests they go to his favorite greasy spoon, Sue replies with a disheartened, “Sure, that’d be great.” Sue doesn’t want to argue with Ken and besides she is just happy to be going out. After all it is his favorite place to go and she likes to see him happy. Sue believes not arguing and getting to go out is better than fighting over where to eat.

Bare Feet on SnowKen and Sue would be fine if this were an isolated incident. If Sue were appeasing Ken this once then it would truly be a sacrificial, selfless act of generosity. But if this is not an isolated incident, if it is more like a pattern where Sue tends to usually go along with Ken and agree to do something she doesn’t really want to do, then this is conflict avoidance.

In a conflict avoidant pattern, Sue would not be choosing to appease Ken, instead she would actually feel that she had to appease Ken. She would believe that going along with Ken would be her only real option unless she risked the possibility of conflict. Over time, conflict avoidance is taxing to a relationship and causes predictable difficulties.

In part two of this series, we’ll take a look at the mechanics and hidden effects of avoiding conflict in marriage.

Read Don’t Let Conflict Harm Your Relationship, Part 2.

Watch the TEDx Talk about Avoiding Conflict in a Relationship


If you believe that you and your partner would benefit from sessions of direct counseling on this issue and you live in the Grand Rapids area, contact The Grand Rapids Therapy Group today to set up an appointment with Dr. Thornsen.

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