When I ask couples what brought them to therapy during their first session, they often say they’re seeking therapy due to ongoing conflict. Ironically, couples with the most conflict can often be the most conflict-avoidant. Approaching relationships with the idea that “healthiness” equals “no conflict” sets us up for disappointment, and contributes to ineffective communication strategies.
Especially if we grow up in a household with frequent arguing, we tend to avoid conflict at all costs. We associate conflict with yelling, insults, maybe even violence. This upbringing can cause us to shy away from voicing our true thoughts for fear of making things worse. Therefore, when a partner annoys us or hurts our feelings, we tend to keep it to ourselves.
Conflict is easily cast into a binary of “right” or “wrong,” with partners feeling like the “right” thing to say prevents conflict, and the “wrong” thing causes it. The trouble with this approach is that it assumes a conflict-free relationship is possible. The reality is that relationships always have conflict, and feeling disappointment is part of being human. None of us is perfect, and no matter how hard we try, eventually we'll be disappoint someone we love. Our job becomes accepting conflict as part of a healthy relationship, and embracing it, rather than avoiding it entirely.
I often remind couples that conflict is unavoidable. Our only choice is whether to address it in the moment when its smaller, or whether we push it down, hiding it until it grows into something much bigger - where suddenly a request to change the channel becomes an existential threat because it spirals into an argument about one partner feeling constantly dismissed by the other.
Conflict-avoidance can have many origins. Sometimes it results from abandonment. Sometimes it’s lack of parental attunement - your parents may have been too preoccupied with their own conflicts to meet your needs, so you learned to suppress them. However it began, working with a therapist can help you begin to identify your emotional needs, so that you are better able to express them to your partner.
Couples therapy can help provide the space to experience conflict safely, so that you gain confidence in managing it in your relationships.