Article by Irina Baechle, LCSW. Full article can be found at https://psychcentral.com/blog/lessons-from-a-couples-therapist-conflict-avoidance-can-destroy-your-marriage/
Conflict avoidance is one of the biggest topics that keep coming in couples counseling sessions. Holding off conflicts happens when one partner avoids conflicts in order to protect the relationship against another escalation. Sometimes withdrawing or distancing yourself in order to avoid conflicts makes so much sense.
However, this pattern erodes the relationship foundation because if you keep withdrawing from communication, your partner does not feel safe anymore. Moreover, if you keep avoiding conflicts to save the peace in your relationship, you inevitably start a war inside yourself.
How Does Conflict Avoidance Affect Your Marriage?
There is a problem in your marriage and your spouse wants to discuss it with you. His feelings are hurt and he wants to talk about that. However, your partner’s attempts to communicate his feelings over the situation are met with silence on your end. You simply withdraw, refusing to participate in the conversation, saying something like “Oh…whatever…”, “Just leave me alone”, and similar.
When this conflict avoidance becomes a repetitive pattern, it is inevitable for resentment and dissatisfaction to start building up in a relationship.
A communication style where you simply withdraw from communication and stop responding is called stonewalling, according to Dr. John Gottman who’s has researched divorce prediction and marital stability for the last 40 years. This communication style is different from an occasional time out to calm down — stonewalling is total refusal to consider your partner’s perspective.
Dr. Gottman considers stonewalling to be one of the four most harmful behaviors to marriage (the other three include criticism, contempt, and defensiveness): according to his research, stonewalling is the second behavior that predicts divorce with over 90 percent accuracy.
This communication style usually occurs as a response to contempt (a moment in conflict when you, your partner, or both become truly mean and start treating each other with disrespect): you tune out, disconnect from communication and stop responding to your partner.
Stonewalling is a form of emotional suppression that usually happens as a result of feeling emotionally flooded in a situation of distress: the state in which you cannot discuss things or act rationally, so you simply decide to tune out.
We often feel overwhelmed in a situation where our partner wants to talk about feelings. Although you might think that stonewalling more often occurs in men, who are wired to withdraw and avoid talking about a problem, this avoidance tactic happens in women too.
Research shows that stonewalling can not only damage your marriage but also cause health problems with the heart and the autonomic nervous system. In addition, the level of stress one spouse feels when the other one uses stonewalling as avoidance tactic can trigger anxiety disorders and depression.
How to Reduce Stonewalling in a Relationship?
The best way to reduce stonewalling is learning to communicate without accusing and judging each other. You see, when you use contempt and start accusing your partner, it is most likely that he/she will start feeling defensive and decide to shut down and withdraw from communication. So learning to communicate without putting your spouse on the defensive is a huge step towards removing stonewalling from your relationship dynamics.
Conflicts Are Not as Bad as You May Think
Anyone who’s ever been in a relationship knows that conflicts are simply unavoidable. People often wrongly believe that if they are in love, arguments and conflicts should not exist in their relationship. Most of us were taught since childhood that conflicts are something bad that should, by all means, be avoided if we want to live happily. However, arguments can actually be good for a relationship.
Therefore, don’t try to avoid conflicts — they can actually benefit your relationship if you know how to restore after an argument.
Studies show that most of couples who learn communication skills fail to use them in real-life situations because those skills simply don’t last. Sooner or later, we return to old communication patterns, particularly when we are in the middle of an argument.
Conflicts allow you to explore your deepest emotions and to talk about them with your partner. If you constantly avoid reflecting on your feelings, you will inescapably become emotionally distant and detached.
Furthermore, conflicts can help you get to know each other’s personality better. Better understanding of one another will allow you to adapt to each other’s communication style and personality and cherish your differences.
Arguments can also boost your empathy, allowing you to understand your partner’s perspective, to “put yourself in their shoes” and experience their feelings. In addition, conflicts enhance honesty. They enable you to be vulnerable and tell your partner what you think or how you feel honestly and openly.
We all know that conflicts are unavoidable part of our relationships. We sometimes have a tendency to avoid conflicts and withdraw from communication, believing this is the best way to protect the relationship in those moments when we feel emotionally flooded. However, avoiding conflicts can destroy your marriage.
Stonewalling as a conflict avoidance tactic is a complete refusal to consider your partner’s perspective that usually leads to emotional disconnection and divorce. The best way to cut down stonewalling in a relationship is learning to show vulnerability and communicate your feelings openly and honestly. Conflicts are not necessarily bad. If you learn how to repair after an argument, conflicts can actually help improve your relationship and strengthen the bond with your partner.