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Disagreements often pose challenges in relationships. Many partners and spouses often avoid expressing their true thoughts and feelings during a disagreement because they don’t want to engage in a conflict. This “conflict avoidance” is very common, and it often involves partners overreacting or disengaging from each other during disagreements. If ignored, conflict avoidance can cause emotional distancing, resentment, loss of intimacy and even unnecessary divorce. But with time, effort, courage, and skill, you can learn to face your conflicts while cultivating a better understanding of yourself, and manage the anxiety that often comes with disagreement.

Patterns of Conflict

Because conflicts can cause discomfort, partners often hold back because they imagine negative outcomes from expressing their true selves. Many people with conflict avoidance issues grew up in homes where it wasn’t safe to express their true feelings. If they tried to express themselves, they experienced rejection, such as glares or strict discipline from a parent, so they decided early on to withhold the healthy expression of their thoughts and feelings. Some people avoid conflict because they’re fearful of losing the love of their partners or they are fearful of a big go-nowhere argument. Others are uncomfortable because they lack effective communication skills. If you feel stuck in this pattern, seek out relationship counseling.


A common pattern of conflict avoidance is when one partner escalates a discussion by attacking the other partner. The attacked partner either shuts down or fights back with the other, which often leads to tone violations, aggressive yelling, name calling, and making nasty comments. Neither party ever gets to the point of understanding the other and dynamic negotiations are impossible. Both partners avoid sharing their authentic feelings because they become over-reactive, making it difficult to effectively resolve disagreements. A healthy partner learns to artfully express thoughts, feelings and desires in a way that the other partner can take in. It takes skill and courage and patience to engage in disagreements and learn to understand each other. One of the greatest weaknesses among people is difficulty being an empathic listener.

Natalie and Nathan’s Conflict

Natalie and Nathan each had one child from former marriages. Usually, their arguments were focused on parenting issues, but they rarely found resolution. Natalie was more articulate than Nathan and became impatient when he didn’t quickly share his thoughts. When he did voice opinions, Natalie thought he was criticizing her, which led her to attack and lecture. Because Natalie became overly emotional and stopped listening, Nathan ended up frustrated, shut down and left the room. Nathan was actually angry at Natalie, but he was afraid he’d explode, so he decided to do the easiest thing – apologize, leave and keep quiet. He gradually felt more and more distant from Natalie and began to avoid interacting with her. He started staying late at work, and resentment began to grow between the two of them. Gradually, he began to act out his hurt and anger by making sarcastic comments in front of the kids, and being king of the one-word answer when he interacted with Natalie.

Let’s look at a typical pattern of impaired communication between Nathan and Natalie:

Natalie: You should talk to your son. It really bothers me the way he talked to me yesterday. His tone was disrespectful, and kids should have more respect for their parents. You just indulge him, and you’re not doing him any favors.

Nathan: The kids are just imitating how you talk to me. You’re bossy and disrespectful; how do you expect the kids to act with you as a role model? You sound just like your mother, and now you’re going to complain to your therapist (at this point, Nathan is yelling). But you’re not letting him be a teenager: kids normally go through rebellious stages toward adults. You need to lighten up. (Nathan minimizes Natalie’s feelings by telling her to lighten up.)

Natalie: See, there you go again, always taking Henry’s side. I want to feel like I matter, but the kids seem more important to you. (Natalie effectively shares a “want” statement that could help Nathan understand her needs.)

Instead of tolerating the anxiety and anger that is common when two partners disagree, Natalie escalated by attacking Nathan. Nathan overreacted by yelling and committing tone violations. In essence, they avoided the anxiety of being in conflict: Natalie escalated her emotions and treated Nathan like a child, and Nathan fought back, aiming to shut down the entire conversation. Each one was impulsive and needed to learn to contain their reactivity.

When Natalie started lecturing, Nathan sat on his feelings instead of asking her to stop. He imagined speaking up would lead to a big fight like those he’d had with his mother when he was young. His defensiveness got in the way of communicating how he felt, which would have helped them continue their discussion.

Time for a Time-Out

So how could Nathan and Natalie engaged in a healthy communication pattern that could facilitate a mutual coming together, closeness, and intimacy? An important first step was to take a time-out when either felt the conversation was: 1) getting out of control, 2) going nowhere, or 3) becoming nasty. A time-out allows a partner to get perspective on an issue by calming down, remembering the good about the other partner and thinking about how to further the discussion. Try to take action as soon as you notice that you’re going in circles and/or getting agitated with tendencies towards name-calling and disrespectful comments.

If you find you’re having problems putting these strategies to work, you may benefit from 6-8 sessions of couples therapy or taking a class. Natalie learned to take a time-out when she felt her adrenaline rising, which interfered with her speaking in a calm, factual, objective way. She became bossy and judgemental when agitated and couldn’t remember the good things about Nathan. During her time-outs, Natalie did the following:

  • She practiced deep breathing while she repeated positive statements about Nathan to herself like, “I know my husband is too lenient with his kids, but he’s a loving father and generally provides a good role model.” This helped Natalie relax and get things in perspective so she could take a more positive approach in their communication.
  • She reflected on Nathan’s side of the story and came up with questions to ask to better understand his side. She knew he had some valuable input.

Nathan learned to say, “Natalie, I really want to resolve this matter, but right now it feels like we’re headed for trouble. I need to take a time-out.” He admitted to Natalie that he had a problem shutting down when he became upset. Like many men and women, when Nathan felt vulnerable, he avoided it by shutting down. Nathan had a stubborn, rebellious streak, and it was hard for him to speak up about his more vulnerable side. So when Nathan took a time-out, he did the following:

  • He identified when he felt anxious, scared, mad, annoyed, hurt, frustrated or sad and reflected on his thoughts.
  • He talked himself into speaking up by saying to himself, “OK, I can do this. Speaking up is the strong thing to do, and Natalie almost always responds positively when I share my feelings.”

Nathan was then able to say to Natalie, “I feel hurt and angry when it seems like you are talking down to me. I think to myself, ‘You don’t care about me,’ and I want to just shut down to get back at you.” Once Nathan was able to share his authentic feelings more often, Natalie felt closer to him. When Nathan felt understood, he was willing to compromise because he knew Natalie was making an effort for their relationship.

As a relationship expert, I realize that taking a time-out can be challenging. Sometimes people just want to yell and vent their feelings, but acting on impulse often damages relationships. Learning to break up patterns of destructive communication can make a tremendous difference in your relationship, so start making wise use of time-outs to get on track toward an extraordinary relationship. You can do it one disagreement at a time. And remember…

There is hope, there is help and it’s just a phone call away. Call 408-358-9679 for a complimentary phone consultation.