Coming to understand conflict avoidance, both in my myself and in others, has been one of the more confusing and difficult things for me as an adult. I’ve known that I’m uncomfortable with conflict for a long time, but I only understood the extent in recent years.
I’ve sat down to write about this multiple times, and I keep getting hung up on the fact that I really haven’t resolved all my discomfort with conflict, nor have I settled on an approach to handling conflict that cleanly resolves all my issues, and hence I cannot write a satisfying ending to a post like this.
Nonetheless, I really want to write about it. So I’ll just share the observations and conclusions I’ve had so far about conflict.
Conflict avoidance at work
Work was where I first learned to get better at handling conflict at work. Work gave me another environment in which to practice human relationships in a lower-stakes way. It’s easy to be at peace with not getting along with a colleague, while it’s harder to be at peace with not getting along with a family member.
Or at least, it seemed easier at the beginning. I realized later that I had just gained confidence that made me more comfortable speaking up about concepts. I got better at having healthy debate about what we should build and why we should build it, but I wasn’t getting any more comfortable with personal conflict.
The hard part about conflict is the interpersonal part. When someone makes an incorrect judgment about you. When you disagree with what they prioritize/value. When they are persistently late to meetings. When they have disappointed you.
Conflict avoidance in a relationship
A long-term relationship partner learns to read your tells and realizes when you are hiding something. That partner knows it will eventually come out in one form or another, as repressed anger and frustration tends to do.
Recently it struck me how cruel it can be to avoid conflict. My wife and I take very different approaches to conflict. When I feel misunderstood or threatened, I’ll become more logical, or turn inward, or some combination of both, in an effort to avoid the conflict from spiraling, which I’ve generally thought of as the mature and correct way to handle conflict. My wife takes a completely different approach, making her frustration known immediately, and often not constructively. I’ve thought about how disconcerting it must be to watch me turn inward and avoid conflict. She knows I’m upset and that she hurt me, and she has live with that until I’m ready to talk again. Of course, part of being in a relationship is meeting a partner where they are, which means she has had to understand that I need time to process, and I have had to get better at actually confronting the thing that happened and talking it through. It’s easy for a conflict avoidant person to let a conflict pass without addressing it all.
Conflict avoidance isolates
One of the darkest aspects of prolonged conflict avoidance is how it isolates. If you struggle to find restaurants that both you and a partner or friend like, you can express frustration and have the conflict, or you can avoid eating out altogether. The more conflict avoidance that occurs between two people, the easier it will be to justify avoiding more and more situations, or even avoiding spending time with them.
What is conflict avoidance for
Like all things, I assume there is a spectrum for conflict avoidance, with the extremes being unhealthy. If I went around reacting to every little thing that frustrated me, even in a relationship, I would be an unpleasant and overwhelming person to be around. But if I avoid all conflict, I’ll build up a lot of frustration and resentment.
What can be changed
Recently I’ve been thinking about how much it is possible to change one’s approach to conflict. Conflict is deeply, primally unsettling for me, and I still have the same unsettled feeling when a conflict is brewing, the same desire to exit the situation instead of igniting a conflict. At the same time, I know I have grown, and that I now respond differently to situations that used to disengage from.