She is sitting on the couch in my office with her eyes downcast. Her husband is doing the same.* They are both silent. I repeat my question.
“How do you bring up a potentially conflictual issue with each other?”
They look at each other. They tell me that they don’t really bring up issues. They instead just go on with their day.
“Is this working for you?” I ask them.
It worked for a while, they tell me. It worked for a while to not bring issues up, to avoid conflict, but isn’t that the best way to be in relationship?
“Tell me more,” I say.
Well, her parents were conflictual, she tells me, and, as a kid, she had hated the dynamic. Her parents would often yell and scream at each other, and often yell and scream at her and her brothers.
“How would you cope during those times as a child?” I ask.
Well, she would try to disappear. She would hide in her room, or remain very still, and not engage. Her brothers would engage more, and argue back, and things would escalate with slammed doors and harsh words, and sometimes she would try to calm them all down, but it would never work. She would just want to disappear.
“So that’s a familiar feeling, to want to disappear when a sign of conflict arises?”
Yes. Yes. It is a familiar feeling. She doesn’t even feel she has much choice about it. It just happens automatically.
“And how about you?” I ask her partner. “Is it a familiar feeling for you?”
It turns out that his mother was an alcoholic and pretty unpredictable. He never knew if she would be unreasonable and angry or not. Being undemanding meant he flew under her radar.
“So it’s a way of being that is very familiar to both of you, this desire to avoid conflict. To get through conflict – or any hint of it, really – you learned to hide and disappear. Yes?”
They both nod their heads in agreement.
“So here we are today in this room, with you both hiding from each other.”
They both look at me intently. It is an ah-ha moment for them.
At first, it turns out, being conflict avoidant worked. They were both very happy to find a partner who didn’t argue or get angry. But, over the years, a gnawing dissatisfaction with their relationship developed, to the point where they now feel disconnected from each other. They feel lonely in the relationship. They feel unseen, unheard, unknown by the other.
They were on the brink of separating, in fact, when they decided to seek couples counseling instead. Despite their significant disconnection and lack of feeling known by the other – no wonder they wanted to separate! – they decided instead to seek counseling.
This is a big deal. Fear of the unknown can keep us in a familiar rut, even when we’re suffering. It’s a rut they were both willing to take the risk to change. It’s also a big deal because it is the first step in breaking their childhood pattern of avoiding conflict, in breaking a pattern which really isn’t working any more. I name both of these things and reflect back to the couple their courage in moving towards change.
Over the weeks and months ahead, I support the couple with understanding the difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict. I support them with insight on their instinct to avoid conflict. I support them with looking more deeply at the dysfunctional pattern that ensues as a result. I support them with learning how to tune into their needs, and then expressing them effectively to each other. I support them on creating safety for the other as they take these risks and try these new ways of communicating. I support them in anticipating relapses and in processing these with each other. In essence, I support them with coming out of hiding.
This takes time, but the good news is that even small shifts towards healthier communication patterns can do wonders for a relationship, and this relationship is no exception. It doesn’t take long before they begin to feel more seen and heard. They begin to feel more connected. This makes them invested in our work together, as well as significantly happier.
Are you hiding in your relationship, for fear of conflict? A couples counselor can support you and your partner towards healthier relationship patterns.
* client information changed to protect confidentiality