A Conflict-Avoider’s Guide to Having Difficult Conversations in Your Romantic Relationship
“We need to talk,” has to be one of the most dreaded statements anyone could ever speak in a relationship.
No one likes conflict, and this sentence is a sure sign that something’s amiss. Just hearing those four words can make anyone bristle and get the cogs in their head turning, wondering what’s wrong, what they might have done, and what’s in store for them.
But it’s especially alarming for conflict-avoidant people. Whether they’re on the receiving end of it or they’re uttering the words themselves, it can bring up all sorts of uncomfortable feelings — a queasy stomach, sweaty palms, and a worrying mind.
That’s because conflict-avoidant people, who can be labeled as people pleasers, tend to have negative expectations around conflict. They’ll often expect it to lead to judgment, overreaction, blaming or shaming from the other person, or even the breakdown of the relationship.
When you think about it though, there’s as much opportunity for growth and an even stronger connection through conflict as there is potential for relationship breakdowns. In fact, conflict can even be good, as it gives you a way to understand each other more deeply and to establish trust by responding to your partner’s needs.
Plus, conflict is inevitable. As long as you’re a human being connecting with another human being, you’re going to disagree about things. So, it’s really in your best interest to learn assertive, healthy communication — even if it scares you.
In this article, you’ll learn about conflict avoidance, how to have a serious conversation about your relationship confidently, and how to express yourself in a way that will get the best results. Ready to tackle conflict? Let’s get into it!
What Is Conflict Avoidance?
First off, let’s look a little more deeply into what conflict avoidance is, where it comes from, and how it affects you.
When you’re conflict avoidant, standing up for yourself, claiming your space, and speaking up about your needs can feel intimidating, even scary.
That’s because conflict avoidance, at its root, often stems from past experiences in which expressing yourself ended up being hurtful. The negative reactions of those you expressed yourself to meant that you learned to be quiet, comply, or put the other person’s needs over your own.
Maybe you had parents who went by the maxim “children are to be seen and not heard.” Maybe people in your family didn’t know how to react when you expressed yourself, and their emotional outbursts felt threatening. If so, you may have carried this fear into adulthood and especially into your most important relationships.
There are also cultural issues at play — a punishing school system, a culture that expects your gender to be pleasant and agreeable — these factors can also make healthy communication more difficult.
But let’s not forget that conflict is stressful for anyone. Sometimes it’s easier to swallow our hurt than rock the boat and disturb an otherwise calm and peaceful day. Since most of us didn’t have perfect role models, we’ve likely had plenty of experiences where conversations turned sour or escalated into aggression. It’s no wonder we avoid conflict!
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Why Learn to Be Assertive?
People-pleasing behavior doesn’t do any favors for you or your relationship. If your partner doesn’t know your needs, how can they ever meet them? When there’s no communication, neither one of you knows where the other person is at — it’s like two ships trying to navigate in the dark. There’s bound to be a collision at some point, and it’s likely to occur when you least expect it.
It’s not just bad for your relationships — it diminishes your joy and fulfillment on a daily basis. Bottling things up isn’t going to result in pleasant experiences. You’ll have to suffer through things that don’t make you feel good, and imbalances in the relationship will remain unchanged. It may jeopardize your relationship and lower your self-esteem.
It can also have real health consequences: A 2013 study found that emotional suppression can increase the risk of premature death, including death from cancer. Remember, our bodies, minds, and emotions are all interconnected. Swallowing your words will affect your well-being.
Tips for Healthy, Assertive Communication
With all of that in mind, it certainly feels much more compelling to tackle the people-pleasing habit. As with all habits though, it may take time to see results. Take baby steps, but do start taking steps.
Timing is everything when it comes to difficult conversations. It’s not always a good idea to respond in the heat of the moment. Taking some time to cool off can help ensure you come from a thoughtful, mature place rather than your wounded inner child.
However, there’s a fine line between having a cooling off period and putting things off for too long. For people-pleasers, that cooling off period can easily get infinitely extended. As time wears on, you may bury your feelings, “forget” about things, or rationalize the trigger away, convincing yourself it wasn’t a big deal, that it’s too late to bring it up, or that you’re overreacting.
But emotions don’t always respond well to rationalization, which means buried feelings may explode out of the blue. This can trigger some very unpleasant, awkward, or uncomfortable conversations at the worst time (holiday dinners anyone?). It may even lead to the end of the relationship.
If you tend to find yourself waiting too long, it’s important to find an easy, relatively painless way to break the spell of procrastination and finally get the conversation over with. A canned response that’s your go-to can make broaching the subject less intimidating.
A simple, “I really care about our connection, so I have something I want to clear with you” works well. It’s a caring and empathetic but also assertive phrase — perfect for people-pleasers.
Remind Your Partner That You’re On the Same Team
One reason conflict feels so uncomfortable is because you suddenly feel at odds with a person you love. You can overcome this feeling, though, by affirming your common goals. This will make you more comfortable and them more receptive.
You might start the conversation by saying any of the following:
- We both love each other and care about each other’s feelings, so I’d like to smooth out the issues we’re having around shared chores.
- It’s important to both of us that the kids are healthy and happy, so I’d really like to iron out our differences about how much T.V. they can watch.
- We both value each other for who we are, so it’s important to me that we both understand each other’s need for space.
Showing your partner that you’re on their team — even if you don’t agree — can help alleviate tension right off the bat without you having to compromise your integrity, betray your feelings, or ignore your needs. This can make conversations go more smoothly, which in turns helps build your confidence around having difficult conversations.
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Seek to Understand Their Perspective
One big barrier to healthy communication is the tendency for people to get defensive. When it feels like we’re being accused of something, it can automatically trigger us to argue and defend our point of view. For a people-pleaser, another person’s defensiveness can make the conversation feel even more intimidating and make it that much easier to avoid conflict.
Let’s say you’re feeling neglected and abandoned because your partner works so much and is hardly home. As a people-pleaser, you probably rationalize your feelings or convince yourself that you shouldn’t say anything because the other person can’t help their work schedule. The problem is, that doesn’t make the feelings go away.
The thing is, your partner is likely to have the same argument, which they will use in their defense the moment you bring up them being late for dinner again. You can resolve this issue by stating it directly.
Start the conversation by acknowledging their perspective, then shifting into your own, as in: “I’m seeing that you’ve been working really hard lately and struggling to make time for your personal life. I’m feeling … (sad, abandoned, lonely, etc.).
This feels less accusatory but still gives you the chance to speak up about your very valid feelings.
Stand Your Ground and Keep Your Cool
Sometimes though, partners won’t respond well no matter how delicately we approach the subject. This is all part of the people-pleasing deconditioning training — learning how to be okay when someone isn’t happy with you.
After all, it’s fine to be kind, delicate, and sensitive when bringing something up, but you still need to stand your ground, even if they get upset. Sometimes, no matter how gentle you are, you still won’t get a favorable reaction.
However, if you cave in as soon as they get upset, you’re just reinforcing your fear of their reaction, making it harder to break the people-pleasing habit. Remember, you have the right to take up space as much as they do. You have the right to stand your ground.
Standing your ground goes hand in hand with keeping your cool because it’s when we lose our cool that we start reacting from our own impulsivity, fear, or aggression.
To stay calm, try some emotional regulation techniques to keep you feeling safe and grounded in the moment. Here are some examples:
- Focus on your senses: What do you see, hear, smell, and feel? It could be the plant in the corner of the room, the soft couch underneath you, or the smell of dinner cooking. Just take a moment to ground back into your body and the present moment.
- Breathe! Never underestimate the power of a few deep breaths to calm you down and prevent your fight or flight system from taking over.
- Feel your feet on the ground and imagine tree roots going down into the center of the earth. Or imagine a bubble of light around you that’s keeping you safe and protected.
This is easier said than done, since people-pleasing can have deep emotional roots in childhood. If standing your ground is something you struggle with a lot, don’t be afraid to hire a coach or see a therapist.
Have the Big Conversations at the Right Time
When it comes to big conversations in which you’ll cover a lot of ground, timing is everything.
Springing a discussion on your partner right before bed might not get you the response you were hoping for. Likewise, talking right when your partner walks through the door from work, when you’re on your way to a social function together, or when they’re not feeling their best isn’t ideal.
You know your partner best, so consider when they’re the most likely to be receptive and to have the time, space, and mental bandwidth to have a discussion.
One great way to make conversations feel less intimidating for both of you is to schedule them into your calendar like a business meeting, preferably during the day. If you both work from home, you can set up a “meeting” in the home office, for example.
This simple shift in setting can take a lot of the emotion out of the picture, and can make it feel more like a business meeting. Note that this technique is likely to work best for issues like shared responsibilities, shared expenses, and logistical issues — not for deeper, more intimate issues.
You Can Overcome the People Pleasing Habit
When difficult conversations stir up anxiety for you, it can easily feel like you’ll never feel comfortable having difficult conversations in your relationship. But rest assured, you absolutely can. It just takes practice, training, and a little trial and error.
Remember, no one has perfect role models. You’re hardly alone when it comes to needing to refine your assertive communication skills. While it may feel tough, the rewards are well worth it. They include a life lived with much less fear and one in which you hold the reins and decide what you will or will not accept in your life. You deserve no less!