This is from a talk given at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, MI on March 17th 2008 by Dave Thornsen, PsyD, Licensed Psychologist.
Most couples coming into therapy identify “communication” as the main issue that caused them to call. Communication can break down over finances, intimacy, parenting, household duties, or any number of issues. Communication in marriage often breaks down in predictable ways so important factors in helping a couple change have less to do with their specific issue and more to do with the pattern of communication the couple uses.
Most couples who come in for couples counseling have come to a point where one or both of the partners has decided that it is easier, maybe less complicated, to avoid a conflict than to approach it. They are aware that to “go there” with their partner will likely cause conflict in the relationship so they choose to go along with their partner instead of fighting about it. Believe it or not though, conflict avoidance by one or both partners in a relationship tends to be one of the most common causes of communication issues for couples. This will be explained more fully a little later.
In most cases, people usually choose to avoid conflict for noble reasons. It seems right to the married person to be selfless, even sacrificial for their partner and to put their partner’s needs before their own. After all it is better to give than to receive. Putting their partner first is the easiest and right way to keep peace in the relationship. Avoiding conflict can seem like the right approach, but it can be hard to accurately assess the cost.
Take for instance a made-up couple Ken and Sue: Ken rarely likes to go out to eat and when he does he likes to go to a certain restaurant that he calls his “favorite greasy spoon.” Sue on the other hand would love to go out to eat often but would never, ever choose Ken’s favorite greasy spoon. On a Friday night after a long week Ken suggests that he and Sue go out to eat. Sue tells him she would love to. Ken asks where she would like to go and Sue tells him that it doesn’t matter to her – that anywhere would be fine. Sue doesn’t want to argue with Ken and besides she is just happy to be going out. When Ken suggests then that they go to his favorite greasy spoon, Sue replies with a disheartened, “Sure, that’d be great.” After all it is his favorite place to go and she likes to see him happy. Sue believes that not arguing and getting to go out is better than fighting over where to eat.
Ken and Sue would be fine if this were an isolated incident. If Sue were appeasing Ken this once then it would truly be a sacrificial, selfless act of generosity. But if this is not an isolated incident, if it is more like a pattern where Sue tends to usually go along with Ken and agree to do something she doesn’t really want to do then this is conflict avoidance. In a conflict avoidant pattern, Sue would not be choosing to appease Ken, she would actually feel that she had to appease Ken, that going along with Ken would be her only option. Over time, conflict avoidance takes its toll on a relationship and causes predictable difficulties in the relationship. Part 2 will describe for you the mechanics and hidden effects of avoiding conflict in marriage.
If you believe that you and your partner would benefit from sessions of direct counseling on this issue and you live in the Grand Rapids area, contact The Fountain Hill Center today to set up an appointment with Dr. Thornsen.