DR. DAVE THORNSEN, PsyD. We all know that disagreements between partners are common. Whether they are driven by big issues or little issues, disagreements are a common part of any couple trying to work together or get along.
Potential Disagreement: Option A and Option B
When a potential disagreement arises, we always have a choice to make. Should we A) speak up, say what we really think or how we are really feeling and introduce conflict into the relationship? Or B) keep our thoughts to ourselves and spare the relationship from the conflict that could be caused by our speaking up?
We are aware that the option of speaking up can introduce conflict into the relationship. Option A can seem like a difficult choice to make. So, we often don’t. It just seems easier to keep our thoughts to ourselves. Even if we know that speaking up is the right thing to do. In the end, we choose Option B because we think it will help us avoid conflict. But…
Conflict Exists in Either Option
When a partner speaks out and says what’s on their mind—“I don’t like that restaurant,” “I need some time alone,” “You hurt my feelings,” etc.—then the conflict exists out in the open, in the relationship. It is known. The instant the phrase is said, both partners are aware that there is a disagreement; and both partners feel the conflict.
When a partner chooses to keep their thoughts inside, however, the conflict still exists. It just isn’t addressed. Because the disagreement isn’t brought up out loud, the other partner doesn’t know it exists. They are going to believe that the restaurant is fine, or it’s okay to just hang out, or a hurtful statement was taken as a joke, etc. They will not know about the disagreement, and they will not feel the conflict. However, the partner keeping their thoughts inside will feel the conflict. Even as they stuff it down, they will know it exists.
The choice we make about how to handle a potential disagreement isn’t at all about avoiding conflict or creating it. It is actually about deciding where the conflict is going to exist. Will it exist out loud in the relationship so both partners are aware of it? Or will it be silent and internalized within one partner so that only that person is aware of it? In either scenario, the conflict exists. It is just a matter of where it exists and who is aware of it.
Conflict Resolution Always Requires Compromise
When the disagreement is acknowledged out loud and both partners are aware of it, then compromise can happen between both partners. They can pick a different restaurant, or give the other some space for a while, or apologize for saying something hurtful and commit to never saying it again, etc. In this scenario, the disagreement is acknowledged out loud, both partners feel the conflict, and both partners work together to resolve the conflict through compromise and move on.
When one partner chooses to keep a potential disagreement inside, then the compromise happens inside them. When the conflict has been internalized, the compromise will be internal, too. The compromise that internalized conflict requires is that the partner compromises a bit of their self—every time.
Over time, these internal compromises chip away at their sense of self and they begin to feel smaller and smaller in the relationship. Less important. Like they have no voice or don’t matter to their partner. And eventually they feel resentful.
It is this hidden cost of avoiding conflict that often causes the breakdown in communication for a couple. In Part 3, we will explore some more negative effects of conflict avoidance on relationships.
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.
Dave Thornsen, PsyD, Licensed Psychologist. Dr. Dave Thornsen is a licensed psychologist in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He works individually with adult men and women and also specializes in marriage counseling. Dave received his doctorate degree in psychology in 2002 from Wheaton College. He has practiced in Grand Rapids ever since. Dave is able to participate with most insurances. Learn more…
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