Conflict Avoidance: 3 Ways to Approach A Partner Who Hates Tough Conversations

You’re all about confronting hard truths and then healing. So healthy, right? But your S.O. is a stage 5 avoider. So how do you clean up your relationship when your partner sweeps everything under the rug? Here, expert advice on how to deal with conflict avoidance and meet in the middle.

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1. Prepare Before You Confront

A genius bit of advice from empowerment consultant and relationship therapist Kathy Caprino: “Find a way to neutralize/manage your emotions before the confrontation.” Maybe you meditate, maybe you journal, maybe you rage clean. Just do whatever it takes to sit with yourself and think things through, rather than fly off the handle. Carefully evaluate what you’re thinking and feeling, and identify the real issue that you need to address,” advises Caprino. “Tease out all the tangential factors, emotions and issues that aren’t relevant or essential to the discussion. Then assess how best to approach this specific person…and prepare what you’ll say in detail.” OK, so he keeps forgetting to take out the garbage, leaving you to wrangle a stinky mess at 6 a.m. Or maybe he cooks his own dinner without even asking you if you’re hungry (read: you are). Is this because he is a deeply flawed, irredeemable narcissist? Or is it because he’s overwhelmed himself, or sees your need to decompress after work and doesn’t want to bother you (and risk getting his head bitten off)? What is it that you truly need from him? If his forgetfulness makes you worry, he doesn’t think of your needs or appreciate your burdens, say so without blaming or shaming. Experts like Caprino advise you also offer up potential solutions. (Maybe he sets a garbage night calendar prompt?) Whatever the situation, methodical preparation will make you feel more in control when you do bring up problems.

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2. Consider Your Partner's History

You chase, he hides, and round and round you go. But have you stopped to consider what your partner may really be running from? In some cases, trauma in someone’s past can lead them to fear any minor confrontation will have dire fallout. As psychologist Dr. Joseph M. Carver explains: “He’s not running away from the simple problems…he’s running away from fantasized consequences.” Carver offers an example: A former patient became convinced he caused his father’s heart attack because it occurred while he was a particularly rebellious teenager. He blamed himself, never got closure, and associates big blowout fights with abandonment and tragedy. “From your background, you know that issues can be discussed, evaluated, solved, and the relationship continues,” Carver writes. “[Your partner] doesn’t have that sense of relationship security.” But with your actions (staying calm during arguments, regularly reaffirming your commitment even as you bring up issues) you can prove to him that minor marital hiccups don’t lead to devastation. Remember: What you consider letting off steam may be a dumpster fire to someone else.

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3. Remember That Words Have Power

Sometimes the difference between a simple discussion and a scorched earth argument comes down to the language we use when we fight. Phrases like “You always,” “You never…” and “Why do you…?” have no place in happy marriages, experts say. Threatening to leave, flirting out loud with the idea of divorce, sarcasm, contempt, eye-rolling, the silent treatment—all are known indicators of deteriorating relationships. On the other hand, affirming that you are in it together and for the long haul, and peppering your arguments with simple sayings like “We’ll get through this” can work wonders. To stop a fight from going off the rails, writes one marriage counselor: “Kindness helps. It can pave the way to repair and remind you that your relationship is bigger than your argument. Humor helps. It can break the tension of the moment and provide the opportunity to connect anew.” Marriage guru Dr. John Gottman’s quick tips to de-escalate a fight? Make a joke (without sarcasm). Give a compliment or show affection. Take responsibility. Demonstrate understanding. As one marriage counselor famously said: “Say what you mean, but don’t say it mean.”

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