Conflict Avoidance: Sink or Swim

When baby sea turtles are born, they begin their lives by struggling to get to shore by themselves. It’s a difficult time, and it’s possible that not all of them will make it. While it might seem easier for them to have been born closer to shore, this conflict at the beginning of their lives is essential. It builds the muscles they need to survive the currents of the ocean and the independence to face its predators.

I like to use the turtle example in therapy when I’m working with someone who has a hard time with conflict. While it may seem like a great thing to pull our head back into our figurative turtle shell, or to be merciful to others by avoiding conflict with them, it will never be good for the relationship. Conflict is an inevitable current that every relationship faces, and if you make a pattern of avoiding it, you will never develop the strength you need to keep swimming. It might even make the relationship sink.

Here’s some advice for people struggling with conflict avoidance.

See why the conflict matters for you

For starters, remember that your needs matter just as much as everyone else’s. Do you really believe that? Because at the heart of conflict avoidance is a thought that somehow keeping the other person from being upset is more important than your desire to make things right with them. You sacrifice your side of the relationship so that they can enjoy one-sided ease or so you don’t have to be vulnerable.

What’s going to happen when things really get hard? Are all of those held back feelings going to explode? Will that make the relationship sink? The reason we avoid conflict is because we enjoy our relationships and want to continue enjoying them. But actually facing the conflict is the only way to make them sustainable.

Expect to feel unsettled when you finally face conflict

If you’re used to conflict avoidance, then the first time you try to break this pattern may be really hard. You will probably feel a lot of stress if you try. Be ready for that, and commit in advance to saying what you want to say even if you start second-guessing yourself.

Here’s a specific tip for when this happens. You’ll probably have a moment where you want to run out of the room and save the hard conversation for another time. If you have this urge, why don’t you ask for a pause. Take fifteen minutes by yourself to gather your nerves. Not a day, not a week. Just a few minutes to collect yourself. And then head back in for this important conversation.

Be okay if the conflict doesn’t go perfectly

A lot of people I see are worried to face conflict because they don’t think they are good communicators. “What happens if I freeze up and don’t know what to say?” Other people are afraid that their emotions will get the best of them, and they’ll act in ways they don’t want to or be overwhelmed by feelings.

But remember that perfection is not your goal. Connection is. Sometimes the most important thing to do during a conflict is just to stay connected and present, which shows that you value what the other person is feeling and you aren’t afraid to hear it from them. That communicates something that even the most eloquent words couldn’t say.

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I’m sure it’s hard when turtles first start getting tossed around in the ocean. But you know what? Eventually they become strong, and it’s not as hard anymore. If you’ve been conflict avoidant for a long time, it’s going to feel new and overwhelming to start facing it. But give it some time, and soon you’ll be strong enough to face conflict whenever you need to. If you want some practice before you get into the deep seas, one of our therapists would love to help you learn and practice this skill in a safe place.

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