I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but what I’ve learned from years of doing couples counseling in Denver is that your constant efforts at avoiding disagreements is actually hurting your relationship.
That well-worn pattern of conflict-avoidance is likely sucking the life (and spice) right out of your blissful union.
What? That sounds backwards?
I get it. You’ve been told that too many arguments and disagreements can kill a great relationship.
Here’s the thing. I’m not talking about having mean and vicious fights with your spouse. The kind of verbal brawls where you both spew hateful hostility, contempt, and disrespect.
Don’t worry. I’m not in favor of anyone behaving like the couple in “Who’s afraid of Virginia Wolfe?”
What I’m talking about are the types of disagreements that are a normal part of couple life. The types of disputes that show up because you’re two different people. Because you’re (thankfully) two individuals with two distinct sets of thoughts, feelings, wants, and concerns.
You’ve heard it before… no two people will agree on everything. Ever.
My couples counseling in Denver practice has shown me that an enormous number of couples take pride in working hard to avoid conflict and disagreements. They mistakenly believe it’s the only way to remain happy.
And what these couples may not understand is that they are stunting the growth of their relationship by conspiring to avoid arguments.
Lesson from my couples counseling in Denver: Avoiding disagreements hurts your relationship
Are you like the conflict avoidant couples that I see for marriage therapy in Denver?
If you’re doing everything you can to avoid having a fight with your partner it’s probably because you don’t like the feelings you get when you dare to speak up and then you two have a disagreement.
Chances are, if you’re a conflict avoider, at the first sign of a disagreement you’re brain sets off a danger alert. A signal that a threat has been detected.
More than likely, this triggers a scary physical response. Like your heart starts racing, your breathing gets quicker, or you suddenly break out into a sweat.
You feel afraid. Anxious. Uncomfortable. Distressed.
And somewhere deep inside, you decide (once again) to vigilantly avoid the threat of a disagreement. You believe that if you avoid the threat, you’ll have no fear, and therefore no discomfort.
I can understand why you got into the habit of avoiding disagreements.
But let me shine a reality check spot-light on this scenario.
You are not an injured gazelle in the wild plains of Africa. And a disagreement with your spouse is not a dangerous, hungry lion. Even though your brain is responding as if both of those things were true when you detect a potential disagreement.
You may be one of those folks that gets really anxious when you’re faced with the tension that arises when you and your partner have a disagreement. Where do you usually feel that in your body by the way?
Notice I said tension and not threat. Remember, no gazelle and no lion here.
Back to the lesson from couples counseling in Denver: Avoiding disagreements hurts your relationship…
Over time, the habit of avoiding disagreements will cause you to lose your voice.
If you can’t speak up for yourself you’ll begin to shrink as an individual. Your identity and life will get smaller.
You may succeed at avoiding conflict, but you’ll also weaken the overall intimacy in your relationship. You’ll be heading straight for the dreaded state of “just roommates.”
You’ll start tip-toeing around your mate as if you’re walking on broken glass. Your emotional expression will become dull, your connection will weaken, and your spark will fade.
Those are some of the ways that avoiding disagreements will hurt your relationship and yourself.
So if you don’t want to end up disempowered and living a smaller life, you must learn to deal with your fear of discord. And if you don’t want your relationship to end up stagnant, shallow, disconnected, emotionally bland, or listless in the passion department, it’s high time you learn to speak up.
To have a thriving relationship, you must begin tolerating the discomfort and anxiety that you get in your chest or stomach when you and your beloved have a disagreement.
How can you grow your ability to tolerate emotional distress so you can face difficult discussions head-on without feeling overwhelmed or shutting down?
In other words, how can you stop avoiding disagreements?
Here’s what I teach the conflict avoiding folks I see in my couples counseling in Denver office.
I believe the first thing you have to do is to honestly acknowledge the long-term cost of conflict avoidance versus the short-term relief you get.
Yes. Avoiding a disagreement keeps you from feeling threatened, afraid, or anxious in the moment. Sweet relief, you say.
You may feel better now, but take a look at the long-term cost of that.
When you stop speaking up and sharing your own thoughts, desires, values, and wishes you stop expanding. You contract.
The long-term price of that momentary relief is monumental.
By avoiding the discomfort of conflict, you end up pulling the plug on your own personal growth and on your development as a couple. Over time your vibrancy and expansion will flat-line.
Now that you (hopefully) see the value in tolerating the distress that comes along with an argument, I want to equip you with a couple of tools. These are the self-soothing techniques I teach my Denver couples therapy clients.
Think of them as techniques to help you cope with feeling the tension and discomfort without going into sheer overwhelm.
Breathe and focus on the long-term benefits
First, in the moment that you feel afraid to speaking up and enter into the ring of disagreement, take a slow, deep breath. Then focus on the long-term benefits of stating what you think and want, even if your spouse won’t like it.
Tell yourself something like “Even though I’m afraid of arguing, it’s worth it to say what I think because over the long run we’ll have a stronger connection and solve our problem in a way that is a win-win for both of us.”
Next, use curiosity to step away from your fear.
Think of it this way. Fear is contracting. It makes you shrink. It’s defensive.
But curiosity is expanding. Curiosity will help you grow. It’s playful.
You can help yourself shift out of a fear response by becoming curious about yourself and about your partner.
Some ways to get curious about yourself in the moment of distress include:
- wondering about the pain you’ve been avoiding
- asking yourself what you’re feeling and naming it
- noticing where you’re sensing the tension in your body
- developing a “what’s this like?” attitude vs “I have to make this stop!”
You can also diminish your fear by being curious about your partner during the disagreement. Get curious about your partner by:
- inquiring about what they’re feeling
- asking for an explanation of their thoughts on the subject
- wondering out loud about what this disagreement reminds your partner of
- exploring their face for clues about what they’re thinking and checking it out to see if you’re right
Focusing on your partner with a curious mind will help you move out of your fear and defensiveness.
By practicing self-regulating techniques such as deep breaths, benefit-focused self-talk, and intentional curiosity, you will be able to manage the distress of disagreements and keep your relationship growing and happy.
A qualified couples counselor can help you develop the courage and skills to be able to say what you think and want instead of accommodating and staying quiet.
An excellent way to get started is by signing up for an all-day intensive such as I offer in my Relationship Breakthrough Program or my Relationship Transformation Program. If you’re looking for couples counseling in Denver, give me a call. I’d love to help.