“I hate conflict, and I avoid it at all cost.”

GaudiLab/Shutterstock
Source: GaudiLab/Shutterstock

Countless people have told me this in a therapy session or at one of my assertiveness workshops. But since I grew up in a family where we yelled at each other when we got angry, the idea of avoiding conflict was a non-starter in my home. In fact, I remember being slightly confused by the concept when I first learned about it. My family’s dysfunction was of the “letting it all hang out” variety—on the opposite side of the continuum from total conflict avoidance.

Both approaches are problematic, and both take their toll on relationships. Yet most people seem to believe that avoiding conflict is a strategy that—while maybe not the most functional or courageous—will at least not cost their relationship anything.

That's just not true.

Here are 3 reasons why conflict today can help you avoid larger problems later: 

1. Boundary violations.

In order to avoid conflict, you can’t react to boundary violations: Let’s say you and I are friends and roommates. One day, since I have a set of your keys and I really need it, I borrow your car while you’re at work. I let you know about it only after you get home. If your priority is to avoid conflict, you would not tell me that you dislike what I did. However, since you don’t express any displeasure, I assume it’s okay to do the same thing tomorrow, the next day, and so on. Inviting conflict by being honest with me about your feelings would head off the problem before it becomes a bigger deal.

2. Passive aggression.

If you can’t risk conflict by expressing your true feelings and asking for what you need—“Please don’t take my car when I’m not around”—sooner or later you’ll find a sneaky way to get your needs met. You might park your car somewhere where I can’t find it, or make up a lie about taking it to work. Going out of your way to hide your car is less convenient than simply asking me not to drive it while you’re gone. But if you hate conflict, you pay that cost.

3. Relationship trouble.

When I happen to discover your car parked two blocks away, and realize you’re hiding it from me, you’ll lose my trust—just as I already lost yours by borrowing your car without permission in the first place, then failing to read your mind and stop trying to use it when you’re not home. Our relationship will disintegrate under the weight of unacknowledged expectations and hurt feelings.

The very thing we fear about conflict—its potential to damage relationships—is exactly what we get from chronic conflict avoidance.

I agree that it’s hard to say to a friend, “I wish you hadn’t borrowed my car without asking,” but if our relationship is based on you letting me do whatever I want with your stuff, what kind of friendship is that? It makes me more like a neighborhood bully and you, my helpless victim. But since I’m not a bully and you’re not a victim, it’s more likely that our relationship is based on mutual respect and affection. If you ask me not to borrow your car, I may not like the inconvenience, but I’ll respect your right to determine what happens to your own property.

And if I make a stink about it instead, then I’m being disrespectful—and you learn something important about me. Holding your ground will communicate to me that you know your rights and your worth in the relationship. I’ll either come around or I’ll leave, perhaps making room for a far better friend in your life.

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