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How Conflict Avoidance Fuels Commitment Issues

Conflict avoidance can powerfully undermine relationship commitment.

Key points

  • Conflict avoidance involves a fear of anger and potential rejection or abandonment.
  • The need to please can be a part of conflict avoidance and a factor that undermines commitment.
  • The tension associated with anticipated conflict can trigger thoughts of past or alternative relationships or ending the relationship.
  • Greater commitment is associated with the perspective that conflict is a natural part of a growing relationship.

Fear of rejection or abandonment is a major factor that contributes to commitment issues regarding relationships. The tendency toward conflict avoidance is one expression of this fear.

Jeff reported increased confusion regarding his commitment to his partner Jean. While he deeply cared for her, enjoyed her companionship, and believed they had much in common, he was unable to discuss future plans with her. He avoided any serious request Jean made to do so. He would freeze up, say he was just too tired, or find other ways to ignore her request. Over time, he felt more isolated, which only further contributed to undermining his commitment. Jeff sought treatment because he recognized this was an issue in his past relationships as well.

For some individuals like Jeff, the challenge to commitment is often fueled by conflict avoidance based on a fear of being the target of anger or their own anger. Jeff had grown up to be a pleaser, overly focused on the needs of others and fearful of rejection or even abandonment if he was to express his needs. This pattern continued into his adult relationships, making it difficult to assertively express himself–especially in his romantic relationships.

Part of the difficulty for pleasers is that as they prioritize the feelings of others, they inadvertently ignore their own feelings and needs. This lack of connection with themselves makes it difficult to identify their feelings as well as their core needs. This lack of self-awareness further contributes to the tension associated with conflict. And yet, the more feelings are suppressed or ignored, the more likely they will surface elsewhere as anxiety or anger.

While Jeff craved closeness, he had not taken time to explore himself more fully, on his own and in his past relationships. When disagreements or conflicts arose, he was quick to develop self-doubt and even blame himself for the conflict. When he thought about speaking up, his anxiety masked his fear of conflict and the anger it might arouse, both from his partner and within himself.

When Jeff shut down, he reflexively focused his attention on their differences. He became irritated with Jean not only with regard to the issue that triggered his tension but also about these differences. At other times he thought about past relationships or fantasized about other potentially more satisfying ones. His doubt about the relationship led him to emotionally withdraw and become less present with Jean. At times, he questioned whether he was meant to have a relationship at all.

The Impact of Conflict Avoidance on a Relationship

123rf Stock Photo/antonioguiellen
A couple in conflict
Source: 123rf Stock Photo/antonioguiellen

Individuals vary in how they react to those distinct moments of tension aroused by such conflict. Some report impulsively obsessing about a past relationship.

Others begin doubting their real interest in a relationship or, like Jeff, their ability to be in a relationship. Some who are more prone to anger find themselves frequently angry and view anger as the issue rather than the experience of threat to their specific needs or desires.

And some react by directing their anger inward, a reaction that is conducive to feelings of depression and isolation. It’s important to emphasize that they may not always be fully conscious of factors causing the tension that contribute to undermining their commitment.

The lack of feeling safe fuels the tendency to be conflict avoidant and minimally communicative. However, these reactions may weaken a partner’s sense of safety in the relationship and subsequently lead to a constant push by one’s partner to discuss their feelings. At that point, the partner who is conflict avoidant may feel even more threatened and become even more distant.

Studies Regarding Conflict Avoidance and Commitment

It's important to emphasize that topic avoidance has been found to be associated with relational uncertainty, which in turn contributes to topic avoidance (Knobloch, 2004). It is no wonder that conflict avoidance can lead to ending the relationship, seeking connection outside of the relationship, or even domestic violence. Such interactions reflect how individuals with attachment avoidance enter relationships with internalized scripts for commitment aversion that lead them to expect relationship failure (Birnie et al., 2009).

Research suggests that an individual’s implicit theory of relationships (ITR) was a meaningful mediator in determining the strength of one’s commitment to a relationship (Knee et al., 2004). Accordingly, some maintain a theory of growth, the perspective that relationships develop gradually over time and that problem resolution inherently leads to a greater connection and a growing relationship.

Such individuals view conflicts as just a part of this commitment. They recognize that as two unique individuals, they bring to the relationship their personal perspectives on so many of the details that arise in a relationship. They find constructive ways of communicating because they are committed and engage in discussion that leads to an understanding of each other’s needs.

Additionally, one study found that future perspective is a major factor in determining commitment (Lemay Jr., 2016). Specifically, the research found that those who predicted a favorable relationship and pro-relationship behavior during relationship conflict led to greater relationship satisfaction and investment.

By contrast, individuals who are less committed are more prone to view conflicts and the tension they arouse as a true indication that such conflict will invariably lead to the end of the relationship. This Is an example of how an anxious attachment style can influence day-to-day interactions, even in a loving relationship.

Tips to Address Commitment Challenges When Caused by Conflict Avoidance

  1. Learn ways to address your fears of loss or rejection.
  2. Recognize how a need to please may inhibit more honest self-assertion.
  3. Reflect on how the need to please may inhibit you from becoming more connected with yourself–being aware of your core desires, values, and emotions.
  4. Cultivate self-compassion in an effort to be more resilient and connected with yourself.
  5. Develop skills in assertive communication and start practicing them by voicing your view in situations that might be the least threatening, those in which you might feel the greatest safety, i.e., stating what movie you wish to watch, how you would like to spend the evening, or where you would like to go for dinner.
  6. Certainly, counseling or psychotherapy can be beneficial in helping to gain self-awareness and develop the skills to feel greater safety in the midst of dealing with disagreement and conflict.

Our work together helped Jeff realize that conflict avoidance undermined his commitment. He also recognized how his tendency to please served him in the short term to avoid conflict. More specifically, he became aware of how this tendency was triggered by distinct moments of tension during which he felt invisible, like his feelings didn’t matter and that he could not express them without Jean becoming angry with him.

However, as he cultivated greater self-awareness, confidence, and resilience to be more authentic–with himself and his partner–he experienced a sense of empowerment and a more fulfilling and deeper connection with Jean.

Conflict avoidance is one underlying factor that can greatly impact our commitment to a relationship. However, with self-reflection, increased understanding, and the cultivation of specific skills, we can expand our openness to discuss conflict and, by doing so, strengthen our commitment.

References

Bernie, C., McClure, M. J., Lydon, J. & Holmberg, D. (2009) Attachment avoidance and commitment aversion: A script for relationship failure. Personal Relationships, Vol. 16, (1), 79-97.

Knee, C., Patrick, H., Vietor, N., & Neighbors, C., (2004). Implicit theories of relationships: Moderators of the link between conflict and commitment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 30, 5, 617-628. DOI: 10.1177/01461672032622853

Knobloch, L., and Carpenter-Theune, K. (2004). Topic avoidance in developing romantic relationships. Communications Research, Vol. 31, 2, 173-205. DOI: 10.1177/0093650203261516

Lemay, E., (2016). The forecast model of relationship commitment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 111, 1, 34-52. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000052Fee

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