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Livingston Families

Conflict Avoidance = Intimacy Avoidance.

10/12/2012 15:57 ● By Rick McGarry
By  Kim Menzel, LMSW

No words create more avoidance or discomfort in the heart of a married person than the words conflict, argument, dispute, disagreement, fight, or quarrel. The bad news is that conflict is unavoidable. Even the most well-intentioned, mature, reasonable person cannot avoid conflict in marriage. Conflict happens, and those who can skillfully manage it are much more likely have a happy and successful marriage. Using some simple strategies can change the most skittish conflict avoider into a confident conflict resolver. In 20 years as a marriage and family therapist, I have witnessed miraculous transformation in couples when they learned how to deal with “big” feelings around disagreements. Fair fighting rules can turn a battle zone into a safe zone.

In a 25-year study of the habits of happy, long-term marrieds, John Gottman, a leading marriage researcher, found that he could easily predict which couples would divorce simply by observing how they dealt with conflict (or didn’t). Happy long-term marriages require proactive and respectful conflict management. At the 25-year check in, Gottman found that conflict avoidant couples were also likely to divorce. To stay married couples can’t avoid conflict or do things that escalate conflict. So, what to do?

First, it is important to remind yourself that there is no such thing as a couple who agrees on everything. Conflict avoidance = intimacy avoidance. Couples who avoid direct communication on any potentially charged topic will never develop a deep understanding of one another and cannot have true intimacy. It isn’t possible to “nice” your way to long-term, successful marriage. The key to a stable, long-lasting relationship is the ability to address differences in a positive way that allows the couple to grow stronger through the conflict. Yes, it is possible. Conflict is an opportunity for growth and deeper intimacy.

Effective strategies for dealing with couple conflict include:

  • Communicate with “I” statements instead of blaming or pointing the finger at your partner (I felt hurt when you forgot our anniversary).
  • Express specific needs (when X happened, I felt Y, I want Z).
  • Mirror back what you heard your partner say (I hear you say that when I’m late and keep you waiting, you feel that you aren’t important to me. I will try harder to be on time.) 
  • Use fair fighting rules (see below).

The fair fighting rules create a framework for safe conflict resolution. They reduce fear of abandonment and of things getting out of control; as well as build trust that the relationship can withstand disagreement. The rules include: no name calling or insults, no yelling or use of force, no threats to leave (leave the word divorce off the table), stay in the present. Don’t bring up the past, focus on one issue at a time, agree to take a time-out if things escalate. (See to print a fridge door version of fair fighting rules for couples.)

 Conflict is inevitable. Suffering is optional. Vaccinate your marriage with the skills needed to stay happily together for the long haul. 

 Kim Menzel, LMSW has worked with couples and families for 20+ years as a therapist and operates Menzel Mediation & Counseling Center in Brighton. She is also a mediator and member of L.I.P.A., a local community professional organization devoted to increasing the use of mediation in all types of disputes and, in particular, focusing on out-of-court options in family law. For more information about L.I.P.A., its members, and its free public seminars, please
Watch for Kim's article "Kids and Conflict" in the November issue.

Kim has some ideas about how parents can manage conflict on page 6 of the November issue,

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