Conflict Avoidant? You're Normal.

Every now and then I hear some version of the following when a new couple arrives at my office: “He’s afraid of conflict so we never talk about anything important.” or “I’m just conflict avoidant, I guess. I’m afraid of starting an argument.” These kinds of statements carry a negative message, that a particular situation would be a whole lot better if someone wasn’t afraid of conflict. Fearing conflict, however, is not the problem; fear itself is a normal human emotion. How to respond when feeling fear is the healing question.

I have a hypothesis about conflict avoidance: Human beings have survived on this planet for two hundred thousand years, in part, because we are conflict avoidant. While countless examples of human violence may seem to contradict this assertion (many aggressive and violent acts can be understood as conflict avoidant, however), the vast majority of human beings cooperate with one another for their mutual interest, enjoyment, and survival. We humans are social animals. I believe we evolved an adaptive drive for emotional and social connection because getting kicked out of the tribe on the plains of Africa meant trouble. With no fangs or claws to defend ourselves, a solitary human was an easy meal for hyaenas and cheetahs. Getting along with family and tribal members was the difference between life and death.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century. Although many modern comforts make our lives less precarious than the lives of our ancestors, the structure of our brains has not changed for thousands of years. We still fear conflict and the potential for disruption and pain conflict represents in our relationships. The scientific evidence seems to demonstrate, as well, that people live longer and feel better when connected to a larger social group. From this perspective, fear of conflict is a normal desire to remain within the familiar surroundings of a safe family or tribe.

Understanding that most people, myself included, are conflict avoidant helps us stop seeing ourselves as needing to be fixed or different. Humans are marvelously adaptive; the reason our species has survived all these millennium. Avoiding conflict is itself adaptive; it orients the vast majority of us toward pathways for maintaining connection and relationship for our health and survival. But inevitably, of course, modern life poses dilemmas which make conflict unavoidable and even preferable to the status quo. Then what?

First, acknowledging and accepting your fear of conflict can help you relax more in even the smallest ways. With incremental relaxation you can think more clearly and creatively (adaptively) about potential solutions. Second, you might share your fear of conflict with your partner; an intimate and loving gesture because you reveal your vulnerability. Third, you can learn to have conversations expressing your hopes and fears in a way that invites the same transparency from your mate. These conversations deepen intimacy, love and connection.

Fear of conflict is normal. You are normal. Remember the old saying: Courage is not the absence of fear; courage is having fear and acting anyway. Acknowledging and accepting the complete range of human emotion, especially your fears, is the key to taking action and creating solutions. --Doug