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Why Are We So Afraid of Conflict?


Why Are We So Afraid of Conflict?

Recently, I was running a group therapy session. The topic we were working with was conflict. I asked the members for their initial reactions when conflict comes to mind. I was met with “I hate it,” “I avoid it like the plague,” “it’s the worst,” “it makes me anxious.” These refrains are not uncommon and likely resonate. Members of my group shared they experience conflict most often in their families of origin and in their romantic relationships. This is unsurprising. We receive a blueprint for how to navigate conflict, problem solving, and our most well worn emotional repertoire from our family. This gets edited by peers, colleagues, and other kinds of social experiences we have as we age. One of the troublesome elements of romantic partnership is that the kinks in that blueprint often get worked out, or simply activated, once we find a person who feels safe, who we love deeply, who, dare I say, we might consider family.

No one enjoys fighting with a partner, but sometimes conflict can be important in better understanding what your values are, what you are afraid of, and what is emotionally/logistically relevant to the life you are building together. Conflict, should you choose to experiment with this reframe, can be viewed as an opportunity to collaborate and confront roadblocks as a team. The challenge with this idea stems from how easily conflict can become adversarial. Often members of a couple feel that conflict must be resolved in one sitting, which can lead to emotional flooding and saying hurtful things one might regret later. In order to experience staged and more thoughtful conflict, one must be prepared to sit in some discomfort until the topic is revisited, or at least be able to pause the discussion without assuming that leaving the issue temporarily unresolved is a harbinger of doom. This is not easy, but can help shift the quality of discussion and experience of conflict between you and your partner.

John Gottman, is one of the premiere couples therapists working in the field today. He founded the “Love Lab” in Seattle, where he’s studied the physiological responses of couples to their partners for over 40 years. He’s leveraged this concrete scientific research into a sophisticated and accessible theory of couples work. Central to his methodology is that there is nothing wrong with arguments and conflict. The presence of repair attempts, or how you prevent negative escalation, is more important than the presence of conflict between a couple. A repair attempt may be a silly face, a shift in body language, or an appropriate joke, any of which allows you to remember you are on the same team in a challenging moment. One of my favorite Gottman interventions uses heart rate as an indicator of needing a time out. Next time you and your partner are discussing a more challenging topic, keep an eye on your heart rate (easy to do if you have any kind of smartwatch or fitness device). If your beats per minute surpass 100, take a time out for at least 20-30 minutes. You need to clearly communicate this need to your partner and assure them you will come back, in order to avoid sparking any feelings of abandonment or dismissal. In those 20 minutes do something calming; take a walk, listen to a podcast, take a shower, etc. The activity you choose needs to steer you away from ruminative thought in which you rehash the conversation and continue to rev. Once the 20-30 minutes have elapsed, come back and try again.

Approaching conflict differently can unlock new possibilities of relating to each other. In addition to learning how to view conflict more productively, couples therapy (please hyperlink this phrase to the Couples therapy service page) should attend to highlighting and building on areas of strength. Coming to couple’s therapy doesn’t have to signal a relationship in crisis, but rather can be seen as an opportunity to build a strong and sophisticated foundation that can withstand whatever the future may bring.

Written by Siena deLisser, Registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern

Siena uses a Solution Focused Brief Therapy perspective, which seeks to uncover overlooked strengths and amplifies what is working for you. She believes that each client is rich in their own resources and ability to problem solve. Sometimes one simply needs the assistance of an additional perspective to solve a problem. Siena blends in elements of Narrative therapy, which seeks to interrogate how your society, culture, and family of origin have shaped your identity.


Contact her to learn how she can help you rewrite the story you want, not the one you have inherited.

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Licensed Mental Health Counselors and Marriage & Family Therapy Professionals.
817 South University Drive, Suite 121
Plantation, FL 33324