One of the demons of human relationships is demonstrating avoidance behaviors as a way of resolving conflict. The following scenario is illustrative of this behavior:
Angie and John are in the beginning stages of a relationship. John is experiencing a need to see Angie more frequently than the occasional visits they have shared in the past. However, Angie isn’t sure that she wants to date John more frequently, so she decides not to respond to his invitations for a date. John becomes frustrated and wants to know how Angie is feeling about the relationship, but Angie, not wishing to hurt John’s feelings by denying his requests, chooses not to respond. When she contacts John again, she decides to change the topic and avoid responding to his previous requests.
In this scenario, Angie and John are experiencing conflict. John’s need for connection conflicts with Angie’s need for autonomy. By failing to confront the issue John raises, Angie may well think she is resolving it by allowing it to die. What she doesn’t realize is that her failure to respond is damaging whatever relationship the couple might have and is increasing her own anxiety in the process.
Sometimes we imagine that avoiding an issue is a way to resolve it. We think that by avoiding it altogether, it will die when in truth, we are creating resentment that causes uncertainty, resentment and high anxiety for both people involved.
Why is it that some of us cannot seem to meet conflict as a reality of interpersonal relationships and deal with it constructively? There is a psychology answer and a communication studies answer to this question. Let’s start with Psychology:
Writing for Psychology Today (Avoidance of Anxiety and Self-Sabotage: How Running Away can Bite You in the Behind), author Edward Selby argues that when we feel uncomfortable about a situation, our reaction may well be to avoid it (2012). But what Selby points out is that avoiding a situation because we are uncomfortable confronting it not only makes the situation worse but also creates unnecessary anxiety by keeping us from achieving our relational goals. In Angie’s case, avoidance not only harms John and keeps him from knowing where he stands with her, it also causes anxiety in her.
The Communication Studies response is slightly different but the outcome is similar. How we handle conflict depends on two factors, namely, the importance of the conflict to the relationship, and our personal conflict styles. In his book, “Interpersonal Conflict”, social scientist William Wilmot listed what he termed five styles of conflict management as “avoidance, competition, compromise, accommodation, and collaboration” (2012). How we manage a conflict situation depends a great deal on relational context and our conflict resolution skills. Taking this approach, Angie clearly needs some better skills to deal with interpersonal conflict.
Both approaches teach us that issues that directly affect the quality of a relationship should never be avoided because they make us feel uncomfortable or because we lack the necessary courage or communication skills to constructively deal with relational challenges.
When we avoid responding to important relational issues, such as John and Angie’s, we cause others to think that their feelings don’t matter to us. Eventually, they feel unimportant, marginalized. Consequently, others become uncertain about us and, if left unresolved, doubt our integrity and goodwill toward them. The result is that failing to deal with relational issues constructively can damage an otherwise perfectly good relationship, sometimes irreparably.
Granted, there are times when it may be best to avoid unnecessary conflict, especially if the issue or topic of conversation doesn’t pertain directly to the quality of our relationship or speak to deep-seated, shared values. In these instances, avoiding an unpleasant encounter may be a perfectly acceptable strategy.
However, when issues directly affect the quality of our relationships, it’s always better to confront them with strategies that actually seek to resolve them rather than avoid them. Overall, relational issues can be more effectively resolved through choosing better conflict styles such as compromise and collaboration rather than avoidance.
Good communicators are clear about their intentions and struggle to work through issues in their signfiicant relationships in an adult, mature manner. Allowing issues in a relationship to fester because we choose to avoid them rather than deal with them can be just as damaging to a relationship as other, more aggressive forms of conflict resolution. So be proactive in conflict resolution and keep your relationships healthy.