How to Deal with a Spouse Who Can’t Handle Conflict
Does this describe anyone you know? Avoids conflict at all costs. Hates when someone is mad at them. Shuts down when emotions get intense. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to describe your spouse. I was describing myself. I’m the spouse who can’t handle conflict at times. Though I sometimes justify the behavior, I know it’s not healthy. I know it affects my marriage in so many negative ways.
Since your spouse and I have a lot in common, let me give you some tips on how to deal with a spouse who can’t handle conflict.
Look at yourself first.
Are you combative? Is winning the conflict more important to you than the relationship? Do you approach every small issue like it’s a big deal? You may have come from a family where everyone fussed, cussed, and discussed while your spouse may be more reserved. Create a safe, nonjudgmental space to discuss differing opinions. It’s important that both of you are heard, valued, and respected.
Tone of Voice Matters.
Yelling, screaming, and an overly aggressive tone will lead to your spouse shutting down. Express your thoughts and emotions with your words and a quieter intensity. That way, you’re better able to focus on the issue.
Ask, “When is a good time to talk about this issue?”
Some conflict-avoidant people experience anxiety just engaging in disagreements. Give your spouse the opportunity to mentally address their anxiety, get their thoughts together, and enter the conversation with a more relaxed mindset.
If your spouse says something like, “I don’t want to talk about this right now,” don’t hear that they don’t want to talk to you. Instead, keeping in mind that tone of voice matters, ask when is a good time? Your spouse will feel respected while you’re getting a commitment to address the issue.
Your spouse continually has internal battles. Their desire is to engage wholeheartedly and resolve the conflict versus their tendency to shut down, become defensive, or stonewall. Where you may be much better at communicating your thoughts, emotions, and wants, your spouse may bounce back and forth from being defensive to being vulnerable. Revisiting conversations that you thought were resolved isn’t unusual when your spouse is working to do better at engaging in conflict. Be understanding if they share more of themselves in a follow-up conversation. Of course, you’d like them to have shared it the first time, but they may have been more focused on avoiding the conflict than resolving the issue the first time.
Encourage your spouse to speak first when possible.
People who avoid conflict will often change their thoughts because of what their partner has already said in an effort to keep the peace. Encouraging your spouse to speak first increases the likelihood they will express their true thoughts and desires.
Don’t talk over them or finish their statements.
This sends the message that you don’t respect their perspective or opinion. Your spouse needs to communicate their perspective and not have it done for them.
Start with “I,” not “You.”
Instead of accusing, (You always…) use an “I” statement that reflects your own feelings and subjective experiences. Avoid criticizing your partner, because fights are often not about our partners. They are usually about our feelings and expectations.
Focusing on what you know, think, feel, and want as opposed to making statements about what you believe your spouse knows, thinks, feels, and wants leads to better communication and understanding during conflict.
Together, decide on a plan to deal with conflict.
There are many techniques available. The speaker-listener technique is a good one. Learning a technique, even though it may not come naturally at first, can help you focus on the issue and the solution while ensuring that both of you feel heard.
Don’t expect change, but celebrate growth.
Your spouse will most likely never begin to lean into conflict the way you do. It may always be an effort for them to engage in disagreements. By building a track record of resolving issues, being heard, and overcoming their anxieties, they may become more willing to come to the table and work through any disagreements. Affirm and celebrate progress.
You and your spouse are wired differently for a variety of reasons. What you may think is a peaceful conversation or debate may be causing your spouse anxiety because they see it as conflict. Never forget: you’re on the same team. Conflict is inevitable within marriage. Your different personalities are meant to complement one another. It will take effort and time for both of you. Your challenges are different. Patiently loving one another and gently working together to work through the issues you’re sure to face will strengthen your relationship and pass on a healthy legacy to those you influence.
I’m 16 years into my marriage and no, I still don’t look forward to conflict. But the understanding my wife and I have for each other has helped us to tackle and resolve some large marriage and family issues TOGETHER. We’re better for it and so is our marriage.
***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***
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