What do I do when my husband is avoiding conflict?

I was that husband avoiding conflict!

Here are three powerful insights that helped me stop avoiding conflict, and start engaging in a way that led us to a deeper connection as a couple.

Last week I wrote a personal account about how “Our fights started on our honeymoon! Is there any hope for us?”

The focus was on Sandy’s feeling of abandonment whenever I (Chuck) would withdraw from conflict.

Today’s focus is on how I felt controlled whenever Sandy would be upset about “being abandoned”.

Can any of you guys relate? No wonder I avoided conflict, right?

Here are some insights that helped me do my part to break this unhealthy pattern.

1. Avoiding conflict can activate the childhood wound of abandonment in your partner.

When I pulled away from Sandy to avoid conflict, I thought I was doing a good thing.

I thought, “Fighting is bad.” “Not fighting is good.” So let’s not fight.

I couldn’t understand why Sandy would get so hurt and upset when I was just “trying to do the right thing”.

It was because I didn’t see how avoiding conflict was affecting her.

My withdrawal triggered her feelings of abandonment at the deepest level.

According to Dr. Herb Tannenbaum, when our childhood wounds are triggered…

A five watt stimulus can produce a 1000 watt reaction.

So the first step for me was to become conscious of how my actions to avoid conflict activated Sandy’s childhood wound of abandonment.

You can read more about that process in last week’ post.

2. Avoiding conflict keeps you from getting the love you want.

Why did I avoid conflict?

Because I feared intimacy.

This strategy of avoidance helped me survive a childhood, where I often felt smothered and controlled.

As a child, connection and attachment was not a pleasurable experience.

So, in my adult relationship, I feared intimacy because it was tantamount to intrusion and absorption and control.

And yet what I craved more than anything was that very intimacy I was missing by avoiding conflict.

Wow! Talking about a dilemma!

I craved connection with Sandy. And yet I avoided the conflict that could lead us to that connection.

If conflict is handled well, it can lead you to a deeper connection and to getting the love you want.

We get married because we have found someone who will help us finish our childhood, by healing and recovering parts of ourselves lost along the way.

We know intuitively that this person is the key to feeling fully alive and whole again.

So marriage makes a lot of sense.

The problem is that conflict is what catalyzes the healing and growth that results in wholeness and full-aliveness.

So, if I’m avoiding conflict, I’m missing out on the whole deal.

I realized that Sandy and I did not feel connected. And by continuing to avoid conflict I was settling for less, willing to live in that disconnected state.

And it doesn’t end there. If you don’t address this it will get worse.

The partner who is avoiding intimacy will look for substitutes for that intimacy in things outside the marriage.

Things that bring a temporary feeling of being alive but it doesn’t last.

In my case, I was first driven to pursue my career with passion.

Nothing wrong with that in itself, but when it’s a replacement for the real intimacy missing in your marriage, it always turns out to be an empty illusion.

The more I would seek my full-aliveness in work…you guessed it.

The more Sandy would feel abandoned.

And although she was careful not to criticize, her negative feelings came through.

I just wasn’t measuring up!

And it was true.

What a wife needs most is to feel connected with her husband. And that feeling of connection was not there.

When the glory my career accomplishments faded, I turned to my lifelong love affair with music and my guitar became the new “mistress”.

Then it was my infatuation with road biking

…all good things, but all empty in the end.

When we’re in a marriage that doesn’t feel connected, we look for exits that we think can fill the emptiness and loneliness.

But they don’t really work. And the pattern continues.

Experts tell us that only 10% of married couples report having a truly satisfying relationship.

We were one of that 90% – staying married, but not happy campers.

The 90% settles for either a “silent divorce” where they remain together in agony and in separate lives…

…or they settle for a “parallel marriage” where they are relatively happy together, but most of their needs are being met outside the relationship through things like work, hobbies, social causes, sports, gaming, etc.

This is where we were.

But thanks to Sandy we didn’t settle there!

What did Sandy do? She talked about it.

And I’m glad she did, rather than settling for less.

I so admire her for that. She was able to identify what was missing in our marriage, and that is the reason we are where we are today.

So speak up. But do it in the context of a Safe Conversation so transformation of your relationship can occur.

Our marriage was transformed the day I realized that full-aliveness doesn’t come through all the things I was seeking outside our relationship.

Full-aliveness comes with safety, connection and passion in my relationship with Sandy.

Like Dorothy of the Wizard of Oz, I realized that everything I needed was right here with me all along.

But how did this change happen?

3. The “Commitment Dialogue” helps the “avoider” stay present and heal the one who feels abandoned.

Nothing happens in a relationship unless it’s safe.

One drop of negativity renders a conversation unsafe and therefore nothing transformational can happen.

Whenever someone withdraws from a conversation, the conversation is unsafe.

Whenever someone criticizes someone (even so called “constructive criticism”), the conversation is unsafe.

And did I say that nothing happens in a relationship unless it’s safe?

Oh yeah.

Ok, so how did you get to a Safe Conversation that brought about this change in you and Sandy?

The most powerful tool we found is called the Commitment Dialogue from Imago Couples Therapy.

Here’s how it went for Sandy and me.

After I integrated the first two insights I’ve shared above, i.e.,

1. My avoidance was hurting Sandy at the deepest level, not because I was evil, but because neither of us were conscious of the childhood wound of abandonment that was so painful.

2. My avoidance was ripping me off from the experience of full-aliveness in my relationship with Sandy.

I was ready to do…

3. The Commitment Dialogue.

Here is a summary of what happened:

Chuck made an appointment to dialogue with Sandy.

Chuck began with the sentence stem, “One activity I use to avoid connecting with you is…” And I talked about how I withdraw when I feel criticized.

Sandy mirrored using the stem, “What I hear you saying is..” She checked for accuracy by asking, “Did I get it?” And then she remained curious by asking, “Is there more about that?”

Chuck continued with more details that went deeper into his childhood.

BTW: Curiosity helped Sandy regulate her reactive emotions, and made it safe for Chuck to access his feelings.

(As a result, several new insights dropped out of  my unconscious mind, helping Sandy to better see and know the real me. And it helped me to see me too :-).

Can you see how it would have shut things down if Sandy had allowed feelings of abandonment to cause her to react rather than remain curious?

Did I say nothing can happen in a relationship that’s not safe?)

Sandy summarized what Chuck said and then VALIDATED it, using the stem “Chuck, what you’re saying makes sense, and what makes sense about it is…

Then she EMPATHIZED with Chuck saying, “I can imagine that it feels…”

Chuck finished the dialogue by saying, “I’m committing today to keep talking about this with words, rather than acting it out and withdrawing from conflict.”

At this point the new paradigm was integrated, a shift occurred, and Chuck transformed fundamentally into an “engager” rather than an “avoider”.

It’s not perfect, but it is truly a fundamental shift that has changed everything.

Now when I feel criticized or controlled, I’m working toward facing it and talking about it rather than avoiding it.

That new area of growth for me is hard. But it enables me to be present with Sandy when she needs it most.

When I do that, it brings healing for her.

The area of growth for her is learning to communicate her feelings in a safe way with zero negativity.

And of course that means healing for me.

And that makes it much easier to stay present with her and deepen our connection.

The old cycle of criticism and withdrawal is being replaced with one of safety and connection.

This new partnership of healing and growth is a “win-win” to say the least.

Share you insights and questions below…and, if you haven’t already, be sure to…

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4 warning signs that your marriage is in trouble (and what to do about it)

Perplexed about problems in your marriage? Looking for solutions?

“I didn’t know we had marriage troubles, but then, without any warning, she left!”

“I felt a little strain in the relationship, but didn’t think it was a problem until I saw a text message revealing his affair!”

Marriages blow up! And sometimes it happens unexpectedly!

If you’re reading this and thinking “Who me? No, we’re doing fine.”

Good. I hope so.

…but read on, just in case.

Because some couples don’t see the signs of the end until it’s too late.

What are the signs that my marriage is in trouble?

John Gottman researched it, and what he found was this:

Four communication styles that predict the end of a relationship with over 90% accuracy.

Gottman calls them, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.

 

As I briefly describe these warning signs, ask yourself, "Are any of these present in my relationship?"

And if so, consider the answer I provide at the end, and let’s head off the horsemen before it’s too late!

THE WARNING SIGNS THAT YOUR RELATIONSHIP IS IN TROUBLE:

1. CRITICISM

Instead of dealing with the problem, you attack your partner’s character.

It looks something like this.

“You’re so selfish!”

When a conflict happens are you prone to attack your partner?

But Chuck my partner IS selfish!

Sure it feels that way, but can I let you in on a little secret?

It’s because he’s only seeing his reality and not yours. 

But guess what?  The same is true for you! 

You’re only seeing your reality and not his.

Hmm.

You say he’s selfish. And what is he saying (or thinking)?

"You're selfish!"

"No! You're selfish!"

Am I close?

It’s that limited, one-sided view of your relationship, that makes you seem selfish to each other. The psychological term for this is symbiosis.

So what do we do? How do we stop the mudslinging?

The answer is differentiation. The ability to hold your reality and his at the same time.

Differentiation can happen through the Couples Dialogue.

The Imago Couples Dialogue will help you begin to see your partner not just as someone who is “selfish”, but someone who is actually trying making a legitimate need known. 

Harville Hendrix said

Every criticism is a wish in disguise!

You just didn’t know there was actually something very legitimate behind that expression of “self”. 

But perhaps this was the real problem:

Your partner expressed it in a way that didn’t acknowledge your reality, making you feel stepped on.

Well that makes sense!

This is what causes us to be defensive and see our partner as selfish.

We both have the idea, 

“You and I are one. And I am the one.”

And there’s this power struggle.

Right?

The Couples Dialogue can help you transform a conflict into an awesome opportunity for growth and healing. More on that later.

Let’s look at the second of the signs of demise.

2. CONTEMPT

Contempt is when you assume a position of moral superiority.

Like…

“What an idiot!”

Remember that saying by Irving Becker?

“If you don’t like someone, the way he holds his spoon will make you furious; if you do like him, he can turn his plate over into your lap and you won’t mind.”

Contempt is fueled when couples don’t feel connected. They start not liking each other.

“The way he hold his spoon make me furious.”

“I can’t stand all those annoying habits.”

“The way he eats disgust me.”

That’s contempt.

Things that really didn’t bother you when you were close, now repulse you.

Here’s a secret.

It's not the annoying habits that are the problem, it's that you don't feel connected.

Once you reconnect all this contempt goes away.

I promise.

But here’s a sobering reality.

If I don’t deal with contempt, that is the beginning of the end.

Gottman says, of all these predictors, this one is the biggest predictor of divorce.

There is an answer; a way to turn your contempt into close connection and rekindled love. 

We’ll get to that later.

But first, for those who still looking for danger signs in your relationship, here’s another one. 

Keep your eyes open. Grab some more coffee if you need to.

3. DEFENSIVENESS

Rather than seeing my role in the relationship problem, it’s easier to blame you.

“It’s not my fault we’re always late!”

And wherever you find defensiveness there is always blaming.

“If you weren’t so controlling our children wouldn’t be so out of control!”

Have you ever wondered why your partner sometimes reacts in a way that is extreme? Or have you noticed yourself doing that?

There’s a reason behind that extreme reaction that your may not be seeing.

If that’s true then your partner is only the trigger. 

The source of your reaction might be a childhood wound, frustration or need of which you’re not even conscious.

This means you might be blaming your partner for a frustration they are triggering, but in reality that is not where the pain is actually coming from.

I think I would want to know this, if it is indeed true.

It sounds complicated and mysterious but really it isn’t.

And there is a solution. Keep reading.

The final sign that my relationship is tanking is…

4. STONEWALLING

Stonewalling = Rather than talk about our problems, I’m too hopeless to even try.

“Just forget it.”

You stonewall when it’s just too painful to even hope that things could ever change.

There’s a fatal sense of resignation that is palpable when partners are stonewalling.

Some see stonewalling as a way to keep the peace.

But things that aren’t talked out always get acted out.

In one way or another.

Sometimes a partner will stuff it until it blows like a volcano.

Others will stuff it until it severs the feeling of connection completely. 

Then they don’t even care to resolve it.

That’s when stonewalling becomes your lifestyle.

You’re no longer living with your partner; you’re only living with his or her defenses. Yikes.

Stonewalling may avoid conflict temporarily but it won’t help you reconnect.

Is there a better way?

 

"So, what is the answer, Chuck? How do I eliminate these destructive patterns from my relationship?"

Imago Couples Dialogue

This is the tool I use with couples every week in many different forms.

(Click here to print out this tool for your own use.)

Everything we do in Imago Relationship Therapy is based on this basic and powerful approach.

It’s more than a communication tool. Communication isn’t your only problem. You can communicate and still not feel connected. 

It’s more than conflict resolution. You can even resolve your problem but still not feel connected. As a matter of fact, if you’re just talking about your problem, you may never solve THE problem, which is not feeling connected.

It’s more than active listening. It’s listening in a way that leads to differentiation – seeing your partner’s reality as valid, and empathizing in a way that transforms how you see your partner while making it safe for you to connect.

Imago Couples Dialogue can help you transform your relationship.

You can turn...

CRITICISM into healthy self-expression that results in connection.

CONTEMPT into a safe connection where romance is rekindled.

DEFENSIVENESS into a conscious awareness of my own part in the problem, and that my partner is not the villain I thought she was.

STONEWALLING into a new hope that I can be heard and validated by my partner, and that he can be with me in my pain and in my fear.

Wow! I want that.

Here’s how the dialogue works.

There are thee parts: Mirroring, Validation and Empathy.

MIRRORING

Mirroring slows things way down.

Mirroring involves taking turns talking, where one talks and the other listens.

It seems awkward and wooden at first but keep going because it works.

If you’re the one listening, after your partner gives a few sentences about their concern, repeat what was said in your own words. Then ask, “Did I get it?” Then ask, “Is there more about that?”

Those questions help you stay curious and regulate your own reactions.

Let her continue talking until she feel completely heard.

MIRRORING says to your partner, “You matter. I see you. You’re worth being heard and understood.”

After your partner says everything needed to be said, SUMMARIZE it, to once again make sure you got it.

Then the next step is Validation.

VALIDATION

To validate what your partner said simply complete this sentence:

“What you said makes sense. And what makes sense about it is…”

VALIDATION says to your partner, “Even though I may see things differently, you make sense.”

Did you get that part about “I may see things differently”

That’s right. Don’t let your need to be right sabotage the dialogue that will help you connect.

Here’s the point: Your partner IS different! 

Your partner is not what you project on him or what you expect her to be. 

That’s romantic fantasy. 

Now you’re in reality. 

A real relationship with ANOTHER person. Did you get that?  an “other” person. Different from you. Wow!

Though the Dialogue process what you discover is she’s not what you thought she was.

But now you’re curious and exploring her, rather that playing tug of war with her.

And you find that, although there is brokenness and scars and sensitivities you didn’t know about, she really is beautiful and fascinating in all that brokenness.

Now you’re on your way t0 connecting!

EMPATHY

You empathize by finishing these kinds of statements with what you now see and understand.

“Given all that, I imagine you feel…”

“Are those the feelings?”

Empathizing says to your partner, 

I know what it’s like to experience your pain or fear or joy.”

“And I’m present with you in that feeling.”

Keep going in this Dialogue until you see a breakthrough in your relationship.

So, if you see some of these predictors of doom in your relationship,

the Couples Dialogue can help you address and eliminate them, and bring you into a deeper connection with each other.

(Click here to print out The Couple’s Dialogue.)

Try it! And let me know if I can help

Also, please share in the comments below your thoughts, questions and stories so we can all learn from you.

Until next week,

Chuck

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