How to Have Conflict with an Avoidant Person

Conflicts and disagreements are a natural part of any relationship. Some parents try to shield their children from witnessing marital conflict, when in fact, research shows children benefit from watching healthy marital conflict. As a result of modeling conflict resolution, children learn coping skills for the inevitable conflicts they face with friends.

When we are in a close relationship with another person, we will step on each other’s toes. Sue Johnson, a couples therapist and researcher, uses the analogy of dance. When we are dancing closely with another person, we will eventually trip each other up. An avoidant person will want to step off the dance floor instead of work through the dance steps.

If you or your partner have a tendency to avoid and emotionally shut off, then the avoidance can be very destructive to your relationship. John Gottman, a couples researcher, terms avoidant behavior as stonewalling. According to Gottman’s research, stonewalling is one of the best predictors of divorce.

Stonewalling behavior includes:

  • Turning away
  • Tuning out
  • Acting busy
  • Engaging in obsessive behaviors

First, it is important to understand that most people become avoidant in an effort to preserve the relationship. Some people fear conflict will involve too much emotional intensity. Ironically, avoidance builds a brick wall between two people and actually results in emotional isolation.

How to Avoid Stonewalling:

1) If you both feel too emotionally charged to think clearly, then agree to take a break to self-soothe. Perhaps, go for walk, take a minute to breathe, read a book, or any other productive self-soothing activity.

2) Use a curious tone instead of a critical tone. Here is an example: the issue involves arriving home late without calling/texting your partner.

Critical: “You are so selfish! You never call to tell me you are going to be late.”

Curious: “We’ve talked about calling or texting each other if we are running late. I wonder what’s going on here because you didn’t call me.”

3) If you or your partner have already become avoidant, then quickly start to engage in honest dialogue without blaming. Instead, take accountability for your tone and actions.

Blaming: “Here you go again, walking away from our discussion. You always walk away!”

Engaging with Accountability: “It feels like you are disconnecting. I’m sure my critical tone before was not helpful and I take accountability for my tone and am sorry. When you are running late and don’t call me, I feel like you don’t care about me. Let’s start again and see what we can do to make sure we connect with each other when we are running late.”

4) Practice! When we want to integrate a new behavior into your lives, we need to practice. This type of honest, accountable communication requires practice. And in many cases, the relationship is well worth the practice.

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