Studies have shown that having a functional communication style is crucial to the success and longevity of a relationship. Nothing puts our communication style to the test quite like handling conflict with those closest to us.
For instance, when there is tension between my partner and me, I struggle to let go, to sleep on it or walk away. I feel an intense need for closure and can’t settle until we have reached a resolution. This is not always a good approach. To push for an outcome can seem confrontational, escalating emotions and causing the other person to retreat.
Avoiding conflict isn’t healthy either. Avoidance can build resentment in the person who is not expressing their needs, resulting in passive aggression and repressed hostility.
When one person expresses their needs, and the other partner fails to acknowledge and engage, it can be even more damaging. Sometimes referred to as ‘stonewalling’, in this scenario one partner demands and the other retreats, refusing to engage with their partner’s requests entirely, for instance by walking away, evading or shutting down any topic they don’t want to discuss. The more the stonewaller avoids, the more their partner demands, and the more that partner demands, the more the stonewaller retreats.
As frustration levels rise, one or both partners can become increasingly agitated or even hostile. The person making a demand may use anger, intimidation or emotional blackmail to try to get a response, while the stonewaller may use similar tactics to dissuade their partner from making demands. Both styles rely on manipulation rather than clear and assertive communication to get what they want.
At either end of the communication spectrum — confrontational and avoidant — one partner, or both, is forced to suck-it-up and accommodate negative behaviour no matter how damaging, simply to keep the peace. Neither partner feels heard or understood and nothing ever really gets resolved. If one partner continues to make compromises, this can evolve into an abusive dynamic where one person has all the power and the other none.
We tend to learn communication styles from those modelled in the home. I grew up in a volatile environment where family members hurled emotions at one another regardless of their source and demanded resolution irrespective of whether we had reached an understanding. The louder and more intimidating you could be the more opportunity you had to get your way. No slight, no conflict, went un-concluded (I won’t use the word resolved, because issues were almost never resolved). The demander, in this case, would hunt the withdrawer down, shout, stomp his or her feet, and use physical intimidation to force a confrontation.
To quiet the screams, the put-upon party was forced to ‘make up’ and meet the demands, no matter how unreasonable. Confrontations typically began with ‘I’m sorry, but…’ and finished with a justification for why their anger was your fault. Our mother’s way of coping and of restoring some kind of peace (understandably), was to force a truce with an apology from both sides. Any detente was temporary, however, until someone needed a punching bag or an audience for his or her emotions once more. If you didn’t want to be on the other end of an eruption, or you wanted to get out once one had begun, it was best to simply give in, and if the demander was looking for a fight, to quickly duck for cover.
I once had a partner at the other end of the spectrum. Just as I grew up in a household where anger was expressed immediately and explosively, he grew up in a home where his parents never fought and where a raised voice was a relationship-extinction-level event. His only model for conflict was manipulation and avoidance and so he never learnt to express his needs until he would explode (privately), but sometimes with lasting damage.
An example of this was when his pent-up resentment one day detonated at his workplace. His employer had underpaid him for several years while he worked horrendous hours and avoided ever speaking up. Eventually, he took his frustration out on a very expensive printing machine. He paid the price (literally) for his lack of assertion, and while he fantasised about vengeance, he continued underpaid until he finally resigned.
In our relationship, we both paid the price: I felt disconnected and lonely and never really knew how he felt. When we eventually broke up, he admitted he found it easier to retreat than deal with any expression of frustration or dissatisfaction. Instead, he used quiet manipulation and passive-aggression in an (unsuccessful) attempt to get his needs met.
From that experience, I learnt that finding out how (and if) your partner handles conflict and what resolution models they might have had is as important as knowing whether they want three children and a white picket fence.
I began to spend time observing my own conflict process, my tendency to force a close at times and to avoid at others. I stopped apologising unless it was sincere. ‘I’m sorry, but…’ is not a true apology. Nor is saying, ‘I’m sorry’ simply because someone else is upset. I realised I am not responsible for their emotions.
I also discovered that I feel torn when experiencing difficult emotions. Part of me desperately wants to avoid conflict, but part of me wants to resolve any issues immediately, to quiet the anxious fear that if I don’t close the deal, make up and apologise, the relationship (and I) will not be okay. This can urge me toward a premature conclusion, and a tendency to force a confrontation, while risking pushing my partner away.
I have also observed that during the grip of intense feelings, which can take a while to process, I can struggle to put words to my emotions. I try not to feel cornered into giving an immediate response. At the same time, it is important to let my partner know that I am not avoiding or stonewalling; I am simply not ready to engage. In my extended silence, the pieces are still sorting themselves into something that makes sense. Anything I say before this process has finished will be half-formed, inaccurate and possibly even damaging or hurtful. I may not be able to give an answer right away, but I need to let my partner know I am not shutting him out.
I have also learnt that when I express anger and frustration, this has an impact on my partner. He can feel that the anger is personal, that I am angry with him, not simply angry, and withdraw and it might take time for him to feel okay again. Presumably, this is what he learnt from his family’s conflict model. Instead, I need to sit with the anxiety and fear, not force a close. I need to be patient and take responsibility for the way I feel and not hound him to make me feel okay again. Just as I need time to process, he needs time to heal, and he is not responsible for my emotions.
It has been a long journey to get to this point and I still have a long way to go. With a degree of self-awareness and consideration for the impact our conflict and communication styles have on each other, we have been able to step back, reflect, and ask one another, how do you feel when I do this or when I express that? What can we observe about ourselves, about each other, and the way we process emotions and respond to conflict?
It’s easy for experts to say ‘be more assertive’ but it takes a lot of practice to feel comfortable speaking up for what you want, when saying ‘no’ or even using ‘I statements’ can feel confrontational and induce guilt. As we learn how to communicate in healthy and productive ways, it helps to have each other’s support, which means identifying and sharing what our patterns are and where they came from. Because it’s not only what you discuss but how you discuss it that has an impact on your every day. Given how crucial communication style and conflict resolution are to your relationship’s success, it’s something best not left to chance.