“Amanda” grew up in a family who often yelled and argued. She learned to hide in her room and play to avoid becoming part of frequent conflict. When things got heated, she’d stay quiet. When her older brother got in trouble, she made sure to follow the rules and not make anyone mad. Amanda naturally developed these behaviors as coping skills to escape anger and arguments. Subconsciously, she was protecting herself from emotional and psychological pain.
As we encounter difficult situations in life, we develop ways of coping to get through these experiences unscathed. As adults, challenges become more complex and our previous strategies may no longer serve us. In fact, these strategies may compound the problem! So how do you cope, when the way you used to handle things no longer applies?
Amanda is now married. She’s worked really hard to have a peaceful relationship without hostility and contention. When she considers talking to her husband about a difficult topic, she ends up avoiding the issue. She doesn’t say what she really wants or feels, to avoid potential conflict. She tries to use previous coping strategies, but ends up ignoring things that frustrate her, and when it seems like her husband might get angry, she shuts down.
Amanda’s honest attempts to protect herself and her marriage from unproductive arguing, have in fact contributed to an overall lack of communication. When Amanda avoids asserting herself for fear of disagreement, she dishonors her own valid needs. This creates a cycle where her voice is unheard, which causes her to feel resentful. As her frustration is repressed, she risks the chance of having an emotional meltdown or explosion – the very thing she is trying to avoid. When Amanda becomes emotionally overwhelmed and withdraws, it creates distance in the marriage and cultivates feelings of disconnect. Amanda is trying so hard to avoid conflict, while actually sabotaging her own success. As her now maladaptive coping skills contribute to a lack of communication, conflict resolution and connection with her husband, he becomes frustrated as well.
Amanda needs to get out of her own way. But how is this done? It’s scary to consider letting go of a previous coping strategy that seemed supportive in the past. Therapy can be helpful in creating a safe space for exploration and reflection. Through the therapy process, you can receive objective feedback on behaviors that may have the best intentions, but aren’t getting you the results you really need.
You can also ignite the fire of change in yourself right now. What strategies seem to be default for you when dealing with difficult circumstances? Do you get angry, withdraw, ruminate, try to control things, avoid, obsess or ignore? Being able to identify ineffective coping strategies, can give you the clarity needed to develop more successful approaches. Most people don’t like arguing in a hostile and combative environment, but assertive communication is an essential interpersonal skill. Confrontation doesn’t have to be a negative experience. In a constructive way, it facilitates open dialogue and supports conflict resolution, greater understanding and genuine connection.
Amanda realizes her conflict avoidance unintentionally gets in the way of open communication and understanding. She is able to adapt her coping skills and effectively circumvent frustration while enhancing connection in her relationships.