7 Subtle Destructive Things That Happen When You Avoid Awkward Conversations With Your Partner

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man kissing woman who seems detached

It can happen suddenly. You wake up on a frosty morning, and there’s something different about your partner. They’re a little less affectionate, offering staccato responses, smiling and interacting less.

You ask what’s wrong and receive a cool-sounding, “Nothing,” in response.

You ask if they’re okay, and hear a short, “I’m fine."

Other times, tension in a relationship can develop gradually, like a thick fog rolling in over a bridge of days, weeks, or months … (please, not years!). This creates an opaque distance between you and your partner. Sometimes you know where it comes from (eg. an ongoing disagreement about parenting or managing finances).

Navigating conflict can be intimidating and stressful for many of us.

We intentionally veer away from whatever we anticipate might be an uncomfortable conversation.

This varies from person to person.Someone may find a particular topic daunting to discuss, while another is able to engage the same subject with ease.

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We may avoid conversations we worry could hurt our partner's feelings. We don’t want to share that we’re feeling less attracted or less sexually fulfilled in our relationship. We hesitate to disagree with our partner’s lifestyle, decisions, or personal taste.

Sometimes we simply don’t know how to share what we are experiencing. It can be difficult to tell our partner that our in-laws are driving us crazy, or that we’re tired of hearing our partner complain about a situation at work, yet do nothing to change it.

The good news is, most couples (even the most healthy and loving) have experienced this at some point.

No relationship is perfect or without some degree of conflict.

The bad news is, if left unchecked and uncommunicated, conflict or uncomfortable conversations easily escalate over time, like compounding interest rates. What begins as a seemingly small and insignificant situation, can become magnified and complicated over time.

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Seven significant risks of avoiding uncomfortable conversations

1. What we repress grows stronger.

The more we try not to think or talk about something that is bothering us, the more mental and emotional real estate it takes up in our minds.

This is referred to as ironic process theory, in which research indicates that the more we suppress something, the more likely it is to surface. (Whatever you do, don’t think about a white bear!)

2. Unmet needs become untamed vices.

If our basic needs for safety, connection, and meaning are left unfulfilled, we are more likely to seek out alternatives (other types of relationships, sources of distraction, addictive behaviors, etc). These alternatives are typically inadequate substitutions for what is truly missing from our lives, merely a band-aid on a fractured relationship.

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3. We feel alone in our relationship.

If we neglect to express our feelings or needs, our partner will not know what we’re experiencing. When we don’t feel seen, understood, or prioritized by our partner, it can feel like the worst kind of loneliness.

This contributes to an increasing sense of distance and a self-perpetuating cycle of disconnection.

4. Resentment grows like a weed.

When we don’t cultivate and nourish our relationship with intentional respect and honesty, the foundation becomes vulnerable to intrusive assumptions.

We might think our partners should know what we need or feel without us having to spell it out for them. We become angry and frustrated and blame them when they miss the mark. As a result, we are more likely to become withdrawn, passive-aggressive, and/or emotionally detached.

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5. Tension becomes the new normal.

The longer we avoid initiating uncomfortable conversations or denying the tension in a relationship, the more this pattern becomes the default mode of our relationship.

We organize our interactions around this avoidance, and tension and the stress it causes become a defining quality of our relationship.

6. Holding it in is a health hazard.

Side-stepping the giant elephant in the middle of the room takes a toll, not only on the quality and connection of the relationship but also on our individual health and vitality. Some studies suggest that inhibiting self-expression can lead to a suppressed immune system.

In addition, when we’re not clear about what’s happening with our partner, we may jump to conclusions, blow things out of proportion, or go to worst-case scenarios, leading to an overall increase in stress and anxiety.

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7. Trust fades rapidly.

One of the hallmarks of trust is a sense of safety. It can be very difficult to feel safe and secure in a relationship when we don’t know what’s happening with our partner, or we feel unable to share our own experiences.

Conversely, the more we engage in uncomfortable conversations successfully, the more we learn to trust in the stability and resilience of our relationship and the reliability of our partner.

Here are a few ways to tackle those uncomfortable conversations you've been avoiding: 

Be calm. Approach difficult conversations when you feel calm and well-rested and have the time and space to navigate whatever arises. Schedule a date if necessary. Take a deep breath and maintain a respectful and kind stance toward your partner.

Find a comfortable setting when you’re uncomfortable. Chose a neutral and safe environment for challenging conversations.

That might mean a public place or a quiet, intimate corner of the house. Identify your respective sources of support (people, activities, etc) and take time for breaks as necessary to relax and restore yourself.

Be courageous. Identify what you feel is important to express or understand and prioritize a few key points you want to share. Imagine yourself growing and improving every time you practice.

Be curious. Authentic curiosity often helps to diffuse judgment or defensiveness. Ask clarifying questions to ensure a true understanding of one another’s perspectives.

Experiment with the continuum of details, from specific to vague. Sometimes a general explanation is more than sufficient. Other times, we might need to provide or request more detail. The use of metaphor can also be helpful. (eg. “I feel like a porcupine; when I get scared, my spikes come out.”)

Be patient. It can take a few rounds of talks to reach a clear resolution, so take your time with the process. Our partners won’t always respond the way we want or expect them to.

We have a choice in how to proceed, whether that means discerning if this is a battle worth having, taking a break, letting go, or persevering in another conversation at a later time.

Stepping outside of our comfort zone, discovering new ways to communicate, and learning about ourselves and our partners on a deeper level are the means to, and the result of, a healthy and meaningful relationship.

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Erin Mason is a licensed psychotherapist, certified yoga instructor, and published writer. In therapeutic practice, Erin works with her clients to identify and cultivate innate resources, inspiring positive change and a more meaningful, rewarding life.