A typical question I get asked is, “Why can’t I just avoid conflict? It makes me uncomfortable. If, for example, my mother is driving me crazy, can’t I just ignore her? Or, if I get too upset talking to my ex over visitation, can’t I just ignore him?” Questions like these can be answered by looking at the consequences of avoidance. Your physical health may be affected.
Obviously, you can choose to ignore conflict and make it through life. People do it all the time. For example, your mother-daughter relationship won’t fall apart if you ignore conflict with her once in a while. But a pattern of ignoring conflict can hurt relationships. Avoiding is not the best choice or a way to grow your relationships. The “I don’t want to rock the boat” attitude may work in the short–term, but not in the long-term.
A number of studies point to physical problems when people choose to avoid conflict. One study noted that while people feel better avoiding at the time of the conflict, they don’t feel better the next day. In the study, physical symptoms and negative well-being were higher the day after the conflict in conflict avoiders than in people who confronted problems. In other words, the impact showed up after the fact.
In another study, researchers at the University of Michigan looked at conflict as it relates to longevity of life. They concluded that people who deal with conflict live longer. Specifically, they observed that when both partners in a couple relationship felt unfairly attacked and suppressed their anger at the other, they died earlier than couples who communicated their anger. In fact, having a good fight with your partner may keep your marriage alive. Keep in mind that out of control fighting is not recommended! That type of fighting ruins a relationship.
There is an exception, a time when avoiding conflict might be best. This involves confronting someone who can physically hurt you. When someone is so angry and cannot calm down, and you are at risk for a physical altercation or explosion, a time-out or break is recommended. You can’t deal with conflict, nor should you, when someone is physically threatening or unable to get control of his or her emotions. At those times, the parties involved need to wait until they are able to calm down and until it is safe to confront.
Birditt, K.S. (Oct 2010). Marital conflict behaviors and implications for divorce over 16 years. Journal of Marriage and Family. 72 (5), pp. 1188-1204
Marital Pair Anger Coping Types May Act as an Entity to Affect Mortality: Preliminary Findings from a Prospective Study (Tecumseh, Michigan, 1971-88). Ernest Harburg, Niko Kaciroti, Lillian Gleiberman, M. Anthony Schork and Mara Julius. Journal of Family Communication. Volume 8 (2008). doi: 10.1080 / 15267430701392172.