I hate confrontation: I do everything in my power to avoid it, even if that means surrendering my argument or swallowing my feelings.

This is okay to do every now and then, such as when you’re bickering with your roommate about who did the dishes last, but it’s taboo for relationships—something I had to learn the hard way.

My ex and I dated for six years. The first few months were great, but then the honeymoon stage ended and the bickering began. We argued about the mundane as well as more serious matters: my overflowing hamper of dirty clothes; the mess he left in the kitchen; where we should eat or what movie we should see; the girl he cheated on me with; my demand for space and time apart. Now, because I was so used to bottling up my feelings, a lot of these issues went unresolved for far too long. Sure, we bickered, but my ex never truly understood how I felt about his stubbornness, his messy tendencies, and—most importantly—his infidelity… because I never told him. I hinted at my annoyance or my disappointment, and I let him sweat it out for a couple hours, but rarely did I let him in on the magnitude of my feelings.

I blamed my ex for our issues until I was blue in the face, but the truth is that I played a crucial role in our relationship’s demise. I’m not saying that his infidelity is justifiable—only that my reluctance to discuss my feelings worsened the situation and our relationship as a whole. Fortunately, I’ve since learned how harmful this habit is; and I’ve also employed effective communication strategies in my relationships since. But that’s not to say that I’m an expert on the matter. Thankfully, Sarah Selden is, and she’s here to discuss the topic further.

Avoidance: A Harmful Behavior

Sarah Selden is a licensed psychologist with expertise in relationship, family, and couple issues. She works with a multitude of individuals and couples who struggle to communicate their feelings, which can spark destructive or damaging actions over time when needs are not met. She says that one of the biggest issues her clients face is avoidance. “People often avoid voicing how they really feel, which may work in the short-term to push down negative feelings, but can be catastrophic in the long-term, as problems build up over time. This leads to resentment, spilling, a history lesson, and mind-reading,” she explains.

That latter sentence is packed-full of intrigue—what Selden means is, “one or more unhappy parties will finally become so angry and resentful that they suddenly spill all qualms they have ever had with their partner in one fell swoop.” She says, “it can feel like a history lesson, where the person is enumerating all past resentments for the first time as evidence of their partner’s failings.” This then, “has a doomsday effect, as the other person 1) has no mind-reading abilities, so they may not have realized how their partner was feeling; and 2) this person is in a helpless position as they cannot go back in time.”

Ditch Defense Tactics

The aforementioned “doomsday” effect is not the only negative effect of avoidance. According to Selden, avoidance can cause one to act out in other ways, which prove to generate further negativity and ill will; more specifically, an individual’s likely to engage in defensive behaviors. Instead of vocalizing their hurt feelings, Selden says individuals may employ the following defense tactics:

  • Withdrawing from the relationship.
  • Acting angrily or provocatively.
  • Accusing the other of infidelity
  • Seeking out other people to fulfill their needs
  • Coping with other maladaptive behaviors

Utilize Effective Communication Strategies

Instead of engaging in the above defense tactics—or other harmful behaviors, for that matter—couples should work on communicating effectively. It may feel like it’s impossible to have a constructive conversation, but the strategies outlined below will undoubtedly help the two of you better understand the other’s thoughts and feelings:

  • Lay out your thoughts and your feelings.
  • Utilize “I” statements.
  • Practice non-defensive listening
  • Validate your partner’s feelings.
  • Be honest and open-minded.

Effective communication is key to a happy, healthy relationship. Therefore, if you find that you and your partner just aren’t able to employ healthy communication strategies and instead resort to defense tactics, it may be time to seek additional help or throw in the towel. In either case, it’s of utmost importance that you do what’s right for both your own wellbeing as well as your partner’s.