Diffusing Emotion Bombs: Managing Anxiety and Conflict Avoidance in Relationships
Co-authored by Emily Polak, PhD and Effy Blue
Does telling your partner that you don’t want to go to their family for the holidays feel like it might explode into an emotional drama? Does the idea of giving your loved one feedback about how you’d like to be touched keep you up at night with anxiety? Do you worry that introducing the idea of an open relationship will make your partner feel rejected so you don’t bring it up but then feel resentful?
These may seem like they are isolated instances but in romantic partnerships, people perceive them as potential conflicts. Situations like this can feel like you are dealing with a ticking bomb, with every feeling ignored bringing you closer to an explosion. The cumulative effect of such feelings left unaddressed is like the bomb detonating, which can destroy relationships.
In its simplest form, a conflict is a situation in which people have needs, desires, or opinions that don’t match up. It can occur any time a decision needs to be made or incompatible needs arise. It does not necessarily end up in an argument or a fight. However, when we imagine having a conflict with a partner, we imagine opposition, resistance, or negative emotions like anger, resentment, and disappointment. As such, we delay the conversation. The distinction between a conversation and a conflict can sometimes be subtle, but seems to hinge on the switch from being collaborators to adversaries.
Regardless of the subject matter, the idea of addressing a conflict often invokes fear and anxiety. People frequently assume they know what their partner is going to say and play out whole conversations in their head without actually giving their partner a chance to weigh in. This belief that you already know how a conversation will go often leads to avoidance.
The problem arises when instead of addressing things head on, people avoid. Conflict avoidance is a common reaction to differing desires in which individuals do not directly deal with the issue. It is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, reason why issues occur in relationships. This avoidance often occurs because there are boundaries we feel reluctant to express and requests we are hesitant to make. It may be because we don’t trust that our partners will hear us without judgment or we worry that they will feel hurt and shut down. But this desire to protect our partners from negative feelings does not protect them and ultimately works against us, resulting in a lose-lose outcome.
Another reason why people avoid conflict is to bypass the emotional labor involved in expressing their needs. However, the energy involved in conflict avoidance is often as demanding as, or even more demanding than, articulating one’s needs in the first place. Resistance to sharing can also be perceived as dishonest or withholding. This erodes trust between partners and makes open communication even harder.
Thus far, this has been an intellectual exploration of conflict avoidance. The real challenge is putting it into practice.
As we mentioned earlier, the anxiety that arises from the idea of talking to your partner about something difficult is like a ticking bomb. Think of a small conflict as a firecracker that is relatively easy to diffuse, while a big conflict is more like an atomic bomb that requires substantial expertise. A small conflict can serve as an opportunity to practice speaking your truth so your communication muscles will be strong when big issues arise. Small conflicts are also good practice ground to better understand how both you and your partner(s) handle ambiguous situations. Specifically, they are opportunities to gain insight into and remain curious about your partner’s reactions so you don’t make unfounded assumptions.
The first step to prevent conflict avoidance is recognizing the fact that you’re avoiding. People often don’t see the things they are avoiding because well, they are avoiding, and therefore are focusing their attention elsewhere. One way to identify the things you aren’t seeing is to notice associative feelings. Imagine these feelings are like the ticking of the bomb that points you in the direction of its location. Do you become irritable? Do you withdraw? Do you disconnect? Take note of your feelings and behaviors so you know what to look for.
Here are some signs that you might be avoiding a difficult conversation.
- There’s something on your mind and it feels like there’s never a good time to bring it up.
- You feel resentful.
- You are scared of your partner(s)’ disapproval.
- You feel disconnected.
- You find yourself withdrawing from your partner(s).
- You feel like you’ve been wronged.
- You feel anxious when you think about bringing up an issue.
- You are concerned about being rejected by your partner(s).
- You are worried you might “get in trouble” with your partner(s).
Before you attempt to diffuse a conflict bomb, it is important to prepare yourself. First, you need to be in the right mindset. You want to be calm, clear-headed, and brave. Courage, in particular, is crucial to initiate that intimidating conversation, which requires leaning into discomfort. Preparation may also entail taking off your day-to-day emotional armor. Many people go through life with walls up to protect themselves. This can show up as detachment or indifference and can can feel lonely inside. Taking off that armor creates the space to express needs, desires, and boundaries which can feel scary, but genuine connection requires that vulnerability. Finally, it is helpful to acknowledge that there is a chance the bomb will go off, that your partner will explode at you, but unlike a real bomb, no one will die. On the contrary, it can actually be an opportunity for increased self-knowledge, growth, and healing.
Getting stuck on what to say and when to say it are also obstacles that can lead to conflict avoidance. People struggle with what words to use as well as what will be most effective and what will minimize the other person’s potential hurt. Rather than focusing on managing the other person’s experience, the best approach is authentic, vulnerable communication of your immediate experience. For some, it may begin with “I have a story that . . . “ or “I feel anxious about . . . “ It might also be something like “I am feeling a tightness in my belly” or “I’m scared to lose you.”
Also, timing matters. It’s best to address these feelings as soon as you become aware of them. The longer you wait, the more intimidating the conversation will become and less options will be available to you.
So how do you actually defuse a conflict bomb? Here are the steps.
- Note and acknowledge the feelings (Identify the ticking of the bomb)
- Locate the source of the feelings (Follow the ticks)
- Figure out your needs and/or boundaries
- Communicate them
- Engage in collaborative problem solving (Diffuse the bomb)
Let’s revisit the scenario in which you don’t want to go to your partner’s family for the holidays. Instead you want to use the time to relax and recover from a busy, stressful period at work. Whenever you think about having the conversation with your partner, you imagine it exploding into an emotional drama. You recognize that you are feeling resistant and have been delaying the conversation. You may even find yourself fantasizing about the car not starting or your flight being cancelled in the hope that the situation will resolve itself.
In this case, your resistance and fantasies are the ticking, which reveals your belief that communicating your desire will likely result in conflict. By acknowledging how you’re feeling and that you’ve been avoiding this conversation, you’ve located the bomb.
The next step is to identify your needs or boundaries in the situation. You recognize that your need is to make self-care a priority so you communicate this to your partner. Problem solving is about creating alternative options. You might discuss going the following year instead, spending the holiday separately, or travelling to the family’s town but staying in a hotel instead of in their house. The important factor is to collaborate with the goal of finding a win-win outcome, while understanding and tolerating that there may not always be an ideal solution.
People typically think of conflict as a volatile argument but it can be as simple and common as a difference of opinion, desire, or need. It doesn’t necessarily cause destruction or damage. It just requires addressing. Avoidance, however, is what causes conflict to become problematic.
More often than not, the fuel for conflict avoidance is fear and anxiety. To stop avoiding, it requires both awareness of the anxiety and courage to address the issue. Not every diffusal effort will be successful, but by acknowledging the anxiety and making a genuine effort to deal with the situation, you reduce the chance of an explosion. Although explosions may still occur occasionally, your relationship will be significantly stronger and more resilient if you have the knowledge and skills in place to effectively deal with conflict.