We never fight! But we never talk! Passive conflict and communication
Jim and Mary sat in their first counseling session and proudly announced that they “never fight.” The counselor asked them why they decided they needed counseling and what they wanted from it. Mary went on to say, “We feel like roommates that don’t even talk with each other. There isn’t much of a connection. It’s like both of us are afraid to say how we really feel. We are always walking on eggshells around each other.”
I call this a passive-passive style of conflict (see The Relationship Conflict Scale© in Taking Space, p. 11) where you tend to avoid conflict and deny anger in you and your partner. People on the passive side have learned to deal with your feelings by freezing, internalizing, withdrawing or shutting down. If you manage anger passively, you may experience a host of reactions like depression, anxiety and physical ills such as headaches and digestive upset. Or you may get even with your partner by acting out in passive-aggressive ways such as: forgetting important things; not following through on what you said you were going to do, not following up on important conversations; or withdrawing emotionally, physically or sexually. Spending money secretly until it is found out later can be a form of passive fighting. Secret affairs could express how unhappy you’ve been. When asked you may say, “I just forgot, what’s the big deal?” or “I didn’t think about it anymore.” or “I didn’t think it would upset you.” or “You should have known how unhappy I was!”
Passive partners look like they are cooperating.
Many passive partners may just remain silent and say nothing when you are talking to them. On the surface they appear to be cooperating, but deep inside they are not.
Passive fighting creates “ice walls.”
If both partners are on the passive side of this conflict scale, they often say “We don’t fight.” But if you examine this closely, you realize they have a “cold war” with ice walls and emotional distance between them. Yes there is conflict, sometimes intense and even toxic to one or both partners. At times I have heard at least one partner say they are so alone and unsupported since their emotional selves do not get expressed or heard. Because partners are not sharing their thoughts and feelings with each other, many distorted and untrue assumptions may be made by each partner.
What you can do:
- You must decide that the lack of communication is not working for you. Stay in touch with how much you hold inside and do not share and how it is affecting you. By deciding to do something about this, you have already started a change process.
- You may want to start by writing out your thoughts and feelings. I often tell partners that are struggling to communicate openly, to begin by writing down what is both OK and NOT OK in their relationship.
- Know your intentions.
- You still want to remain in your relationship but want a change.
- You are confused and unsure of what you want.
- You believe, at least for now, that you want space or you believe your relationship is over.
- Talk to a third party. If you are unsure of what you want, how to proceed or concerned how your partner will react, talking to a third party can be helpful for you to process through your feelings and develop a strategy to approach your partner.
- Plan on talking with your partner. If you think your partner will listen to you, you must work up the courage to start talking. It is important to use good communication skills (see Ground Rules for Talking in Taking Space, p. 17). Sometimes writing to your partner can be less threatening than a direct conversation and will provide a starting point to start talking. It also allows you time to think and not let the tension of the moment confuse what you want to say. Of course this information will often be received differently if you still want to remain in the relationship, but with improvements, as opposed to ending it. In either situation, you may decide that the presence of a third party may help. If you believe or feel that talking directly to your partner could trigger violence to you or him, consult a third party first.
Relationships where both partners are fearful of really talking and listening to each other, struggle to grow and change. Learning to communicate openly can put your relationship on a more secure, need fulfilling and satisfying track.