Clash of the conflict styles: shutting down vs talking it out
July 15, 2017 6:11 PM   Subscribe

Until now, my newish (7 months) relationship has been excellent in almost every way. But with growing familiarity, some cracks have begun to show in the way we deal with conflict. I raise what I think is a relatively small problem, he shuts down, I keep talking, fight ensues.

As an example, I've been worried about our decreasing frequency of sex. After having sex at every opportunity for months, we've had a run of just going straight to sleep when we get into bed. A couple of times I'd tried to initiate and felt rejected. So, in a moment when I wanted to have sex and he didn't seem interested, I asked him what was going on with the pattern I'd noticed.

He became defensive and told me it was a weird thing to raise/be upset about. He said he felt like he was in trouble. He was sighing a lot and was physically as far away from me as he could get. For most of the conversation, he was literally hiding his face from me. He left my house as fast as he could. I like to talk until the thing is resolved, so it doesn't work for me if he just hits the eject button.

The thing became so much bigger than I thought it would be. For my part, I probably should have waited for a less vulnerable moment to bring it up - when I wasn't feeling rejected and he wouldn't feel criticised in bed. But I didn't speak in an angry or upset way. Things just escalated really fast from the moment I mentioned it.

And it's not just about sex. This is the way all our conversations about relationship issues have gone. He seems not to deal well with any expression of negative emotion. For context, he doesn't have a lot of relationship experience so might not have much practice with this kind of communication. He's also a very happy, easygoing person who doesn't seem to have much conflict in any other area of life.

I told him that small problems will come up from time to time and it's ok for us to talk about them and it not be a fight. But beyond that, I really don't know what to do. What do you think is happening here and how can I help us get better at this?
posted by wreckofthehesperus to Human Relations (25 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
From the body language and emotional affect you describe, it sounds like he's experiencing shame. Brené Brown describes shame as "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging."

Maybe watch this talk on shame together and see if it resonates. You might also try her talk on vulnerability.
posted by ottereroticist at 6:39 PM on July 15 [2 favorites]


Rather than talking about a specific issue that is bothering you, why not strike up a conversation during a neutral/good moment about how you both like to initiate and receive feedback in the relationship. Ask him how he might want to hear that you want something, how he likes to communicate what he wants, and how conflict impacts him. Share your own views too.

I find these kinds of conversations give you the backstory and context for why people act the way they do during disagreements and can often make each person a little more empathetic towards the style of the other person. Very rarely are two people's communication styles exactly the same so part of a relationship is understanding the reasons why behaviours manifest themselves and how you can suss out what you need from the other person.
posted by notorious medium at 6:43 PM on July 15 [14 favorites]


His way of coping is opposed to yours and triggers you, and vice versa. It would take a lot of work - and *will* to work - and patience to get past that.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:02 PM on July 15 [7 favorites]


"This is the way all our conversations about relationship issues have gone. He seems not to deal well with any expression of negative emotion. For context, he doesn't have a lot of relationship experience so might not have much practice with this kind of communication. He's also a very happy, easygoing person who doesn't seem to have much conflict in any other area of life."

What was his family like growing up? If he grew up in a family where problems were not discussed openly, and being direct or verbal about conflict resulted in threats, abuse, the silent treatment, or some other kind of emotional withdrawal or manipulation, then this is very much a hardwired response to him, and directly discussing something is probably so agonizing that he has the urge to hide his face as you mentioned.

Similarly, if he grew up in a house where any kind of "airing of dirty laundry" by family members or by other folks was talked about as a shameful, wrong thing to do - generally if he learned that discussing problems openly was always a social mistake, and fading/avoiding was the safer and more appropriate option - then he is hardwired to feel really uncomfortable with it in his adulthood as well.

I bet your family did not deal with conflict that way.

More importantly, though, this is kind of a big thing, so if he is not willing to budge at all on it, I would say he is probably not a good match for you. Uncomfortable conversations, disagreements, and conflicts happen even in relationships where both parties are happy to be there and committed to one another.

Personally I wouldn't be able to be with someone who did what he is doing, it would be really hard for me. I think people become comfortable handling confrontations by practicing - but first they learn how confrontation works by having adult role models who handle confrontations in a certain way. I did at one point date someone who seemed to have an almost pathological fear of confrontation and direct communication about disagreement, and once I realized that was really how he was and it wouldn't change, I lost respect for him and became frustrated and eventually I ended things. YMMV.
posted by zdravo at 7:07 PM on July 15 [18 favorites]


As for practical advice, bring up issues when things are not heated, when no one is horny, hungry, or very tired, and try to use "I" statements rather than "you" statements to describe what is bothering you. Instead of asking "why are you doing X?" you can say "I observed that when I ____, x happens, I'm frustrated about this, can you please help me understand what's going on here?"
posted by zdravo at 7:11 PM on July 15 [2 favorites]


I think you should dump him, but probably not for the reasons you might think. Hear me out.

I agree he's feeling shame and clearly lacks the relationship skills to have this conversation with you, in fact this is why he is so happy-go-lucky, he has to be agreeable because he lacks the ability to disagree. And this is besides my point, I included it because sometimes background data is helpful.

You deserve a normal adult functioning relationship. Dump him because this relationship is not that. You may think you can teach him these skills, but if this were possible, he would have finished the conversation. He's not even aware this is an area of himself he needs to fix, he's not open to learning the skill + you will be the messenger that gets "shot" for delivering this news to him.

Skip all of that drama and break up now. It was super fun, and now it's time to part. Next time you will be sure to look for someone with an openess towards expanding and learning about adult intimacy in relationships, because this is what it takes for a longterm relationship to work - two people motivated to do the self-work involved in being happy together. There are plenty of people like this in the world! Go find them!!

What just happened was a blessing, you identified something valuable necessary for intimate relationships. It's a big piece, and now you know what to look for in a partner. I'm sorry this guy doesn't have that piece, but he did make it possible for you to know what it looks like going forward. I think you can separate and wish this person well, he did you an indirect favor. I know it's a shame he can't benefit, but such is life. He needs someone who also hides their feelings and never talks about difficult topics. You'll both find appropriate matches in other people.
posted by jbenben at 7:12 PM on July 15 [37 favorites]


I basically mean what cotton dress sock wrote.
posted by jbenben at 7:13 PM on July 15


I'm in the middle of divorcing a man who was, at the base of everything, unwilling to deal with managing negative emotions. I use the word unwilling specifically. You can't manage relationships when only one person does the emotional heavy lifting. I learned to work around the conflicts but that just meant I was completely blindsided when he left.
posted by We'll all float on okay at 7:32 PM on July 15 [16 favorites]


He became defensive and told me it was a weird thing to raise/be upset about. He said he felt like he was in trouble. He was sighing a lot and was physically as far away from me as he could get. For most of the conversation, he was literally hiding his face from me. He left my house as fast as he could.

Wow. Are you sure you have time for this?

I wouldn't. How much respect can you have for someone who, when faced with mild unpleasantness, calls you weird, asks if he's in trouble, hides his face, and flees the house? This guy is too immature for a relationship, I think.

There's not anything you can do to make him grow up. Wait it out if you want, or break up if you don't.
posted by rue72 at 7:37 PM on July 15 [20 favorites]


Hello! This relationship dynamic can be me and mrfeet. I like to deal with things right there (immediately!!) and he likes to put them down and NEVER think about them again.

Obviously this is not great for any issue that involves emotions. I would find myself cornering him, which makes him shut down, which makes me pick and poke at him until he snaps.

So, we did premarriage counselling and the best advice- I have to be willing to not rip into issues at bad times and he has to be willing to talk at a better time. So I say "so, I am seeing this issue. When would you like to talk about it?" He names a time and we talk then.

The big thing is that you BOTH have to work at this to make it work. If he isn't willing to change a little (or if you're not willing either) then this isn't going to work.
posted by freethefeet at 10:34 PM on July 15 [12 favorites]


What just happened was a blessing, you identified something valuable necessary for intimate relationships. It's a big piece, and now you know what to look for in a partner. I'm sorry this guy doesn't have that piece, but he did make it possible for you to know what it looks like going forward. I think you can separate and wish this person well, he did you an indirect favor. I know it's a shame he can't benefit, but such is life. He needs someone who also hides their feelings and never talks about difficult topics. You'll both find appropriate matches in other people.

Saving this for frequent re-reading. It's gold. And I wish I'd had it 4 years ago.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 3:04 AM on July 16 [8 favorites]


He will never be a mature adult who is capable of managing emotions in a constructive way. Dump him.
posted by a strong female character at 9:17 AM on July 16 [1 favorite]


I don't know that you're necessarily at the "break up now" stage here, though you've definitely hit upon a significant stumbling block. You say you've been together for seven months now, and it's mostly been great. You've identified a big problem, which is that he is unwilling to talk about little problems. If you otherwise really enjoy this guy, I feel like it's worth putting forth some effort to see if this larger problem can be dealt with before giving up on the relationship entirely.

Maybe this is something he's aware is an issue with himself. Maybe it isn't. Maybe he wants to work on it, or maybe he's not willing to. You're going to have to find out if he can admit that this is a problem he has and if he genuinely wants to work on it, with your support. Then you're going to need to see whether he buckles down and starts doing the work, or whether nothing changes. Maybe nothing will, and then it will probably be time to say goodbye. But I think it's worth pursuing this a little ways—sometimes people will surprise you.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:14 AM on July 16 [3 favorites]


He became defensive and told me it was a weird thing to raise/be upset about.

It is not.

He said he felt like he was in trouble.

That is kind of a red flag. Assuming you raised the issue in a non-confrontational way, which seems to be the case, that seems like a major overreaction on his part. Does he have a history of emotional abuse or anxiety?

He was sighing a lot and was physically as far away from me as he could get. For most of the conversation, he was literally hiding his face from me.

That is another red flag. The description feels to me like a serious shame/fear reaction to a rather innocent question from his girlfriend. Which again suggests the question of abuse and/or anxiety.

The question for you is, do you want to be the emotional tutor for someone who seems to be deficient in EQ, and who is going to need a LOT of emotional tutoring and hand-holding?
posted by theorique at 11:46 AM on July 16 [4 favorites]


I am with the people advising you to break up. You can't teach him what to you are basic communication skills. If it matters so much, I suppose you could try therapy but 7 months is hardly time enough to justify the effort. This is what dating is for, to try people on for size and see if they fit. Now you know that you guys don't.

You don't say how old you and your boyfriend are, but after a certain age (i.e. early-to-mid 20s), people are unlikely to change their fundamental and often long-embedded attitudes/approaches towards relating to others. You say he doesn't have much experience in the romantic relationship department and, frankly, there is probably a reason for that. I think there are areas of interpersonal compatibility that can be worked on and basic emotional styles don't fall into that category. Friendships, even good ones, can occasionally survive the difference but monogamous partnerships are based on a certain idea of sharing a life that just can't sustain the dissonance. You could try talking to him but unless he realises a need for changing himself naturally, it just won't take and you'll be resented as this demanding nag. You're not one.

I've been with someone like this (for a few months too) who saw every point of discussion as an attack, needlessly escalated the issue to the point of a fight and ended up being manipulative and nasty. It was exhausting and did a number on my sense of self -- I think I am a reasonable person but being in this sort of situation multiple times made me feel like *I* was being irrational (I wasn't). I'm not saying your dude is a mean-spirited gaslighter like that, but he sounds just as incapable of handling conflict in a mature fashion. Others above have pointed this out. There are people who are emotionally stunted like that: they can only deal with the good, smooth times and bolt at the first sign of what they perceive as trouble but that often is just the normal amount of friction expected in any close relationship. I agree with the posters above who've mentioned that this is most likely his family's way of dealing with tension. Real relationships, of any kind and not just romantic or sexual ones, must go through rough patches and good. This guy can't handle the former. Remaining with him and running ragged trying to fix the unfixable won't make you happy.
posted by norwegianleather at 11:50 AM on July 16 [3 favorites]


So, in a moment when I wanted to have sex and he didn't seem interested, I asked him what was going on with the pattern I'd noticed.

I haven't, wouldn't, and don't walk away when asked a direct question, but wow would I not want to stay in a room where I can't say No to sex without being asked -- then and there, in bed or about to be -- if I have a good reason to justify my answer.

You already acknowledged that the timing was bad and I understand it was a pattern, not just one time that he wasn't interested. but you don't have to have a history of sexual assault to be defensive in such a situation or to feel threatened by the question in that physical context. though for all I know, he does have such a history.

If he won't talk about it even in a non-vulnerable moment, sure, break up because he doesn't communicate and/or he's not interested in sex anymore. it sounds like at least the former is true, maybe the latter as well, and it's probably best to end it before it gets worse and you start having bad fights.
posted by queenofbithynia at 11:52 AM on July 16 [3 favorites]


This is a really big red flag, I'm sorry to say, for two reasons:

1. In any lasting relationship there will be uncomfortable things that need to be solved. Sometimes small, sometimes big. Even the small ones need an avenue for solution.

2. The example you chose here is not a small one. It's actually a really huge one. If you aren't happy with the sexual aspect of your relationship and you can't even bring it up without him running out of the room, I mean, that sounds like a dealbreaker to me.

The advice to bring it up at more neutral times is unlikely to solve a disconnect this fundamental.
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:00 PM on July 16 [1 favorite]


People do sometimes manage to work through stuff like this in their relationships, and people are sometimes willing to be taught basic communication skills. We all have to learn them somewhere, and if we don't learn them as kids it's usually a partner who teaches them to us. You don't have to try and be that person for this guy if you don't want to be, and if you do try it may not work—it relies on him genuinely wanting it to work—but I still don't think your situation is as hopeless as some of the folks here seem to.

Men in particular are frequently not given a lot of tools for working through awkward, emotional subjects with our partners—there are a few women in my past to whom I will always be eternally grateful for their taking the time to work on that stuff with me. Over the years I've gone from someone who once told his partner "I don't really have emotions, but it's fine if you do," to someone who a later partner jokingly said was "almost as good as a girl" at communicating within a relationship. It can be done. People do sometimes change, if they want to.

You don't owe it to this guy to try and change him for the better, but if I were seven months into a mostly-great relationship I'd probably give it a shot. Folks around here are very quick to tell people to dump an imperfect partner—and I'm often with them—but this is one of those times where I feel like if the guy really likes you and is basically a decent sort with the ability to self-reflect and introspect (no guarantees) then you stand a good chance of being able to inspire him to improve himself in this area.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:03 PM on July 16 [9 favorites]


Thank you all. There is some really insightful advice here, and some of it has been hard to read. You can probably tell from my best answer choices that I want to try some things before deciding it's over. You'll have to take my word for it that he has many wonderful qualities that for me, for now, make that worth it. If we try and things don't change, or he's not willing to do the work, then maybe I'll catch up to the 'dump him' crowd. But I'm not there yet.
posted by wreckofthehesperus at 4:04 PM on July 16


Since you feel it's worth seeing if you can work through this, it would probably be good to find a time when you're both feeling as calm and unpressured as possible to have a meta-level conversation: How can we discuss things that may be difficult or emotionally painful in a way we can both deal with? Are there things we can do, even when things are painful or difficult, to help us both recognize that we're on Team Us (whose success depends on the wellbeing of both You and Me, so let's be sure both of those are okay too)?

This isn't to suggest that you need to be in some perfect therapeutic I-statements kind of place. I doubt that's even possible. But it seems like it would be useful to have a "how can we discuss difficult things?" conversation. If he wants to be able to have constructive relationship discussions but doesn't know how or keeps smacking into his own issues when he tries, that seems different from not being willing to have the discussions.
posted by Lexica at 4:46 PM on July 16 [3 favorites]


I grew up in a household where I was not permitted to (was punished for attempting to) defend myself when I "got in trouble" for things - as a child this could be something as minor as speaking when my father wanted quiet (sometimes moments after all gregariously laughing). Also my parental modeling of expressing an issue were 1) anger & disinterest in other views, or 2) complete silence & acquiescence.

My husband - when we were first dating - was flummoxed by my reaction to him raising issues. Either complete silence followed by tears or running from the room in tears. Mostly tears. And honestly fear. Which - when he learned this - caused him a lot of confusion. I knew on a logical level that 1) he was not going to punish me, 2) he was interested in hearing my thoughts & feelings, and 3) he would validate my thoughts & feelings and work together with me to reach a solution, but viscerally... I was absolutely terrified in a way I was not able to express.

Therapy helped. Realizing that my brain was reacting in an old dysfunctional way to new input was really helpful to me. I put into practice a few techniques which your boyfriend might find helpful:

1. Breathe.
2. Notice where you are, what you smell/see/hear/feel physically. Be there.
3. Request reassurance when you need it. In the early days of me working through this I needed hugs pretty much throughout every discussion of issues. The helpful thing about this for us was that by hugging me and making me feel safe, my then-boyfriend gave me the feeling of safety I needed to hug him back and make him feel safe expressing himself with me.
4. For me, restating at the end of the discussion that I appreciated being heard and that he appreciated me participating in finding a solution reinforced the "resolving issues is a good thing, I like this good thing" feelings so that each time we did it, it got easier and less frightening for me.

YMMV, your boyfriend's issues may not be the same as mine or even similar to mine, but in case they're helpful. And good lord am I glad my husband didn't DTMFA when I was having trouble being present for conversations like this. Paying it forward I hope to someone who finds this helpful.
posted by pammeke at 9:07 AM on July 17 [2 favorites]


Just coming to say in our case it hasn't really gotten better and now my effort to address small things before they become big things balloons into multiple days of triggering each other and it is like the worst thing ever. This doesn't change unless the other person really wants to grow and learn to regulate their anxiety, while you learn to tolerate the high anxiety of things not getting fixed on your timeline. I'm sorry but really, you should know the dynamic may not improve and may, in fact, get horrendously worse. I believe this is the fifth day now, and we are finally both on the same page about moving on. Sucks hard. 1/1 would not recommend.
posted by crunchy potato at 10:51 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]


Chiming in to say that this is dynamic is pretty much impossible to change without hard work, probably therapy (individual and couples), plus huge, and I mean HUGE, commitment to the relationship on both of your parts. cotton dress sock is absolutely right - your communication / conflict style triggers him and vice versa. This means deep emotional work and compromise will be required if you two have a future together.

In our case, we did a lot of couples counseling (and I mean, a lot), and committed to adjusting our communication styles. It took a lot of work for us to even understand why we both had to change. Even with a lot of love and commitment, it took a LOT OF WORK and *time* and practice to actually stop this dynamic. I was the pursuer who needed to talk everything out -- I had to work on self-soothing, lowering my anxiety, changing how I spoke when angry (everything from the tone of voice to word selection) and accepting my partner's requests to address matters another time if we both got too triggered for the conversation to be productive.. whereas my partner had to work on really hanging in there instead of immediately retreating (which means not asking to postpone discussions without even trying to deal with the discomfort of conflict).. they also had to work on their anxiety and self-soothing. We both had to find ways of communicating love in the midst of conflict even when triggered. Now, if my partner asks to table a discussion, it's understood that they also have to actually set a time for us to revisit (and/or follow up -- instead of putting that labor on me, which would feed into the old pursuer/retreater dynamic). And if they say they're triggered, I really do have to let it go (even though that's still really hard for me to do sometimes). I find that it's much easier, though, to tolerate tabling a discussion now than it was years ago in our relationship because I have confidence that we really will come back to it -- whereas in the past, my partner would keep avoiding difficult discussions as long as possible. If I feel really upset about not being able to talk it out, I take a walk or do something else on my own until I feel calm again. I also remind myself that we love each other, that the momentary conflict is now the end of the world and that we will come back together again. We have both gotten much better at using humor or small "I-love-you-even-though-we're-both-totally-pissed-off-right-now" gestures to diffuse conflict when we both feel triggered.

You are going to need to see if your partner is willing to do this work -- and if so, sign up for couples counseling and read books about conflict styles.
posted by Gray Skies at 10:42 PM on July 18 [2 favorites]


Late update: he doesn't want to do the work. And more fundamental than that, he can't see that there's any work to be done (other than work by me to never mention a problem again). Rather, he would like everything to be perfectly happy at all times. At the next minor blip (my mild irritation over late cancellation of plans), he suggested breaking up.
posted by wreckofthehesperus at 2:10 AM on July 30


Thank your lucky stars and run free. You've just dodged a bullet of major proportions. Life awaits.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 5:14 AM on July 30 [3 favorites]


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