Boyfriend and I coming to crossroads: conflict and pursue/withdraw
November 19, 2012 6:44 AM   Subscribe

How to deal with incompatible conflict styles? My boyfriend avoids and I try to confront/face things. He hates to talk about it. I hate to leave it unaddressed. It's straining the relationship.

My boyfriend is very conflict averse. I don't like conflict but I realize you won't always agree in relationships and won't always understand what someone needs from you. So when that happens, you talk about it. No yelling, name-calling, criticizing. But I think even when I approach with "fair fighting" ideas, my boyfriend experiences me as critical because he seems to hear "you are failing me". He gets flooded and disappears (literally or emotionally). The sense of disconnection makes everything worse. It takes so much willpower not to chase him and try to work it out, and sometimes I fail and chase anyway (not to fight but to try to reconnect).

It's to the point where he's said my conflict style (to be open and honest about issues, and seek reassurance sometimes) gives him doubts about us working. I didn't tell him this yet, but his style also gives me doubts. I don't know how I can have a mindful approach to conflict and apply it effectively with someone who shuts down every time.

I have trouble with the ambiguity of him having doubts, so my first thought when he said it was to end the relationship but that isn't mature. So now I'm thinking of asking for a deadline for him to decide whether he believes my need to discuss things is a dealbreaker.

We're trying to hear each other. But we've been dating six months and I am worried that we're coming to an impasse. This has led to me adjusting my communication, since he can only seem to handle negative feedback when I deliver it cheerfully or use positive reinforcement (he's also a very passive person). He seems to recognize that his conflict style is bad for relationships, and said on his own he wants to try and change it.

The worst thing for me, is trying to leave him alone when he withdraws. Because it makes me physically ill. He is often not open to communication of any sort at that time - but because he is also passive, it isn't often that he will reach out when he is over it, so I'm left trying to guess when I can reconnect.

We work really really well together when things are good. I think he is hoping for a relationship where there is never negativity. And he seems independent enough that he is willing to sacrifice relationship altogether if it "drags him down" at all.

OTOH he seems to do okay disagreeing when my negative feelings make sense to him and he figured out on his own that I would be upset. The problem is when my reactions surprise him and when he thinks they don't make sense.

Bottom line: he is losing interest and we are both having serious doubts. I don't know what to do. I'm supposed to meet his family and I'm worried this is a bad idea now. He's said he still wants it - even though he has some doubts now. WTH. I don't know how to act around him now. My heart hurts. I wish I knew what to do.

How do you deal with conflict in a relationship when the person doesn't want to talk about it?
posted by hungry hippo to Human Relations (44 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
You don't deal with it unilaterally. You continue to conflict in silence until there's something that causes the whole thing to blow the hell up.

I have trouble with the ambiguity of him having doubts, so my first thought when he said it was to end the relationship but that isn't mature.

Actually, I think the exact opposite. I think ending things with someone who won't deal with conflict at all is the most mature thing possible. I mean, he has a problem (with you? the relationship? Who knows?) and he won't discuss the issue and possible solutions with you? It's unfair and it leaves you stranded. It's very mature to say, "I can't have a relationship by myself. I need a partner. You haven't been it. I wish you luck."

I wish you luck.
posted by inturnaround at 6:50 AM on November 19, 2012 [21 favorites]

This could very much be a relationship-killer, in that conflicts arise (whether generated from within the relationship or without) and need to be handled in a way that doesn't tear you guys apart every time. Conflict styles are probably as important as affection-expressing styles in that regard.

However, in order to know whether this is bridgeable, you sort of need a stab at bridging it. That is, can you, in a non-conflict period, set up standards that sort of structure handling of conflict? For example, maybe for your side there is some threshold of seriousness between things you let slide or approach with humor and things that you are "allowed" to bring up as Must Discuss; from his side, a commitment to see handling the latter as important, and as showing affection and support for you (and valuing your presence in his life) rather than as judgement and scariness for him? It's possible that there are other approaches (including his getting some professional support for productive conflict, although that's probably something he has to get to on his own), but there's no guarantee that there's a solution here other than being sad and finding somebody who's going to be a better relationship teammate.
posted by acm at 6:50 AM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

my boyfriend is very much like your's and I am very much like you. I totally get that the hands-off part is the hardest part of dealing with this. Despite knowing my boyfriend needs space and time, I get frustrated and angry with him over it.

After awhile, he comes back and discusses it with me.

That getting him to come back and talk to me part? That took time. years. Years for me to understand that under no circumstances should I chase him about it during which he worked on coming back to me to discuss it later.

Is it a struggle? Sometimes. Like I said, I know he's that way and it still makes me angry. What's important for us though, is that we're willing to work through these different styles. That our love and relationship is bigger then letting conflict styles get in the way.

You're both going to have to put in effort in order to make this work.
posted by royalsong at 6:55 AM on November 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: inturnaround, to clarify - he tends to try and let everything go. Go along to get along. So the result of that, is I'm the only one who ever brings things up as problems.

It's difficult to really think of ending it. I love the man, and think if we can both be more flexible this can work.
posted by hungry hippo at 7:01 AM on November 19, 2012

Can you agree to give him the time and space he needs if he agrees that after [predetermined amount of time alone], you can go to him to discuss things or that he will come back to you to discuss things?
posted by jeather at 7:07 AM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: jeather, I think that would work.... But the issue seems to be that he can't handle me bringing an issue to his attention unless I frame it all positively. And he can't handle me getting upset over something that doesn't make sense to him. And he can't seem to handle when my issue makes me need some emotional reassurance from him.

The problem here is we are triggering each other. I'm triggering his old scripts which he withdraws so he can keep all that stuff suppressed. And he's triggering my old searching behaviors. And neither of us are doing a good job of ensuring the other feels stable in the relationship. I noticed through this last "cycle" that even though he pushes me away he seems to get past it better when he gets reassurance from me.
posted by hungry hippo at 7:13 AM on November 19, 2012

Oh yes, my fiance is very much like your boyfriend, and I am very much like you. He'd rather, as you said "go along to get along", but I want things worked out right now, thank you very much. It's not in my nature to leave things hanging.

The difference is that I don't get hurt or angry when he withdraws. Frustrated, yes. Hurt or angry, no. Why? Because I know he's not doing it to hurt or anger me. It's just how he is, and that's something that we need to find a way to work around. Once I accepted that, it made things a lot easier. We're still working on how to resolve conflicts without frustration, but the hurt feelings have gone down tremendously.

Best thing to do is let him hibernate until he figures out his feelings and not try to reconnect with him until he's ready. I know you want to, but he's not disconnecting from you to hurt you or anger you. He's just trying to sort things out, hell, he's probably not even thinking the problem through while he's gone. From what I've experienced, my guy just wants to think about something else for a little while while his subconscious works it all out -- to destress from the situation -- then reconnect, and your attempts to reconnect aren't allowing him to do that. Men's minds work differently you know.
posted by patheral at 7:16 AM on November 19, 2012 [8 favorites]

My last ex - who was so compatible with me in so many ways that I actually started thinking he was "the one" - was also really, really conflict-averse. And he also was a "go-along to get-along" kind of guy. He did finally come around and come to me with a problem - only that because he had been thinking about it in isolation, and not coming to me with it and giving me a chance to work on it, he only came to me with it when things had reached such a head that he'd convinced hmself that we were incompatible, and he should break up with me. So he did. I had no idea that he'd had any problems with me, especially ones that were so easily fixable - it was a huge out-of-nowhere shock and a major betrayal, and I'm only just now getting over that breakup after four years.

Your partner should be able to not only handle problems that you have with them, they should also be able to bring up problems that they have with you. I know the thought of breaking up with this guy hurts - but that's nowhere near as bad as it could hurt if he suddenly breaks up with you without warning.

Mind you, not saying you should break up - but the fact that he's a "go along to get along" kind of guy is a major issue that you may want to resolve.

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:17 AM on November 19, 2012 [22 favorites]

Husbunny and I don't fight. I also don't bent out of shape too much about stuff.

Neither of us wants conflict. There are things that need to be addressed, typically I just say whatever it is I need to say, and then that's it.

Me: Sweetie, when was the last time you scooped the cat box?

Husbunny (sheepishly): It's been a couple of days.

Me: Jesus, there must be a mountain of cat poo in there. Get on that would you.

Husbunny: Okay. (Pulls on hazmat suit and grabs the scoop.)

There is nothing going on around the house that's worth me yelling at Husbunny. I'm supersensitive to yelling and criticism, so he never yells or criticizes.

I guess what I want to know is, what do you want to accomplish? Can just asking for what you want work?

You: Please let me know the next time you're going to be late, I cooked dinner and had to eat without you because I was hungry and didn't know where you were or when you'd be home.

Him: I'm sorry, you're right, it was inconsiderate.

You: Yes it was. Would you like a piece of dry chicken?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:18 AM on November 19, 2012 [8 favorites]

Any chance of a concrete example? What sort of statements trigger his feeling flooded? My guess is that he wouldn't characterize your conflict style as, "She's open and honest about issues. She's never critical of me." Might he say something like, "No problem is too small to be worth derailing whatever we were doing before it came up. Anytime something upsets her, safety goes out the window?"

If we accept your characterization as absolute fact then it's hard to see a way through this. If he's literally never willing to work through problems then, well, you're stuck.

On preview: And he can't seem to handle when my issue makes me need some emotional reassurance from him. Framing it as this thing that you "need" from him, on your schedule, is problematic. You will not die without his immediate reassurance. Self-soothing is probably part of the solution here.
posted by jon1270 at 7:22 AM on November 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

inturnaround, to clarify - he tends to try and let everything go. Go along to get along. So the result of that, is I'm the only one who ever brings things up as problems.

It's difficult to really think of ending it. I love the man, and think if we can both be more flexible this can work.

I mean, this form of letting stuff go even if it really bothers him and it's a problem for him, is actually him lying to you. How can it be anything else?

The thing is that if he won't change (and you've indicated that he has expressed an unwillingness to do so) then what will and can you do?
posted by inturnaround at 7:32 AM on November 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

I don't have a solution, but I have further on the path of understanding, potentially.

Are you honest about negatives as well as positives? Is any of this, "When you do X, I feel Y" talk? Particularly "When you do X, I feel sad?" Is this the kind of stuff that makes him feel upset?

Are you a person who needs emotional reassurance during conflict? This is, by the way, not unusual - I'm like this myself. It's important for me to continue to "touch in" during fights - physical touch, reminders that we love each other, etc. This is, however, really hard for some people to comprehend. When some people are angry, the notion of that other person (or even anyone) touching them seems upsetting. Some people also aren't great at providing comfort at the same time as they're providing criticism.

Does your partner have problems with understanding why certain things are emotionally resonant? Particularly things that seem on a surface level to have little to do with the relationship? Are these things that you want to discuss to get the meaning out of?

(For hypothetical example: "You stood me up, and that makes me feel terrible, like you don't value our relationship or my time." "I'm sorry I stood you up, it was an accident, I won't do it again." "That's great, but I'd like to talk about the underlying issues that made you feel it was okay to do it this time." "Why bother? I've already solved the problem.")

If any of these things are true, have you ever discussed these needs /in a moment when you are not fighting/? "You know, the sun is shining and everything's awesome today. I love you so much. You know, I think that's why when we fight, I need you to be touching me - it reminds me of how much you love me and I love you."
posted by corb at 7:33 AM on November 19, 2012 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: jon1270 that is a very valid point. The problem is I get triggered sometimes and if he understands/sees that coming he's good with it. Likewise, if I pause and make space and ask for what I'm wanting instead of just bubbling with needy energy it's ok.

The last time, I am really embarrassed that I let him in on the problem. It was one of those situations that symbolizes increased commitment (common relationship milestone), and I misunderstood thinking he was showing increased commitment when he wasn't. And the misunderstanding upset me much more than I expected, and I made the mistake of saying "I wish you had [clearer communication about his level of commitment] because I interpreted things differently and now I feel insecure about what we are doing. My fault for making assumptions." And he was irritated that I allowed myself to feel negatively, and invalidated my feelings saying things were good before this happened so I should just think about how things were good instead of feeling bad.

During the misunderstood event he made a comment that suggested I saw his intent accurately, and things just couldn't work out that way for other reasons. If he had not made the comment to show intent I would not have said anything.

Another time I was upset with him about how he was still pretty deeply involved in friendship with an ex (I did NOT ask him to stop hanging out or anything, only to help me feel like there was room in his life for us to make our own story because he was still seeing her frequently, talking with her family, doing her favors etc.). My feelings did not make sense to him so he was pretty stonewalling and stubborn about it. Except later on it looked like he was doing as I asked, even though he refused to at the time.

So yeah, I have insecurities. So does he. We picked opposing ways of dealing with our bad feelings I guess. Most of the time we go out of our way to be understanding, supportive and not hurt each other. I think part of the problem is he hates himself when his actions lead to hurt feelings for me. So it's like he doesn't want to know.
posted by hungry hippo at 7:42 AM on November 19, 2012

My husband and I had a similar dynamic when we started dating. Carrying baggage from prior relationships affected both of our communication styles. For a long time, every time that we fought I felt like it was the end of the world.

Things that helped: I've become much less codependent. I've become more comfortable identifying and acknowledging my own fault in things. I use "I" statements (like the "when you x, I feel y" framework corb mentions above) when talking about fighty things. but none of that would have done much good had he not been actively working on making things better, right there with me. We both catch ourselves halfway through sentences and reword them, even if we're upset at the time. He makes a point of resisting the urge to withdraw affection, and I make a point of respecting his boundaries and accepting that sometimes he needs time to think about a situation alone before discussing it.

Both of you are going to have to moderate your conflict styles to make this work - from the way you have worded your question, I feel that you may be resisting altering your approach. If he responds well to discussion when you frame things more positively, that's a good place to start. Look up "I" statements and work on communicating more about your feelings about things rather than making everything about what he is either not doing or doing wrong.

Good luck!
posted by kitarra at 7:42 AM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Wait a sec. You are saying that you need to find the magic words in order to bring up something that bugs you, he can handle it fine if he knows you're gonna be mad, he tells you he is having doubts and that you basically can't come to him when he's upset, but won't tell you when he's DONE being upset even though he KNOWS you need reassurance after fights- AND he wants you to cheerily meet his parents even though he is going think he might dump you.

Oh hell. Do not meet his parents. Do not keep walking on egg shells to try to get half of what you need. You guys work well when things are good? Awesome. That's not really working well. Break up with is manipulative ass. This is why dating exists- so you find out that some can't hack the hard stuff, before you have to depend on them for something important.
posted by Blisterlips at 7:43 AM on November 19, 2012 [24 favorites]

Response by poster: Blisterlips... you said what I'm thinking. I don't have much time to cancel meeting the parents, though. I'm trying to weigh things first. I keep thinking I bend too much, and if I show more spine about compromising - not meanly, but just "hey I am willing to adapt but you have to also or this isn't working for me" - then I will see him modify to match me better and really, I think we could get past this. But your comments expressed the cynical part of this for me very well. I question whether he manipulates me. I'm not always good at seeing it.

He handles it when he thinks I will be mad because he's already had time to problem-solve. I think part of it is he gets caught off guard.

corb, I use the "when you x I y I need you to z" model sometimes. He doesn't seem to grasp that I need to still feel connected - it's like any conflict from me is gloom and doom and he withdraws to prepare for the slaughter or something, and can't see past his own needs to relate. He realized on his own that when I bring things up it reminds him of his upbringing - but he pointed out independently how that situation is different from what we do. So maybe it will just take some time for him to keep the past in the past.

kitarra I am working on modifying also, by bringing things to him in a cheerful tone and saying "I really like it when you [thing I like or want from him]" instead of saying I don't like x. At this point I feel like I have made more effort to adjust than he has. It's hard not to resent that even if he isn't changing because of some sort of overwhelm.
posted by hungry hippo at 7:51 AM on November 19, 2012

... go along to get along" kind of guy 

This is not a major issue. But a plus. You don't know how good you have it. Hang on to him and adjust - esp as you love him.

Imagine instead, you were a quiet and shy, and he was the opposite. How would you feel if he constantly chased you down to forced socialization on you, or constantly confronted you about your "weakness" of shyness and quietness?

Now who is the problem?
posted by Kruger5 at 7:55 AM on November 19, 2012

It seems to me like he just doesn't want to be bothered and that's it.

You're trying to find a way to work with the fact that he doesn't want to be bothered.

You want, he doesn't want.

I think the solution is for you to put up and shut up and accept that he might dump you unexpectedly at any time. You might try to enjoy it while that lasts, but it doesn't sound very enjoyable. Actually, it sounds like "stonewalling".
posted by tel3path at 7:57 AM on November 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

I also thought this guy sounds like too much trouble, and that you should dump him.

Being able to discuss issues with your partner as you go through life is VERY important. You can not make it work without this crucial ability in place.

Run. Run away.

As blisterlips pointed out, this guy does zero to meet your needs when there is a crisis on. I also think he sounds manipulative, and if I may, excessively emotionally immature.

This isn't worth working out because this guy won't admit he is clinging to behaviors and relationship habits that require self-improvement for ANY intimate partnership to flourish.

You can do better. Don't settle.

Not being able to discuss difficult issues is unsustainable. It is a deal breaker.

Good luck to you.
posted by jbenben at 8:01 AM on November 19, 2012 [13 favorites]

Response by poster: tel3path - yes it feels like stonewalling but I think it happens because he gets emotional and doesn't want to show it. So I try to be compassionate. I try to work with his very sensitive stress button. I'm starting to wonder how much he is working with mine sometimes.

Most of the time if I ask for something he will do it. Even if he gripes first.

The bigger problem for me, is when this cycle starts he gets withholding also. Like this last time I said his actions made me feel insecure about us. The next time I saw him I asked for something to help me feel connected and safe and he wouldn't make himself available. He had a good reason, a logical one, but it hurt all the more.
posted by hungry hippo at 8:02 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I read your question as saying, "My conflict resolution style is good, his is bad, what should we do?" My guess is that it's not that simple.

There are some clues in your question and follow-up answers that your boyfriend isn't so conflict-averse that he just never wants to discuss anything ever. For instance, it sounds like his initial reaction is to withdraw, but there may be a time after that when he comes back. Maybe you could have a rule that you will allow him to withdraw, but after some amount of time you agree on in advance -- half an hour, a few hours, a day -- he will come back to you and you'll talk about it.

Maybe you can reassure each other that you love each other, or give each other a hug, before he withdraws, even AS you're fighting.

Or maybe there are other ground rules you can set that will help you. But before you can do that, I think you need to stop thinking of what you're doing as "fair fighting" and what he's doing as "not grasping what you need."
posted by chickenmagazine at 8:03 AM on November 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

I am your boyfriend, and this has one been one of the single largest difficulties in our marriage (14+ years).

The behavior, for me, is the result of many many years of untreated depression. I've had therapy, and I've navigated appropriate medications.

When my wife comes to me with a valid criticism, I have an emotional reaction that says "this is an indictment of your entire person and is just another example of how you fail as a mate." Because I have spent time in therapy and because my marriage is of paramount importance, I am (usually) able to keep that reflexive emotional response in check and lot let it override my rational processes.

It's uncomfortable, because I am stressed during the conversation. My fight-or-flight response pings hard. But, my coping mechanism is to pay very specific attention to what my wife is -actually saying- rather than the twisted interpretations that my crazy brain is feeding me.

In the end, this is not something that you can solve. Only he can. He can't solve this until he is willing to acknowledge that it is actually a problem, and that it's his problem and not yours.

I am not usually in the DTMFA crowd, and I don't think that this is a DTMFA situation. However, this is a new relationship (six months). The road to getting past this is long and difficult and trying and you need to decide if you are going to commit to a Major Mental Infrastructure Project with this guy.

Please feel free to MeMail me if you'd like to talk about it further.

Praying for you.
posted by DWRoelands at 8:09 AM on November 19, 2012 [24 favorites]

Response by poster: DWRoelands - thank you so much! You confirmed that this is basically a big shame spiral for him, and that is why he withdraws. That is what I have suspected, and while he trusts me enough to be open with me, he's not come out and said this directly.

It is easier to fight something I can name, and my naming it feels more valid now.
posted by hungry hippo at 8:13 AM on November 19, 2012

I agree with DWRoelands that this is his problem to solve and only he can solve it.

However, I disagree that this is not a DTMFA situation. It might very well be a DTMFA situation. It does sound like an ultimatum situation, at least. You really, really don't want to go through life with someone who can't handle conflict maturely. You can't solve problems with such a person and life is full of problems.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:15 AM on November 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Everyone saying dump him... it isn't that simple. He meets most of my needs so well. We are very sweet to each other. Shared values and similar life views, and opposites in some ways to add spice.

I believe a good relationship is one that makes you grow. I do agree it might be up to him as to whether he is willing to face that. But I am responsible here also, for dealing with my own baggage because it interferes at times too.

Too much shame. On both our ends. I think that is oddly why we work well, and why this is such a problem. I feel like I come to him gently but it sets him off anyway.
posted by hungry hippo at 8:36 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mod note: OP mod note here, it's fine to add more information to help people give you answers, but this thread is not intended to be an ongoing discussion about this topic. Please limit responses to adding additional information or wrap-ups, Thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:37 AM on November 19, 2012

Oh my god- this kind of stress at 6 months is rediculious. It sounds like you're pretty young, or you haven't had a ton of relationships. This isn't a problem to solve. This is a sign that it's time to end this relationship.

And it sounds like you are wwwwaaaaaayyyy over thinking everything. You're arm-chair psyching yourself and him, using all kinds of self-help squishy laungage, worrying about "levels" of commitment- I think maybe you neeed to ramp down a little in general.

Relationships are work *sometimes.* MOST of the time? They are supposed to be easy. The best relationships are drama free and fun the great majority of the time. I mean, shit. You should be just starting your first fights at six months. If the relationship is working, you are not consumed by issues and doubts and crap when you are only six months in.

And cancel the parents meet up. Even if it's tomorrow. It is a waste of your time and is emotionally insincere to yourself, your boyfriend and his parents. Meeting The Parents is an event that symbolizes the expectation of long-term. That really isn't where you are at with him. shit- you think he is losing interest and you are having doubts.
posted by Blisterlips at 8:38 AM on November 19, 2012 [13 favorites]

Given what you've said, I'm detecting a thread of disrespect and maybe some latent sexism in your boyfriend's behaviors toward you.

It sounds like he's willing to emotionally validate you and discuss issues if and only if he immediately gets why you're upset. Otherwise, your emotions are invalid, and he's not willing to deal with "invalid" emotions.

Maybe that's just a defense mechanism at work, I don't know, but I've behaved like this in the past and it was always related to an underlying disrespect for the other person involved.
posted by zug at 9:00 AM on November 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

Okay, I hate to be the person who says "if you do [x] the same way you've presented [question about x] then [you are the problem]"

And I certainly wouldn't put it half so accusingly. But you've come back to reply several times. If you did something similar with him, that would feel like nagging to him (whether or not he brought it on himself).

What I would suggest, if you haven't already tried this, is "I'm concerned about x, and I know you don't like this kind of conversation, but I really need to figure x out with you. I'm going to leave that thought with you, and you can come back to me when you're ready to talk about it." Then leave it alone for about a week, after which if he hasn't come back to you, "Last week I said I needed to talk about x. Are you ready to talk about it?"

If he just avoids forever, that shows that he never wants to discuss anything whatsoever in any way. But at least you'll have ruled out any possibility that you're badgering him.

If you just can't discuss anything at all with him, in the end, then that's not really a viable relationship, I don't think.
posted by tel3path at 9:07 AM on November 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

It sounds like you might be trying to fix him. I second the "self soothing" idea during the times when he needs his space. That is definitely a worthwhile tool to hone. But overall, I would say that if the problems with dealing with conflict at six months are this big, and if you BOTH aren't willing/ready to improve upon how you fight, you should move on. Otherwise you will continue to chase and he will continue to evade and you will both continue to feel like crap.
posted by retrofitted at 9:13 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

On the one hand, I'm sympathetic to you because this is a big conflict between my husband and I, too. But this isn't good:

The worst thing for me, is trying to leave him alone when he withdraws. Because it makes me physically ill. He is often not open to communication of any sort at that time - but because he is also passive, it isn't often that he will reach out when he is over it, so I'm left trying to guess when I can reconnect.

You might try reading Gottman's Seven Secrets of Making Marriage Work. By the time one partner gets to the flooding stage, very little progress on any issue will be made. In fact, he suggests what he calls a "soft opening" to discussing conflicts, which sound precisely like the kind of communication your boyfriend is trying to (gently) guide you toward. It takes practice and work--it's something I'm still working on--but communication from there goes much, much better than what my husband likes to call "aggressive jerk time," where I just start aggressively pointing out what I perceive as his flaws.

By the time your boyfriend is flooded especially, continuing to push will do no good. You need to leave him alone and give him his space. It's fine to say "cool off time! Be back in 10." In my experience, "fights" go 150% better when you realize you can do that.

You need to learn how to do that regardless of it making you "physically ill." If you have abandonment or abuse issues (I do, which is why it's so hard for me to drop a conflict once one is there), I would really recommend therapy, no matter what happens with this specific boyfriend.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:42 AM on November 19, 2012 [6 favorites]

I think his behavior is problematic and not something that can be easily navigated around. If someone goes on tilt at the slightest suggestion of conflict, are they really suitable relationship material?

With that said, I have been involved with women whose conflict style was to communicate and keep communicating and just keep clarifying and expanding until the smallest of issues became a referendum on whether the relationship was going to last. It was...well, exhausting.

Everyone needs to feel wanted, but it might move into the "high maintenance" end of the spectrum to require a lot of assurances during minor daily conflicts. To be fair, though, someone who consistently hides from conflict brings out the worst in others.
posted by 99percentfake at 10:15 AM on November 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

There just seems to be so many negative feelings for a 6 month relationship. I sympathize with your boyfriend, because I honestly cannot stand to analyze every twinge of discontent, every time you wish someone had phrased something differently, every time something happens in a different way than you would have wished it to. Add in all the therapy/self-help language, and I just couldn't.

There's just two very different styles of not only communication, but existing, happening here. Too many hurt feelings and too much conflict. I think it's just not a good match.
posted by aviatrix at 10:43 AM on November 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

He is often not open to communication of any sort at that time - but because he is also passive, it isn't often that he will reach out when he is over it, so I'm left trying to guess when I can reconnect.

That's 100% unfair. I've been in this situation and it's lose-lose for the person who wants to deal with issues. It makes you seem like you want conflict when all you want is to deal with issues and move past them.

Your boyfriend wants it both ways. He wants to say "I need to deal with conflict on my own time" and then he doesn't deal with it ever. I'd say it doesn't matter whether your method of dealing with conflict is a dealbreaker, because his refusal to deal with it at all most certainly is.
posted by headnsouth at 10:46 AM on November 19, 2012 [8 favorites]

Are you demanding answers too fast? I'm kind of the way your boyfriend is, and my wife is the way you say you are. We've both learned (and are learning, still. It's never perfect.) What triggers my "get the fuck away" response is this scenario. Her: problem. Me: Hm. Ok. Her: OMGWTFWHYHOWwhatarewegoingtodotellmenownownow!

I can't feel like I'm making a rational decision or a workable plan to fix a problem when I only get to think about it for two seconds. I am not the kind of person who wants to hash out a solution collaboratively. Let me think, and I will propose something (or just apologize, if thats what it is.) THEN, we can discuss further. After all, you got to think about this as long as you wanted before bringing it up. Can I have some time, too?

Of course, then it's on me to actually DO that, not just hope it goes away. This only works if she feels like I WILL do that, based on past experience. It takes some time to establish that trust.

So I'd like to say that it will all work out ok, but that assumes he doesn't just want to hide until it all goes away without any effort from him.
posted by ctmf at 11:01 AM on November 19, 2012 [10 favorites]

check your mefi mail. :)
posted by Tarumba at 11:21 AM on November 19, 2012

Answering because I react very similarly to your boyfriend and this is a lifelong pattern with me, and I only see a few answers from that perspective. I lost a friendship about a year ago because of this, and have subsequently done a bit of reading, reflecting, etc., with plans to improve in future relationships. So it any of this helps, I will share these thing from the other side (perspective and future solutions, for me, but YMMV and your BF's MMV).

I shut down during conflicts if they are very emotional and/or confrontational. I usually need time to process what the other person is saying and/or emotions. I really dislike the idea of saying whatever pops into my head, which can happen in these type of situations.

If left to my own devices (come back from an argument and talk about it), the chances are very, very low because I'm often embarrassed. Although over the last year or so, I do try to apologize sometimes.

As I mentioned, I've done a bit of reflecting after a friendship broke down. These are some things that helped me, but I also think could apply to your situation:

• Try to find a way for your boyfriend to understand that he can have time to reflect, but it is important to you that he eventually answers/gives a solution, etc. There is another ask meta question (I searched and searched and could not find it), but a user asks how to resolve a conflict with his or her partner, who usually shuts down and walks away. Many people respond how it makes them feel if the person doesn't come back (that really helped me understand why people want to discuss it) - I don't know if you can find the same question ,but reading 10 different people state why this bothered them helped me realize that I was in the wrong for not coming back.

• Give him a warning with time to prepare before the conversation ("I'd like to talk to you in a few hours about a problem")

• Ask him (not when you are discussing another problem) what things bother him about these discussions. Are they told in a grar grar way? High emotion? Find out what it is and see if you can remove it from the conversation.

• After you tell him what the problem is and why it bothers him, give him a few days to reflect on it. Do give a deadline (a few days, Sunday, whatever).

When I read one of your examples, hungry, it sounds like he was not reacting in a good way at the moment, but that he did think about it and changed his behavior - so that to me is a good sign (he reflected on what you told him, had a conversation in his head, and changed the behavior). It may help to have resolution, though, and to know that he made these changes.

• Some books to consider reading (these helped me immensely, it may help you or your partner, too). Anything by Gottman, mainly because he discusses things that usually predict the end of a relationship. One of them is stone walling - but it may help him realize that he should not do this to his partner (although give him space, too). Another book that helped me was Crucial Conversations, mainly because it addressed why these conversations should happen along with techniques.It spoke to me as a conflict-averse person.

Also, I'm suggesting this idea but it is not intended as an insult.Are you or your BF very young?

In my younger days, I dated a guy who loved to discuss "the relationship" every single day. Another time I dated a guy who loved to discuss "feelings" several times a day. It was too much for me and overwhelming and both those relationships came to an end. I don't look at it as communication styles in retrospect, but rather we did not have similar needs. If the frequency of these conversations is very high, consider that you two may just not be compatible.

Sock puppet because I'm a bit embarrassed that I have/had this problem with communicating and according to many of the previous answers, I'm in the minority.

posted by Dances with sock puppets at 12:10 PM on November 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Can you agree to meet in the middle?

You want answers now, and he wants to give answers waaay later. Why not take an hour break next time there is a conflict and you demand answers from him. One hour should be enough time for him to come up with some answers. If he doesn't like the idea, then remind him that you don't like the idea either because you don't get your answers immediately, like you initially wanted. It needs to be clear to both of you that you both need to meet in the middle for this to work. You give a little and he gives a little.
posted by nikkorizz at 12:32 PM on November 19, 2012

The fact that you get physically ill when you have conflicts with your boyfriend raises a red flag. Based on this post and in previous posts, I can't help but feel that you have a lot of built up anxiety and stress.

Have you considered seeing a therapist about this? While you boyfriend is certainly partially at fault, your anxiety might be contributing these issues too. It even sounds like you frequently unload your anxiety on your boyfriend.

Do you filter the negative information you pass on to him? It's okay to be open with him and unload your anxieties every once in a while, but you need to be careful that you don't overwhelm him, or others. What is your work or school situation like? I don't think you should be getting physically ill from fights or disagreements.

I don't know what the details of your situation is, but if you are a highly stressed person, please see a therapist.
posted by nikkorizz at 1:04 PM on November 19, 2012

This sounds..very familiar to me. I'm also a quietly anxious person, and tend to date anxious, sensitive people. We would have some weird crazy fights because one of us would shut down while the other would keep pushing and pressing and getting more and more worried because there was no response from the other end.

The solution was to detach, stop trying to fix things, and focus on my own life until we were both calmer. Things always got better when I would go out and do something distracting with other people. It usually puts me in a better mood and gives me some perspective on the relationship. It's an important relationship, but it's not the only important relationship in my life. The result was that I was able to ramp down the drama and have a more affectionate, calm discussion of the problem when we were both feeling less tense. The two of you might be feeding off each other's anxiety during these discussions. While you think have a calm approach, he might be reading signals that you don't see. You look tense, he gets tense, you get more tense because he froze up, he gets even more tense, etc. One of you has to step back and stop the spiral downwards, or else you'll both be too miserable and irrational to have a conversation. Call a time out when you sense the two of you getting out of control and just get out and do something else for a while. Then come back when you are able to have the conversation in the smiley, positive, don't-worry-we'll-get-through-this way that he's receptive to. Sounds like you're both very sensitive people who need a lot of reassurance. That's not a failing on either of your parts, but it is something you should be aware of when you walk into a discussion. It's also something that may mean the two of you may have to break up and work on your issues separately if you can't figure out how to fight without terrifying each other.

I think you also may want to talk to a professional about your anxiety, if you aren't already. The urge to chase, to control, to fix things, to be reassured that everything hasn't gone to shit, to analyze and explain every single little detail--that's a tendency that's every bit as destructive as stonewalling because it takes all the joy out of the relationship. Also, it's not okay that you're making yourself physically ill with worry. He sounds like a fairly decent guy. He didn't cheat on you, he didn't lie to you, he didn't steal from you, he didn't hit you. You might be incompatible and have to break up, but so what? Breakups hurt for a little while, and then you move on. There's no rational reason for you to be physically ill. If you're anything like me, you're making yourself more and more upset until you can barely think of anything else. It's okay to let go and stop thinking about it. The relationship won't end because you stopped worrying. Just let go. And, I think you should go meet his family. Not because it is a Milestone but because you really like him and want to know more about him. That's what the relationship is about, right? The fact that you like him, and not the fact that you want promises of safety? Try to remember that instead of trying so hard to manage the relationship.
posted by rhythm and booze at 1:24 PM on November 19, 2012 [9 favorites]

I wasn't allowed to be angry, when I was growing up. My family acts in very, very passive aggressive ways and the default setting for everyone was to ignore problems until they went away.

Of course, they never went away, just grew monstrous until they exploded in horrible ways. But that type of behavior was absolutely ingrained in me and it's still my default to slap a smile on my face and completely shut down when any kind of conflict arises.

If you feel like this is a relationship you want to work on, I would suggest that you do two things:

1. Meet the parents and observe their behavior. Of course, you won't be able to figure them out over a first meeting, but you may be able to discern where his reactions are coming from. If it's a family communication style, you should know that it's not about you specifically, but how he is primed to react to conflict/stress.

2. When you are both calm and in a good mood, ask him if this is how it works with his family and friends - if he acknowledges that he knows it's an issue for him, see if you can get him to think about the stuff that triggers his shut downs. He can improve his reactions (just like you can chill out and not chase him down.) It's all about getting that fight or flight reaction under control.

If the above dosen't seem to apply, then you may be dealing with someone who just doesn't know how to break up properly. But I'd be really surprised if he wants you to meet the parents if he's thinking of breaking up! That does not compute.
posted by lootie777 at 3:17 PM on November 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Perhaps you need to deal with the issue of why there's so much conflict in your relationship in the first place? Do you tend to have a lot of conflict in all of your relationships?

I'm sort-of like your boyfriend in that I hate conflict. I don't shut down though. I want to immediately solve it and move on because life is too short to waste on negativity. Hell, an evening is too short to waste on negativity.

I'm a problem solver. That's fine when the conflicts are real... but some people enjoy conflict more than they realize, and they constantly create things to debate, argue and even fight about. I have zero patience for that. I had one ex in particular who wore stress like a heavy coat. When you're hot, you take a coat off, right? When my ex was stressed, she'd find something to fight about as a way to take the stress off. We actually had a fight once about whether or not her brother and his wife should use cloth diapers for their newborn. Her opinion: "But, but, but!!!!" My opinion: "Why do you want to debate this?!? YOUR BROTHER IS A DOCTOR AND HIS WIFE IS AN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL TEACHER." ...It wasn't that my ex wanted to argue about cloth diapers. She'd had a bad day at work and wanted to fight about something. Anything.

I'm not saying you're like my ex. I'm saying you should try to figure out how often you find yourself in conflict about things that Really Don't Matter. If you're someone who thrives on conflict, you should seek a partner who has a complimentary personality.

Interesting side note: My ex, the fighter, was friends with people who also loved to fight. One of them was a woman who married a quiet guy that never seemed bothered by her constant conflicts. I'll never understand it. Another couple we knew were both fighters. They bickered a lot, but man oh man were they in love and I bet they'll last the test of time.

If you exist in a state of constant conflict, it really helps to find someone else who can exist that way too. Complimentary personalities.

My $o.o2: you and your boyfriend aren't a match. It's better do realize that now than to do what I did (TWICE!) and find yourself in a long term relationship that can't last.
posted by 2oh1 at 3:21 PM on November 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I have to nth DWRoelands for the link to the shame spiral and depression. My bf also does this to some extent and has a history of depression and retreating to deal with shame. He admits this behaviour to me and knows that he has to change his coping strategies, but we still manage to talk about whatever we need to talk about once he's calmed down. I'm definitely more like you too, I bring up the issues, but I try to only do it for ongoing things that could definitely be improved e.g. "Sorry but whenever you bring up X topic, I start feeling anxious. You could talk about X topic if you have something to recommend, but if you don't give me anything actionable it makes me anxious because of this part of my life which we have discussed. Is it okay if you only bring up X topic if you have a concrete suggestion?"

He seems to be open to discussion because I try to reassure him when I bring up something. When he starts saying how it's a reflection on how he's a bad person or whatever, I bring it back to the point that he's done the best he could and the behaviour was okay back then, but now it probably should change due to different circumstances. I actively "own" my feelings (so his actions, for some reason or another, trigger a negative emotional response in me, but it's not something he's "doing" to me), and I bring up suggested ways to change it but I'm also open to him providing his own suggestions. I think it's easier to deal with things when both parties realize that behaviours are changeable, and it's good to adapt to changing circumstances.

If your bf isn't interested AT ALL in modifying behaviour consciously in order to better adapt to the relationship, I don't think he's worth keeping. He may not be emotionally ready now to deal with X, Y, Z, but he *must* be interested in being able to learn coping and communication techniques to deal with them. Because life will always bring up things that you have to adapt around, and if he feels too much shame/shuts down whenever he should be learning how to change, then he isn't going to be good relationship material for the long haul.

So try to ask your boyfriend about how you can deal with conflict together. And keep him if

(1) He admits that his communication and coping style could be improved (Yours probably could be improved too, but his is definitely not easy to work with)
(2) He understands that there needs to be a certain level of communication in order to have a healthy relationship *with you*
(3) He demonstrates a willingness to learn better communication and coping styles

If he doesn't get this within 3 months, I say either lose him or keep it very no-commitment casual. Folks who don't communicate when there is a problem tend to leave relationships abruptly, like jumping ship without their mate instead of fixing the leak early on. I need someone who can help me fix leaks early on, and you do too.

(And for you, look into quelling your own anxiety instead of depending on him. And make sure that you bring up only things of note with him, not everything that you need to be assured on. Prioritize what you communicate on.)
posted by Hawk V at 6:51 PM on November 19, 2012 [7 favorites]

Interesting side note: My ex, the fighter, was friends with people who also loved to fight. One of them was a woman who married a quiet guy that never seemed bothered by her constant conflicts. I'll never understand it. Another couple we knew were both fighters. They bickered a lot, but man oh man were they in love and I bet they'll last the test of time.

I actually think this is pretty true. I am a "fighter" and once upon a time I dated a guy who was a bit of a fighter, and we got along swimmingly. We understood each other, in a way-- I didn't take the fighting personally, even when I knew it was just blowing off stress. I never lost trust in him during the fighting. In fact, once we started fighting, I think we actually got closer. It was trippy as hell.

I don't expect everyone to be like that though, and I'm in my favorite relationship ever with an amazing guy right now who is not really a fighter, and I've found that I have to be less of a jerk in a lot of ways (though fighting --> immediate hungry make-up sex is pretty awesome still). For one, your way of framing the thwarted commitment issue would put me off, I think-- saying "I wish you'd done this and I feel terrible but eh, my fault," would actually make me feel like it was totally my fault and you were angry at me and simultaneously shutting me out by claiming to be responsible for something you don't really feel responsible for. I'd much rather you were honest and say, "honey, it really hurt when I found out that you didn't mean Event X the way I interpreted it. I had different expectations and it's hard for me not to feel rejected right now." I would respond to that much better in an immediate sense-- my instinct would be to talk about how things were great in the past and how I think they're great in the present, reassure you that I loved you, say we were just on different timelines right now, &c. The way you've written it, I'd interpret it as resentful and standoffish and so afraid of vulnerability that you can't admit when your feelings are hurt without trying to tie up the ends neatly ("my fault").

Speaking of, I think that's part of why I worked well with another fighter-- if one of us said, "I'm so hurt, I don't understand, it bothers me that we're not on the same page and I'm worried you don't care as much as I do," and the other got angry and said, "Why are you so upset? I love you and it hurts me that you don't trust me when I say I care! I'm just not ready for Event X right now!" ... we're yelling at each other, but the secret, mutually understood language is that each of us is hurt but fundamentally cares about how the other feels and isn't afraid of honesty. We are listening to each other, and not stonewalling each other. We're addressing each other's concerns by speaking honestly and constructively about our feelings, even if there's yelling and fighting involved. (This isn't to say that everyone should put up with "fighting" if they don't like it, they emphatically shouldn't, just that the same elements are there with most functional fighters and non-fighters-- the need for intimacy, in the form of honesty and not over-armoring one's self from vulnerability. It's also possible to be a dysfunctional fighter or non-fighter.) It seems reasonable and fair and calm to say, "I was hurt by this and it bothers me but it's really my fault for misunderstanding," but if you're using it as a shield to protect yourself from him and further hurt, it's going to harm the relationship, no matter how reasonable-seeming.

This is why dating exists- so you find out that some can't hack the hard stuff, before you have to depend on them for something important.

This is also true-- if you find you really can't trust him and you're speaking two totally different languages, you might not actually want to build a life with him.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:53 AM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

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