Conflict Avoiders and Seekers
November 11, 2015
So, I heard you met someone new?!?
Tell me everything!!!
How hot, how much, how old???
And those, at the very beginning, are very reasonable questions to ask, as you get to decide what is important to you, in any relationship.
Sure, there is always that invisible social pressure, pushing you to find a mate at least as attractive as your friends’ mates, or with more money. Often how old and how much, are inversely proportional, but I will leave it up to you to imagine what we are talking about.
After the first few dates, or years of marriage, I think it becomes clear to all of us, a few other important things pop up.
Close to the top has to be making sure that you both care about the same things.
Another winner, is making sure you get along, and can communicate.
Here is where people essentially fall into 2 categories.
The first group of people are able to live perfectly fine, squeezing around every elephant in the room. These folks are known as the CONFLICT AVOIDERS.
These people handle themselves very well, are almost never prone to emotional outbursts, and rarely provoke. They may be passive aggressive at times, but they are able to somehow recline, despite other people feeling the weight of emotional tension. They can smile right through it.
Then there is the other type of person in a relationship, the CONFLICT SEEKERS, or ‘emotional balloons’. Any kind of tension or stress fills them up, and it takes very little to make them pop. These people feel smothered by the elephant in the room, and try their best to get it to leave, by acknowledging it is there. They are looking for a bit more room, so they can float, just like everybody else.
People who sense this tension, and become agitated by it, feel as if someone is poking their forehead repeatedly, even though they are only watching TV in silence, with a partner.
What is cool about these 2 categories, is that we can switch over time, which often depends on the relationship.
We are likely all predominantly conflict seekers, until well into the teen years, almost across the board. But then many of us get a sibling, or provocative friend, and meet someone who seeks it more than us.
In our love life, which approach you take can significantly influence your compatibility.
If 2 Conflict Avoiders get together, things generally go pretty well, although there will be some passive aggressiveness from time to time. When the infrequent meltdowns do occur, they may be nuclear.
If 2 Conflict Seekers get together, it is usually wild and exciting. These are often the types of couples that feel like instant soulmates, and some rush off to Vegas to get hitched.
Their initial attraction, is to another person, who can share the depth of their emotional intimacy, and together they can kick and scream at all the elephants others ignore. Over time, however, one or both of the individuals can begin to burn out, or start to realize they aren’t as safe for each other as it seemed.
Probably one of the best combinations, in any relationship, is a mix.
If one person is predominantly an Avoider, and one person is predominantly a Seeker, there will always be a cycle of increasing and decreasing tension, which is healthy for both. There may be many moments of unhappiness or anger, but on the flip side, the happier moments are more pure and more honest, than any other arrangement.
Now these are general guidelines, and we don’t always neatly fit into one category. And life can do things to us, that forces us to change our style, like becoming a parent, or developing an illness.
I have a Writer Friend, who may become famous one day. We have talked about her ideas related to the projects she is working on. Her ideas are amazing!
We have been talking about it, on and off, for several years now, and she has been actively writing and making contacts. Over the past several months, we speak less about her writing, and writing in general. When I would ask her about it, she would merely reply she was working on it. Her guardedness, or perhaps humility, always gave me a transition, to talk about my own writing.
This is where it got interesting, in that when I asked her what she thought of my writing, she replied that she was uncomfortable with the conversation.
I tried to figure out what was going on exactly, and with much hesitation, she replied that she feared telling me what she thought about my writing, as it may hurt our relationship.
I initially laughed, at the sudden realization that we had completely different conceptualizations of how our friendship worked.
And neither of us was completely correct.
She saw relationships as a wild thing, like a tiger, that needed to be kept tame at all times, for fear it would draw blood and ruin everything. Any confrontational glare at topics that may create sadness or fear, or even anger, were to be avoided at all costs, because it threatened our safety in her Social Jungle. Her intentions were kind, in their nature.
I viewed our relationship as a tame animal, like a kitten. And while there may be the odd stinging paper cut, we were in an essentially safe arena. I thought we got to relax and play, outside the normal rules of work, or school. My intentions were existential, which doesn’t always have its place.
Maybe the problem is, since my wife first became sick, I have sought more meaning in my life.
I want to know more about the people around me, especially my friends, in the time that I have left. And this, I guess, has partially removed the fear that I feel, with the people I care about, to talk about things that matter; even things that may poke an elephant.
I replied to my friend that, as I understood our friendship, her feedback was particularly valuable, and worth any shame I may feel, at criticism. She dodged again, and I quit poking.
I always find it curious when we can’t get truth out of the people closest to us.
If we don’t get truth from our friends and partners, where do we get it?
At the same time, we all get to decide, for ourselves, which parts of other people’s lives we invest in.
And we won’t always get what we want.
And to be perfectly fair to my friend, I think it is important for me to tell you that this is a friend, who has witnessed many of my own painful journeys; seeing the absolute worst of me.
She knows how dark the show became, and while I appreciate she likely knows I have again seen the light, there are doors of mine, she is justifiably afraid to open.
And maybe that is crux of the situation; how it all breaks down.
Some of us have been bitten by life in a fundamental way. This often happens when it has taken away our intimate things, like loved ones, and our sense of immortality.
This process causes us to value time differently, and search for more meaning, even in casual conversations. This uncomfortable ‘neediness’; the symptom of craving more intimacy, can seem a burden, if a friend is not in the mood.
For those that thirst for it, it can feel sometimes, like trying to draw water from stone.
For others, who have possibly not yet been directly touched by life in this way, there may be no awareness that this level of vulnerability exists. And what feels cathartic to one, may become too emotionally unbearable for another.
And there is no right way to have a relationship. There is only the commitment to hang in there, especially when it feels tough or dangerous.
It can become easier over time, to become less and less emotionally connected to the people that matter the most to you. This ability can become honed over the years, until the only conversations left, are taxes and the weather.
And some can thrive, despite the emotional tension that surrounds them, almost begging them to become more curious, take safe risks, and go deeper.
In the end, she is the one who can handle the elephant in the room.
But often, I am left wondering, if one of us is the elephant.
Simon Trepel, MD
Simon Trepel, MD FRCPC, is a practicing Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, in Winnipeg, Canada. He is an Assistant Professor, at the University Of Manitoba, in the Faculty of Medicine, and the Co-founder of the GDAAY Clinic. He is, more importantly, the proud Father of 2 beautiful Daughters. He writes in his spare time about things he knows something about, and occasionally about things he doesn’t; like Yoga, and Italian flavored coffees. Any resemblance to persons living or not is purely coincidental.
Check out his Blog, called Simon Says Psych Stuff, at