Few things actually improve on their own if you ignore them, except possibly pimples and mosquito bites. If you have an issue with your partner, their behavior likely isn't going to change without interference. Of course, that means creating conflict. Up until recently, I believed that only difficult people tended to create conflict, and so — even if I had a problem with an SO — I thought it was better to keep my mouth shut and go with the flow. Spoiler alert: That's not a great idea. Avoiding conflict in your relationship can cause serious damage, so if you've been keeping your feelings bottled up, it's high time to let them out.
I know that it seems kind of paradoxical — how does fighting with your SO improve your relationship? But there's a big difference between fighting and arguing, and though conflict sounds like a bad thing, it allows you and your partner to figure out a solution to your grievances in a way that avoidance does not. I spoke to Dr. Rebekah Montgomery, a clinical psychologist specializing in relationships and helping couples prepare for marriage, and she explained to me why avoiding any conflict with your SO actually weakens your relationship.
Leaving things unsaid isn't doing you or your partner any favors. A silent void is where pent-up resentment can fester, and the longer you ignore it, the larger that void between you and your SO becomes. That neglected tension then pushes you and your partner apart, leaving you vulnerable. As Montgomery says, "This can lead to irritability, coldness, passive-aggressive behavior, or just overall unhappiness." So how do you make it go away? Acknowledge it.
When you avoid bringing any conflict into your relationship, you're actually denying both your and your partner of a conversation that could bring you closer. "It robs you of the intimacy that can come from constructive and healthy conflict," Montgomery explains. "Part of intimacy and closeness is being able to work through differences, as well as have your partner listen to and understand your emotions, even the negative ones." Yes, working through conflict is an intimate experience rather than an antagonistic one — who knew?
Acknowledging tension isn't just an intimate experience — it's a reparative one as well. "When couples can work through conflict in a healthy way, they can feel closer and more understood," says Montgomery. "You also become more resilient as a couple." After all, unspoken difficulties tend to cause damage one way or another, so the sooner you start working on them, the sooner you can heal. "All relationship take work and effort," Montgomery points out, "and healthy conflict is one of the ways you have to work at intimacy."
So what happens when you don't acknowledge that growing void between you and your partner? It can cause you to have feelings of doubt about your relationship. According to Montgomery, "Avoiding conflict can make it feel like your relationship isn’t emotionally safe or secure enough to tolerate disagreement." If you don't have enough confidence in your relationship's strength to instigate a tough conversation, then you may begin to worry about your confidence in the relationship all together.
Reluctance to talk about an issue doesn't just affect you —it affects your partner as well. "Avoiding conflict for a sustained period of time can lead you or your partner to feel less invested or checked out," Montgomery says. "When this happens, a partner is likely to start looking elsewhere to get their needs met, or may end the relationship unexpectedly."
There's no denying that conflict is scary. There may not even be a solution to your conflict that makes you totally happy. But remember this: Anything is better than living with unresolved tension. If you and your partner have a problem to address, take the plunge — solving it will more than likely make you closer than ever.