Many sensitive people back down to avoid conflict, fearing the intense overarousal conflict can cause. But avoiding conflict takes its own toll on you and your relationships. Is there a better way?
Elaine Aron says overarousal is the biggest relationship challenge for highly sensitive people (HSPs.) I wholeheartedly agree. In The Highly Sensitive Person in Love, Aron describes the corrosive effects of relationship overarousal on one sensitive woman’s integrity:
Maria’s overarousal during her arguments with Dan was so aversive for her that in order to avoid it she was willing to appease him, ignore her own views and needs, and even lie—something she definitely did not feel was her usual or authentic self. HSPs can dread overarousal that much.
Can you relate to Maria’s experience? I can. Over the years, I’ve done and said things to appease my partners. I’ve ignored my own views and needs. Worst of all, I’ve fudged, fibbed, and cherry-picked the facts, all to avoid conflict. And I lied to myself about all this lying. For a person who highly values integrity, these were soul-damaging moments.
Of course, relationships can be marvelous. But to access the wonders of deep intimacy, we must first find a way to deal with the reality that our intimate partners are so bleeping overarousing for us. We love them. We need them. And they overwhelm us.
We have good reasons for avoiding conflict
What a dilemma. Ivan Turgenev had it right when he quipped that you “can’t live with ‘em…can’t shoot ‘em.” Sensitive people most commonly try to manage relationship overarousal by avoiding conflict—as Maria and I did. And we have our good reasons.
In my case, avoidance made a lot of sense, given the options. My attempts at directness would blow up in my face. I’d end up emotionally flattened, needing hours to recover, with nothing to show for it. This made no sense to me. Why destroy what peace we did have, only to leave our conflictual issue unresolved?
As it turns out, research has now shown that in a conflictual conversation, backing down really is better than proceeding when either or both of you are overaroused. Why? Because when we’re overaroused, our better judgment goes offline. Continuing our conversation is worse than fruitless. We can damage each other.
Studying couples in his “marriage lab”, psychologist John Gottman confirmed that our conversations go downhill fast when we get emotionally flooded—his word for overarousal. In fact, constant flooding in a relationship was a predictor of divorce. So he taught his participants to test their pulses, instructing them to take a break if their heart rate went over 95 beats per minute.
I could easily agree that these adverse effects of flooding gave me a great reason to back down during conflict. But Gottman’s other reason shocked and confused me. It contradicted everything I’d read, heard, and believed about conflict. Specifically, Gottman found that—
Conflict resolution using communication skills does not work
What? Aren’t we supposed to empathize with our partners, try to understand their point of view, reflect back their words? No. There is a place for empathic listening. But not when we are triggered, toasted, and smelling blood.
Gottman observed what we’ve all suspected all along but were afraid to admit: in the heat of conflict, when it is most needed, we are simply horrible at empathizing with our partners. That’s right: no amount of communication training will enable us to listen calmly as our partner tells us how we’ve screwed up and how angry they are at us as a result.
No wonder classic, conflict-resolution-style marital therapy has had such an abysmal success rate over the years (topping out at 35% among couples surveyed, according to Gottman.)
How can we handle conflicts, then?
Given what we’ve discussed so far, you can now banish any self-judgment you may have felt if you “failed” at classic couples’ therapy. You can also heave a sigh of relief, knowing you don’t have to try to empathize with your partner when you are royally pissed off. And you have John Gottman’s permission—and mine, if that helps—to put yourself in “time out” if you get flooded.
So far, so good. But we can’t stop there‚ because our conflict is still unaddressed. And if we leave conflicts unaddressed, we will grow apart. It’s that simple.
Notice I did not say, “If we leave conflicts unsolved, we will grow apart.” I said, “If we leave conflicts unaddressed, we will grow apart.” Gottman found that this distinction between unsolved conflicts and unaddressed conflicts is crucial. He asked couples to put their conflicts in three categories: “perpetual”, “solvable”, and “not a problem right now.”
Then, observing these couples in his lab, he made the astonishing discovery that they fought most often over their “perpetual” issues. What’s more, happy couples fought just as much as unhappy ones. To put it another way, fully 69% of all couples’ conflicts were over issues they had agreed they would never be able to resolve.
Wow. Are we all sadistic, or masochistic?
No. It’s true, sadly, that the unhappy couples were savaging each other in these unsolvable conflicts. But the happily married couples fought just as often. Clearly, the happy couples were doing something differently. What was it?
Gottman’s full answer to that question is worth the time it takes to read his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, which I highly recommend. But for our purposes, here’s his key point. The italics are mine:
The basis for coping effectively with either kind of problem [perpetual or solvable] is the same: communicating basic acceptance of your partner’s personality. Human nature dictates that it is virtually impossible to accept advice from someone unless you feel that that person understands you. So the bottom-line rule is that, before you ask your partner to change the way he or she drives, eats, or makes love, you must make your partner feel that you are understanding. If either (or both) of you feel judged, misunderstood, or rejected by the other, you will not be able to manage the problems in your marriage.
“How can I be angry and understanding at the same time?!”
But doesn’t this put us back to square one, trying to act nice when we feel murderous? Not quite. If you feel murderous, you’ve lost touch with any sense of mutual care and esteem. You are flooded, and it is time for “time out.” Gottman’s happy couples, by contrast, somehow stayed connected while they fought. Although different couples handled conflict in wildly different ways, from saying nothing at all to throwing things at each other—all the happy couples had found ways of showing their mutual care and esteem for each other even when they fought.
Perhaps you already know all this and have acted on it in your intimate relationship, with happy results. Gottman refers to the accumulated good will between you and your partner as your emotional bank account. When conflict hits, the size of your account balance makes all the difference.
If you’ve each made regular “deposits” into your account of mutual good will, you will be able to draw on this positive energy during conflicts. But if your emotional bank account is overdrawn from years of unaddressed conflict, then you have no resources to draw upon. This is a particular issue for HSPs who have had difficult childhoods, with both overt trauma or subtle trauma. And if either or both of you has significant trauma (as many HSPs do), you will need help. Finally, we have that help at hand.
Emotionally Focused Therapy to the rescue
Sensitive people everywhere should celebrate the day Canadian clinical psychologist Sue Johnson realized that the principles of childhood attachment theory apply equally well to adults. Based on this key insight, she created a new couples’ therapy method called Emotionally Focused Therapy. It is called “EFT” for short. (Do not confuse this with EFT tapping, which is an entirely different energetic healing modality.)
Why does this matter for HSPs in particular? Because due to our environmental susceptibility, many of us formed insecure attachments in childhood, which causes a fraught relationship to intimacy when we grow up. That’s the bad news.
But here’s the good news: environmental susceptibility works in a positive direction too. If we get the right support, we can become what Elaine Aron calls “earned secures”. With Johnson’s EFT, your attachment wounds can be transformed from a ticking time bomb to a gateway to deeper intimacy. In fact, Aron mentions EFT in her recent blog post about HSP differential susceptibility, commenting that “attachment issues…are the specialty of Emotion-Focused Couples Therapy.”
We can learn to hold each other’s “raw spots” with tenderness
Johnson’s work is powerful for everyone, not just HSPs. But sensitive people particularly need it because the memories and feelings triggered when our raw spots get touched cause us to become overaroused so quickly and extremely. When this happens, we need skilled support to help us lower our arousal levels so we can stay connected to our partner.
A good EFT therapist helps you “walk around” in a conflict, exploring the issue and your responses to it while staying in touch with your feelings of care and positive regard towards your partner. In other words, he or she helps create the very conditions John Gottman described as essential for effective conflict conversations. You may not resolve the conflict: in fact, you won’t, if it is one of your “perpetual” ones. But your intimacy deepens if you can hear each other in a respectful way.
My partner and I have each worked hard to become “earned secures.” We tend and replenish our emotional bank account each day. We are happy together. Yet each of us still has exquisitely tender raw spots. When these are touched, either one of us may find ourselves “exiting stage left” at 80 miles an hour. We’ve found the EFT couples work by far the most helpful couples work either of us has ever done.
If you tend to back down to avoid conflict rather than face overarousal, I recommend you learn more about EFT. Sue Johnson’s book, Hold Me Tight, provides an excellent introduction. But there is no substitute for doing the work it in person with a good EFT-trained therapist. Many therapists take EFT training in addition to their basic certification, so their style and skill will vary. To locate an EFT-trained therapist near you, go to the therapist directory page on the national EFT website.
Image: my gratitude to Kaitlyn Wyenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)