Sometimes peace and harmony is not good for your relationship. “Conflict-avoidant” couple is a term used in therapy to describe people who do everything to hide their authentic feelings in order to not rock the boat of their relationship. Often they hide their feelings not only from their partner but also from themselves. Keep reading if this describes you or your relationship, it certainly used to describe mine.
You and your partner likely developed this behavior pattern in response to exposure to very unpleasant fight scenes as young children. Consciously or unconsciously, you decided that you would never create conflicts like this in their relationship. I remember having this thought as a child.
It’s a wonderful decision but it’s lacking a very important ingredient. Avoiding conflict is not enough. Disagreement is a normal part of any relationship and you need to learn tools for openhearted conflict resolution. Without a good example from your childhood or the tools, you will most likely keep hiding your real self.
The lack of authenticity blocks the possibility of real closeness. But as humans we are wired to long and strive for closeness, so partners in a conflict-avoidant relationship fill the void of closeness with some sort of a substitute, sometimes a lover or a phantom lover with whom they can be close in their imagination. That’s what happens in the movie 45 Years.
Conflict-avoidant couples often surprise their friends with a sudden divorce after the kids go to college. Prior to this lightning move, their relationship seemed so fulfilling and smooth. And indeed it was a good, friendly, and stable relationship—only they never showed each other their real inner landscape. Even when life sends them powerful invitations to open up to their partner—as in the movie 45 Years—people whose relationship credo is conflict-avoidance still prefer not to reveal their most intimate feelings and thoughts.
When I watched the movie, I was waiting for Geoff (Tom Courtenay) to say, “Dear, I feel sad that my ex-girl-friend died such a horrific death and that I chose to hide this story from you. I turned her into a ghost in our relationship and now I am scared that won’t love me anymore. Will you help me to get out of this awful situation?” Or, I imagined Kate (Charlotte Rampling) would say something along these lines: “Geoff, I feel angry. I also feel scared and sad and I am creating a story that all these years you didn’t love me. What did this ghost relationship add to your life?
But nothing like this happened in the movie. In fact, it would be a surprise if it did happen in a conflict-avoidant relationship like Geoff and Kate’s. Typically, for a conflict-avoidant couple to finally open up to each other and begin an authentic, sincere, and non-judgmental shift in how they relate to each other, One needs either a lot of personal courage or third-party help so such a couple will be able to open up to each other and create an authentic, sincere, and non-judgmental shift.
The ghost love is the incarnation of all the ghosts of their childhood.
So as in most real-life relationships that follow conflict avoidance, Geoff and Kate got permanently stuck in a murky victim-villain-hero triangle.
This is a pity, since I strongly believe that conflict-avoidant partners have a gift of accepting each others' mistakes and past stories with much more grace and ease than aggressive couples.
And, yes, it takes commitment to your authentic expression, courage, and learning openhearted conflict resolution tools.