I had a patient describe her husband as someone who bites his tongue for days about an issue, then becomes angry at her out of the blue.
I said: “Oh, he is afraid of conflict,” and she looked at me quizzically.
“But he gets angry and we fight. He seems to like conflict.”
“Yes, it may look like that on the surface. But, first he tried hard to avoid a fight by biting his tongue and not saying things. Then he blew up, perhaps in an attempt to avoid future fights by teaching you to not confront him. Overall, this tells me he is very uncomfortable with conflict.”
Avoid or attack are two common communication and relationship strategies people use. But when I see this dichotomy it signals to me that this person is afraid of conflict. If he fears conflict he will do everything he can to avoid it — either by directly avoiding it or by attacking others to keep them from confronting him.
Someone who is comfortable with direct, assertive, forthright conversations can have those interactions without behaving in either extreme — avoidance or aggressive attacking.
Assertiveness is not a skill many people are comfortable with, perhaps because they did not learn it as a child from their parents. Many people learned and had modeled for them those unhealthy extremes of avoid and attack. Perhaps as children they were raised by parents who attacked them via criticism, judgment or lack of warmth and connection.
Assertiveness, however, can be very healthy for relationships. The assertive person gets to speak her mind and feel heard in a healthier way than automatic submission or dominance. The person hearing the truth may get a lesson in self-awareness that can lead to improved behaviors in the long run. The relationship itself is healthier because thoughts are expressed appropriately and promptly, not held in, leading to resentment, or vented in dysregulated anger.
Assertiveness may seem to go against our natural human instinct to avoid conflict. Getting along with others is a prosocial, adaptive skill that helped assure our survival in tribal days. But while social hierarchies can be greased in the short term with submission and dominance, in the long term it is a healthy boundary established with prompt assertiveness that is essential for healthy relationships.