When You’re Terrified of Conflict: Why True Intimacy Means Speaking Up


I walk on eggshells in my relationship. I have for the past ten years.

I try to design everything out of my mouth to lead to the least amount of friction between my wife and me. And you know what? It’s hurting our relationship.

You see, I’m afraid of confrontation. For me, confrontation leads to tension and tension can lead to stress and angst.

When I was a kid, tension, stress, and angst equaled punishment from my father, which usually came in the form of yelling and verbal abuse. As such, I learned to walk on eggshells around my dad.

It was a defense mechanism. A way to survive my crazy, chaotic childhood.

Unfortunately, I took this learned behavior out in the world as an adult and perfected it. I tip-toed around people out of fear of someone getting defensive or upset with me. It was exhausting, but in my mind, better than the alternative.

With my wife, this behavior started innocently at first. For example, if she made a meal that I didn’t particularly like, I wouldn’t tell her the truth out of fear of her getting hurt or defensive about it.

In my mind, if I was honest with her, she would get upset, and that was something I wasn’t willing to let happen. This seemingly innocent way of interacting led to the deeper core issue in our relationship—not being truthful with how I was really feeling.

Instead, when I sensed that my wife was getting upset about something, I often shut down emotionally and hid. I was afraid of being my authentic self because I was certain it would lead to conflict, and conflict in my experience, like I said, leads to pain.

As a child, whenever my dad and someone he was dating had a disagreement or a fight, the relationship would come to an end. Always.

When one person would leave, another would show up and stay until there was a big fight. Then she would leave and another would be right around the corner and so on. This was the blueprint I witnessed as a child.

Conflict = pain = endings

He modeled a behavior for me, a way of being if you will, that I swore to avoid at all costs. Hence shutting down and emotionally hiding around my wife. I didn’t want a big blow up that ended our relationship.

But here’s the thing, disagreements and conflict are a part of life. They happen over politics, money, and parenting.

They happen in the workplace, over religion, and in schools. Disagreement and conflict are everywhere, and yes, they even happen in romantic relationships.

But for those of us with any sort of childhood trauma, we hear a disagreement as a fight. And fights can lead to endings, which is something most of us don’t want. 

That’s why I designed everything out of my mouth to lead to the least amount of disagreement with my wife. I didn’t want things to end. Little did I know, I was actually hurting things more than helping them.

When we walk on eggshells in our relationships, we leak without knowing it. Leak meaning our insecurities and fears come out, and they can trigger the other person and give them reason to resent us.

It’s counterintuitive. There’s no authenticity in it. There’s no connection or vulnerability.

Intimacy, erroneously for many of us, is only viewed as closeness and feeling good, and that’s not accurate. Intimacy is also discomfort and disagreement and for people to be able to navigate that.

Being intimate is sharing our reality and accepting the reality of another. When we walk on eggshells, we are not being intimate.

Unfortunately, this realization is too little too late for me. My wife and I got recently divorced, and according to her this is one of the biggest reasons why. It’s sad and painful but something I felt necessary to share with you in the off chance of it helping someone else.

The moral of the story? Bring to the relationship what you want your partner to bring to the relationship. Rise above your discomfort and be intimate.

In tough moments I sometimes turn into a little child who doesn’t know how to articulate things, so I shut down and hide instead. But like I said, that’s not intimacy.

Everyone is going to disagree or be disappointed in us at some point in time because they are human.  Our work is to be aware that others being disappointed with us does not equate to being in harm’s way.

Knowing this is the difference between being a functional adult and being in our childhood trauma. It’s the difference between healthy adult pain and the wounded child pain.

This is where my work is right now. Choosing intimacy and aliveness over people-pleasing and perceived safety. Slowing down in the moment and reminding myself that it’s okay to be scared and, even more so, to express it. The adaptive behavior of closing up and protecting myself doesn’t serve me anymore.

I imagine there’s an immense freedom that comes with not being afraid of expressing or showing oneself to others. Moving forward, that’s my path (to the best of my ability, of course). Care to join me?

About Zachary Goodson

Zachary is a writer, a coach, and a heart-centered entrepreneur who loves helping others. His writing focuses on his experiences around holistic health, inner child work, addiction, recovery, spirituality, and fatherhood. His coaching is devoted to helping people experience deep fulfillment in relationships, career, and life.  You can connect with him at zacharygoodson.com.

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