I've got this horrible habit of completely withdrawing, becoming miserable, and moping around. After some sort of conflict, I tend to totally shut down, and it's definitely noticeable by people around me.
It really bothers my girlfriend in particular as well. I've been really doing some soul-searching on this and trying to figure it out. I'd say it's a huge problem. Probably the biggest thing threatening our relationship. It makes her feel like she needs to walk on eggshells around me, it makes her feel extremely unloved, and it's sure to put her into a tizzy.
I know it's happening when it happens, and I feel trapped by it. I'm usually not successful in breaking through it and moving on, and it's really harmful. It's a horrible pattern, and it seems to happen more and more with conflict now. I can see her shields go up anytime any sort of conflict starts to arise, which makes me feel ashamed. She should feel 100% safe to be herself with me and to not worry about what my reaction is going to be at any given moment.
In thinking through this and trying to process it, I thought back to my childhood. My parents are divorced, and every couple of weeks, I would visit with my father, usually at my grandmother's house.
More often than not, if something upset my father he would become angry. Usually this would escalate into yelling and screaming and him storming out and leaving my sister and I there with my grandmother (and usually my step mom). I'd go as far as to say this was traumatizing every time it happened.
What's Going On?
I think this has affected me in a couple of ways. I think one way is that it has contributed to my non-confrontational nature. I will avoid conflict at all costs and bottle everything up inside, which is a harmful thing to do. I'll withdraw from whoever I am having conflict with and just have minimal contact with them until I feel like I've resolved the issue in my own head. I think this stems from seeing conflict with my father escalate into such trauma. I began to associate any sort of conflict with that level of brokenness and the pain involved in it, and in an attempt to avoid those feelings, do everything in my power to not go there. This is something I've been fortunate enough to identify within myself and I've been working on changing my balance of when to avoid and when to embrace conflict.
This is harmful in a serious relationship, where conflict is sure to arise, and where my coping mechanism of avoiding it is unacceptable and cannot be employed. So I bottle stuff up, but don't withdraw to process it, and so nothing gets resolved. Once something happens where confrontation is occurring, I get into the mindset that this is going to be a big blow out fight, so I might as well just pour out everything I have inside. Which I'm sure is very jarring and surprising to those on the other end of it – stuff that shouldn't be a big deal, stuff that should have been resolved ages ago (or things that I've sworn up and down I was over), and stuff that I didn't even know was an issue come spilling out.
Ironically, my way to then resolve the conflict is to stop participating and totally withdraw. This leads to not having any sort of actual resolution, no shared understanding, nothing beneficial. Just a wake of hurt behind me, a pair of people with hurt feelings, and no real reconciliation. So I then become miserable and withdrawn – I've been told I just become a shell. I know I'm not pleasant to be around when I'm like that, and I know that it's harmful, but I never really understood what was going on before so I couldn't even really counteract it. It's just the sort of thing I need to wait out (apparently very predictably too – once this happens, my girlfriend can mark the “back-to-normal” day on the calendar, and as long as nothing re-triggers me in the interim, it tends to hold true).
A Misguided Act of Love?
Another way I think this affected me was it teaching me that abandonment followed conflict. There would be this big blow out fight, and then my father up and left and abandoned the mess. I hated that.
So when this happens, I don't want to inflict that on people I love. So I don't take a timeout, I don't leave, and I just cling harder to the person I've just had a fight with. In my mind, I've created (or heavily contributed to) a whole mess of hurt, and it would be more unloving for me to just abandon the situation at that point. Now, maybe this is true. But when you mix that with my new state of mind, one in which I feel trapped in being angry, hurt, and like I need to maintain a rift in the relationship, it becomes very damaging. I'm passively inflicting further pain on everyone around me by not just letting the issue go, not removing myself or letting others remove themselves from the situation, and not taking steps to actually resolve anything.
Further irony comes in here in that I've been told this comes across as a punishment. Somebody has upset me, and now I'm punishing them by subjecting them to this. But that's not my intention at all! In my head, it's the opposite of punishment – it's showing that I can mess things up, but I'm going to sit there in pain and unhappiness as an act of love instead of just running away and coming back when everything is fixed.
What Can I Do?
I think just understanding these thought processes is very beneficial in breaking this cycle and learning new strategies for dealing with conflict and resolving the conflict.
This begins with not avoiding conflict. If I have something to say, I need to get comfortable saying it. It doesn't have to be said in a mean way, it doesn't need to push anyone away, but I need to learn to get it off my chest sooner rather than later. That means no more bottling things up. This lets the issue be cleared up sooner rather than later. I've been trying to learn and explore strategies for expressing these sorts of feelings (rather than repressing them).
The next is learning how to manage conflict when it does arise. I need to work on giving others the benefit of the doubt more. That's my default state, but once I poke holes in my own head in my reasoning behind that, I become set in the opinion that they've set out to harm me and that whatever was done was a direct assault on me. That's a very self-centered view to take, and it's almost never even true anyway!
Third, I need to communicate what is going on and why. I probably need to talk about this when I'm not in that state, and open a dialog on figuring out what exactly to do to cause the least harm when this does happen. I'm not perfect, so there needs to be a contingency plan in for when I inevitably bottle something up and this happen. My hope is that just understanding this in myself (and having others around me understanding exactly what's going on) will make it easier to fight it in the moment AND have others on my side, instead of taking it as punishment.
It's going to be important to learn how to get over these feelings faster as well. If this is going to happen, I need to learn the right thought patterns to get back on track faster.