Conflict Avoidance: Why Couples Over 50 Get Divorced

As a family and divorce lawyer, I’ve seen many couples over 50 get divorced. In my experience, one of the main reasons for this is a lack of communication – especially for working through conflicts. If you are over the age of 50, you might be considering divorce based on a few hidden conflicts that are only now surfacing. Whether it’s due to COVID-19 quarantine, where you’ve had to slow down and spend more time with your spouse, or your marriage conflicts are long-standing issues, it’s important to recognize conflict avoidance and know how to handle it.

As part of my series on some of the common reasons people over 50 get divorced, this article focuses on conflict avoidance. Take a look at what the experts from the Chicagoland community have to say about this common problem.

What Is Conflict Avoidance?

I define conflict avoidance as spouses refusing, whether intentionally or not, to address conflicts. As Dr. Sara Schwarzbaum, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Founder of Couples Counseling Associates in the Chicago area, states, “Conflict avoidance is what happens when people who don’t want to hurt their partners’ feelings, or upset them, end up avoiding talking about important wishes, concerns, or annoyances. They don’t want to rock the boat for fear of confrontation, and they end up ignoring or burying their own thoughts, concerns, feelings and wishes.” This lack of action can occur for years and years, maybe even without you realizing it. While conflict avoidance is common among couples over 50, it can happen at any age.

Over time, conflict avoidance can present real challenges to your marriage. Many of my clients have lost their spark or enthusiasm with their spouse because of the bitterness they’ve built up. You might feel like a stranger in your own home because you and your spouse have avoided the big issues. In any case, conflict avoidance doesn’t make the arguments go away.

In fact, conflict avoidance can compound these points of tension. One day, you might wake up and realize you and your spouse no longer have that essential “we”-ness that makes up a healthy marriage.

“We live in a culture that is set up to support avoidance. The over-working, the constant busyness, and the pervasive pull of our devices and social media—they all allow us to avoid the difficult and seemingly unresolvable things going on in our personal lives” states Kate Engler, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and owner of Kate Engler Counseling in Illinois.

What Are the Signs of Conflict Avoidance?

Rather than some big, imploding event, conflict avoidance usually manifests in an accumulation of conflict from not addressing serious issues when they arise. According to Ms. Engler, “Over time, one or both partners begin to shut down and avoid conflict altogether as a means of self-protection. If this pattern goes on for too long, and the couple doesn’t get help, this is usually the death knell of the relationship.”

Here are some signs I think you should look for when you’re wondering if your relationship suffers from conflict avoidance:

  • Looking back at your marriage and realizing that you don’t want to live like this
  • Feeling like you need to end things
  • Sensing pent-up tension or feeling like a dam has broken open as you try to work through your problems with your spouse
  • Finding a need to reconcile or make a change
  • Suddenly wanting to be open and honest with your spouse

Pent-up conflict can indeed be difficult to address. But facing your problems head-on could result in reconciliation with your spouse. Alternatively, you both might find that divorce is your best option. Either scenario offers an opportunity to pursue new goals and look forward to your future.

You Can Seek Help for Divorce Over 50

If you and your spouse are over the age of 50 and are contemplating divorce due to conflict avoidance, do not feel ashamed or embarrassed. As I mentioned before, this process is much more common than you think and can offer benefits to both you and your spouse. As Dr. Schwarzbaum explains, “It is possible for conflict avoidant partners to change their patterns, even if they decide to end their marriage. Paradoxically, when conflict avoidant couples decide to divorce, they still have to learn to talk to each other to navigate their disagreements and manage difficult conversations. With some guidance and hard work, some couples who separate can work things out to create marriage 2.0., and some couples go on to divorce with more clarity, more strength and less psychological damage.”

Look at your life twenty, thirty, even forty years from now. If you don’t want to continue avoiding conflict and your issues are irreconcilable, it could be time for a change. Whether that means giving therapy a try or pursuing divorce is up to you.

If you are over the age of 50 and are contemplating divorce, you are welcome to call me, Janet Boyle, or any of my colleagues at Family Law Solutions, P.C. for your legal needs. We can help you determine the best next steps and offer up invaluable legal counsel to assist you. To work with one of our qualified divorce attorneys, contact our office at 312-332-1344.

Dr. Sara Schwarzbaum, LMFT & LCPC | Phone: 312-416-6191
Kate Engler, LMFT & LPC | Phone: 844-546-6642