The “Yes, Dear” Strategy: Why appeasing your partner during conflict is a bad long-term plan
Conflict can be painful and difficult. How we feel about and manage conflict is largely formed by the adult caretakers who modeled behavior during our childhoods. If we were fortunate enough to have healthy and mature caretakers, we learned that conflict is a normal part of relationships and presents an opportunity to learn and grow as a couple. However, for a great many, the conflict we witnessed was volatile and lead to disruptions rather than growth in the relationship, (example: Mom and dad screamed at one another, then dad stormed out of the house and didn’t return until the next day). Or we saw conflict as something to be swept under the rug, (example: You went to your mom for help with an argument you had with your sibling only to be told it wasn’t a big deal and she wished you two could just play nicely together).
If you were modeled destructive or avoidant behaviors around conflict, the desire to do anything and everything to end an agonizing struggle with your intimate partner is quite understandable. After all from your experience nothing good ever came from moving through conflict.
There are many ways people get out of conflict. One way I witness partners end or avoid conflict is to pacify his or her partner by accepting all of the blame or by agreeing with whatever request their partner is making. This is what I call the “Yes, Dear” strategy of solving relationship problems. Because it typically makes the partner happy or at least less angry, it works really well in the short term, but often proves disastrous in the long run, especially over time.
In order to change this strategy it is important to understand what happens when we encounter conflict.
If you experienced poor models of conflict resolution you may become emotionally triggered when conflict occurs. Current conflict can bring back old memories and accompanying emotions, all of which can feel unbearable to hold. If you have traumatic memories around conflict (example: your parents were engaged in a long-term custody battle) what comes up during these times is much more than annoyance or discomfort. You may experience your body become flooded with emotions. When you become overwhelmed with emotions your old brain (aka reptilian brain) takes over and you are no longer able to think straight. You may even feel like you are “trapped”, “caged” or “suffocating”. Your body may freeze and your mind can become blank, unable to know or express what you are thinking or feeling. In this state, self-preservation becomes your focus, not the relationship. You must find a way to end this very frightening experience. One way to do this is to give your partner what he or she wants. The “Yes, Dear” strategy is a way to end your suffering.
However, your partner does not see that fear is behind your choice of using the “Yes, Dear” strategy. In the moment the falsehood is told your partner believes you are sincere. He or she believes you will follow-through with the agreement and/or is contented by the fact you are willing to take accountability. However, this is a stopgap. Since you spoke from fear rather than sincerity, it is only a matter of time before the agreement falls through or you repeat the behaviors you agreed were to blame for a lack of harmony in your relationship. Your partner will experience “Yes, Dear” as a symbol of broken promises, false agreements and lies. Ironically the “Yes-Dear” approach ends one argument only to start another argument fueled with compounded anger and dissatisfaction.
How can you do it differently and create a pathway toward healthy conflict resolution?
The most important thing you can do to increase the likelihood of productive conflict resolution is to learn tools to help you self-soothe once triggered. While it is often difficult to prevent triggering, it is possible to both identify triggers and learn how to manage the flooding of emotions. From an emotionally regulated place you can stay with the conflict in order to see it through and avoid making promises you can’t keep.
Helping couples enter into productive conflict resolution is a key focus of my work. During couples therapy you will learn how to identify your triggers, effective mindfulness skills to help you self-soothe and ways your partner can assist you in this process.