Conflict spirals are patterns of friction or tension that worsen over time. Distancing spirals are a particularly insidious form of conflict spiral because they cause relationship damage while we think we’re doing nothing wrong at all.
A conflict spiral is a situation in which conflict or tension grows worse over time — spiraling outward, if you will.
One type of conflict spiral that most of us recognize is the escalatory spiral. Left unchecked, escalatory spirals seem to take on a life of their own and grow increasingly destructive. Arguments that rapidly spin out of control are examples of one-on-one escalatory spirals. Arms races between countries are escalatory spirals on a global scale.
Distancing spirals are another type of conflict spiral. Compared to escalatory spirals, distancing spirals may seem sedate, as we grow increasingly distant from one another. As the distance grows, we may feel less investment in the personal or professional relationship, or harbor increasing disappointment or resentment.
Distancing in a marriage is one example of this kind of spiral. Another is the gradual distancing between two colleagues at work.
A distancing spiral doesn’t feel like overt war. It feels like awkwardness. It feels like disinterest. It feels like avoidance.
Distancing spirals grow gradually, often beneath our radar. They happen one avoided conversation at a time. Individually, none of the avoided conversations feels like a deal breaker. Collectively, they’re building a force that becomes, with time, harder to overcome.
The desire to avoid increases, the interest in direct communication decreases. In a marriage, intimacy suffers. In a work relationship, the easy banter of the workday and the willingness to share information diminish.
There’s a fancy word for the origins of a conflict spiral: Schismogenesis — the beginning of the schism. In distancing spirals, sometimes there was a precipitating event we can recall as the birth of tension. Sometimes, it’s been building for so long, one little emotional bruise at a time, that we can’t specifically recall when or how it began.
The best opportunity to intervene in any conflict spiral is near the beginning, before it spirals outward and grows. The next best opportunity is whenever we realize we’re swept up in one.
When we say, “I’m sensing some tension between us and want to make sure it doesn’t get in the way of our working relationship,” or “I’m noticing the two of you are avoiding each other. What’s up?” we invite the kind of conversation that keeps teams healthy.
When we say, “I feel us growing apart and that’s not the future I want for us,” we open the door to the kind of conversation that can alter the trajectory of a marriage.
I understand it takes a certain courage to confront a distancing spiral, to step into it instead of trying to outrun it. Yet: