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Conflict Avoidance Can Make You Two-Faced
Betraying loyalty in order not to rock the boat
*The following is an excerpt from an unpublished manuscript I wrote about IFS-informed boundaries, called The Boundaries Handbook, which I’ll be drip feeding to you all here over time.
When we use our spirituality to avoid conflict, making nice when we should be making a fuss, we risk becoming untrustworthy to the people we love the most. While people pleasing compliance to what other people want might make us superficially pleasant and easy to be around, that sweetness spoils when we’re talking about intimate relationships.
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It’s one thing to have a lot of casual acquaintances who like us because we’re so easy going, we’re flexible, and we say yes when other people make requests. But when it comes to real intimacy, that kind of people pleasing can become safety’s nightmare.
How can being conflict avoidant make you two-faced? Let’s start with an obvious example and then we’ll explore more nuance.
The Unintentional Affair
I once knew a happily married guy who developed a close relationship with a female colleague at work. He had been ill and was having some personal struggles and his wife was traveling a lot for work, leaving him lonely. The work colleague had become a confident and friend. One day, she invited him over to do some work together in her home, and when he arrived, she was naked with a bathrobe barely covering her. When she opened the door and saw his shock, she dropped the bathrobe and disrobed.
He was not attracted to her romantically or sexually. He just liked her as a friend. But his childhood wounding had made him so conflict avoidant that he could not say no to her and wound up having an affair with her that day. When the tryst was over, he was horrified at what he’d done. When he told me about it years later, in tears, he said that he felt sorry for her and didn’t want to hurt her feelings or risk the friendship by rejecting her. He had no intention of cheating on his wife, ending the marriage, or continuing the affair. But he had betrayed his wife, and he didn’t understand what had happened until he processed it in therapy after the marriage was over.
He confessed to his wife right away, explaining that it all happened so fast and begging for mercy. He had not intended to have sex with his friend and he felt the most intense remorse. He explained to his wife that he felt like he was under a spell and found himself just obeying his friend when she seduced him, even though it meant he had just done something horrible to his wife.
His wife was having none of that nonsense, rolling her eyes at his lame excuse for having sex with another woman. His wife left him in a tizzy, refused to see a couple’s therapist, and falsely accused him of all kinds of terrible things to try (unsuccessfully) to get full custody of the kids.
Only later, after years of therapy, did he realize that when he saw his friend standing there naked, he was in shock, and he dissociated. The people-pleasing, conflict avoidant parts that had taken hold when he was raised by a narcissistic mother who required that he jump whenever she said “Jump” took him over, and his loyal, loving good husband Self left the building. This fawning part betrayed his wife, rather than risk hurting his friend’s feelings or risk her explosion should he reject her.
Of course, his fawning part’s plan backfired, because his wife exploded even more severely than his friend might have had he rejected her, which only further burdened the terrified part that the fawning part protected.
When he finally unburdened the vulnerable exiled part under the fawning protector part, he realized his internal family system had been trained to dissociate and collapse into compliance when his mother ordered him around with her entitled demands and punished and humiliated him severely if he didn’t obey. When those young parts took over, his adult Self went offline and caused him to be two-faced.
When Boundaries Collapse & Dangerous People Sneak In
In another instance, more nuanced example, a woman was in therapy working on her boundaries, which had been shattered by corporal punishment and countless other abuses in childhood. Her belief system had been anchored in by Christian fundamentalism, brimming with spiritual bypassing beliefs that groomed her to let her abusers off the hook in the name of being a good, forgiving little Christian girl who would grow up to have naive compassion for everyone, staying silent and obedient, suppressing all anger and gagging her no, even when people harmed her severely.
She and her husband had a rocky start in their marriage because he hadn’t realized how shattered her boundaries were until they moved in together after the wedding and her behavior with other boundaryless people she brought close to them both began to make him feel unsafe. They were working hard in IFIO therapy (IFS couple’s counseling) to have “courageous conversations” and negotiate boundaries together so her husband could feel safer and she could close some of the gaping holes in her boundaries.
Her husband had been less wounded in childhood and had better boundaries than she did to begin with. He had started therapy years earlier after his last marriage to a boundaryless wife failed. So he was more immune than her to the kinds of people she was vulnerable to- especially people with exploitative, transactional narcissistic parts, criminal con artist sociopath parts, sleazy seducers and cat-fisher parts, and others who took advantage of her people pleasing niceness in ways that made both of them vulnerable to dangerous people.
Her husband felt constantly blindsided and bewildered by her lack of discernment and the porous gaps in her boundaries. In his eyes, the people she brought into their lives were brimming with red flags screaming “Threat!” But her nervous system had been damaged in childhood, blunting her natural threat response and causing “faulty neuroception.” (You can learn more about faulty neuroception in this great video made by Chris Rutgers at The Trauma Foundation. Or you can read Nurturing Resilience.) So her discernment was 180 degrees off kilter. Because intimacy was so scary for her, she interpreted dangerous people as trustworthy and safe, and she discerned safe, trustworthy people as threatening.
In her eyes, these exploitative, demanding, entitled, bullying, pushy people her husband felt threatened by were hurt, traumatized little birds that needed rescuing. She understood these people. They weren’t bad people- they were just hurt people in need of more loving tenderness. She prided herself in being someone who could see that underneath their pushy, controlling, bullying attempts to take advantage of her generosity was a little hurt child who just needed a self-sacrificing, unconditionally loving Jesus figure to love them back to health.
The problems began as small things. He would trigger about the way she just collapsed when her boss insisted she be on call for him 24/7, even though they had small children and her contract did not require such constant attention to his needs. She became more and more enslaved to her boss’s ridiculous requests, yet instead of pushing back, saying no, and setting boundaries, she sucked up to her boss and validated that what he was requesting was essential to his grand mission, bowing to his every demand with deferential sweetness.
When they went out to dinner together with her boss and the husband witnessed the boss disrespecting and condescending to his wife, he took her aside and suggested she stand up for herself and not let him get away with such abusive language. His wife agreed that what he was saying was hurtful and promised to go back to the table and ask him to stop. But when she got back to the table, she started fawning her boss instead of following through on her boundary setting. When her husband was upset on the car ride home, she became hostile and accused him of not being as loving, forgiving, and understanding as she was.
The problem escalated when she started breaking her word to him, choosing to bow to pushy people, especially authority figures, instead of setting the boundaries she had promised him she would set. They decided together in a couple’s therapy session that she would set some clear boundaries with a friend who always behaved abusively with her husband, cutting him down in front of his wife and planting seeds of doubt about whether he was a good and kind person, doubt his wife never expressed otherwise. He frequently caught the friend in outright lies, but when he confronted his wife about the lies, she thought he was being paranoid and defended her friend.
Whenever the friend would come to visit, things would go missing. When the husband would ask where the expensive necklace he bought his wife had gone, she said her friend had admired it and asked if she could have it, so she gave it to her as a gift.
When money started disappearing from the bank accounts, he asked his wife about what was going on, and she confessed that her friend had asked if they could go on a shopping spree- because she thought his wife had such exquisite taste and she needed a makeover. When it came time to pay for the $5000 worth of clothes and the friend gushed over how grateful she was for his wife’s generosity in helping her shop, his wife wound up forking over the credit card without thinking about it.
Such things kept happening, and her husband was getting frightened that his wife was getting manipulated. They had worked out with their therapist what was okay and what was not okay with them both after the friend has asked if she could come visit. They made a plan together for how to handle the friend, and they wrote down the agreement and signed it. The therapist helped her role play so she could practice standing up to her bulldozing friend. She felt terrified in the role playing, even though she knew cognitively she was safe.
They had agreed that the wife’s responsibility was to have a conversation with her friend before the visit to forewarn her of the new agreements. He suspected she might not come if she felt she would be held to account or asked to leave if she couldn’t contain herself from some of her hurtful behaviors. But his wife promised to follow through on the plan they had written down, calling her friend ahead of time in case her friend changed her mind knowing the new terms.
The friend was supposed to come a week after therapy. So every day her husband asked her “Have you called her and told her what we agreed upon?” Every day she made excuses for why she hadn’t. As the days passed and nothing happened, her husband became more and more agitated and his wife became angry at her husband, insisting that he back off and stop being pushy. She explained that she wanted to break the news gently, in person, when her friend was in their house. But the agreement they had signed had been explicit- that the friend was only invited if she agreed ahead of time to the new terms they had both negotiated.
One day passed. Then the next. Then the next. His wife never followed through on her end of the bargain. And when the friend arrived and led off first thing with an attack on her husband, he asked her to leave. The friend blew up and got even nastier with the husband. But his wife flew to her friend’s rescue, fawning and love bombing her and validating everything she was saying, rather than standing up for her husband and upholding the boundaries they both agreed upon.
The friend smirked and gave him a look of pure hatred. He felt outraged and terrified and tried to pull his wife aside to remind her of their plan so she could stand strong in upholding their agreement, even when her friend was exploding like her mother often did. His wife felt her loyalties torn, but she collapsed and sided with her friend, even after her husband pulled out the signed agreement and insisted he was not going to stay if the friend wouldn’t respect the agreements.
He too felt torn. Should he leave her in the clutches of a woman he had deemed unsafe and wrestle with his own panic? Should he threaten to leave the two of them alone in the house and go somewhere else if his wife couldn’t back him up and stand by the agreements they decided to uphold together? Should he call for an emergency therapy session?
He didn’t have time to choose, because the friend said to his wife, “Your husband never lets us have any fun. Let’s go to the spa.” And his wife packed her bag and got in her friend’s car, appearing not to care about her husband’s extreme distress. When the credit card bill came in, he saw that his wife had paid for the whole spa trip.
When Conflict Avoidance Makes Us Break Our Promises- To Ourselves
In therapy later, the couple had to do the autopsy on what had happened. Had the wife agreed to boundary terms that she wasn’t really agreeing to, appeasing her husband but not standing up for herself and her own needs? Had she actually agreed to the terms but couldn’t hold her ground once it came time to confront her friend? Did she have one part that wanted the set the boundary but a stronger part that didn’t, making her appear two-faced? Would she rather stay boundaryless and lose her husband over her choice to not uphold the boundaries they so carefully negotiated together?
This kind of event happened time and time again for the couple, and after dozens of attempts to make agreements together that required them both to follow through on the actual setting and upholding of the boundaries, it became clear he was capable of confronting people, saying no, getting fierce if need be, demonstrating loyalty by having his wife’s back and his own, and letting go of relationships that were not safe. His wife was not capable yet of doing the same.
Over and over, she made promises in therapy to set boundaries with some of the people in her life, but when it came time to actually set the boundary, she walked on eggshells, worried compulsively about the other person’s feelings, and blended with avoidant parts that couldn’t actually follow through. Each time, her husband felt betrayed, because given the choice between upholding their mutually agreed upon plan and either breaking her promise to him or setting the boundary with the other person, she collapsed to the most narcissistic person in the room, which was usually the person she had promised to set a boundary with, not her husband. Her loyalty went to the biggest, most intimidating bully in the room, over and over.
After two years of this- and a lot of individual therapy of his own- he realized there was no way to force her to keep her promises in order to protect them both with clear boundaries without being unreasonably controlling or micromanaging the situation. All he could do was protect himself from her boundarylessness by dialing down the intimacy and giving his own tender parts more space from her reckless behavior.
So with a broken heart, he moved out and prayed for her safety, letting her know that he sincerely loved her, and if she ever broke this pattern, he would move back in in a blink.
Initially she was livid and felt betrayed and abandoned. She didn’t think she had done anything wrong, and even if she had, she expected him to behave the way she did- letting people off the hook and forgiving them for their foibles, even if they hurt you. It took a while before she realized he did the only thing he could do to protect himself- because she couldn’t protect their intimacy and keep it safe by upholding their boundaries and saying no when needed.
She realized that in failing to follow through on the boundaries that most of her parts really did want to set because of her absolute terror of confronting the ones she was trying to set boundaries with, the boundaries she had broken the most were the promises she made to herself. It was she who had betrayed herself- and him.
It took her another year of therapy to realize that her husband had been justified in moving out because her inability to follow through on her part of boundary setting had made him feel justifiably unsafe. This had eroded the trust between them, leaving him feeling betrayed every time she couldn’t keep up her end of the bargain. He knew she loved him, but the parts of her that loved him and wanted to respect their agreements and keep her word had less dominance in her internal family system than the parts that wanted to avoid confronting abusive people at all costs and fawned instead of protecting their boundaries.
When she read the letters he wrote her afterwards, as he processed what had happened in his own therapy, she was actually shocked and horrified to realize that the way her behavior landed on him felt like one knife in his heart after another. She considered herself a kind and loving Christian woman and never thought of herself as two-faced or out of integrity. But the evidence was clear. Given the choice between being loyal to her husband or being loyal to the abusive people in her life, she had fawned the abuser time and time again, leaving him feeling helpless to protect himself or her.
What finally motivated her to find her power in her exiled unfuckwithable parts, the parts that could get fierce and firm and fiery in order to stand up for herself, sew closed the holes in her boundaries, and save her marriage, was witnessing the distress she had unwittingly caused her husband and her children. She had thought she was doing the right thing by being obedient to the narcissists in her life, the way she had been trained to do in her fundamentalist childhood. She had inflated her self image, seeing herself as a generous martyr who could love and forgive even the most insufferably difficult people, just like Jesus could. She judged her husband as polarizing, judgmental, and aggressive when he was trying to stand up for them both.
But she had gotten it backwards.
She realized it was one thing to intend to set a boundary or make a promise to her husband that she would and it was another thing to actually confront her abusers and follow through on her word. In those moments when it was time to say no, push back, and keep her part of the agreement, she just couldn’t seem to do what she had promised. Until she got help in individual IFS therapy to become intimate with the appeasing, fawning protector part so she could unburden the heavy emotional and somatic and spiritual burdens of the terrified, cowering little exiled part underneath that fawning, she simply could not stand firm and say no with any real force.
Being Trustworthy Requires Good Boundaries
The moral of these stories is that as hard as it can be to set boundaries with some people, especially the ones who are more entitled, pushy, controlling, bullying, and narcissistic, it’s necessary in order to be a loyal, safe, trustworthy person to the safe, well boundaried people you can actually trust in your life. There’s a reason boundaryless people tend to pair up with other boundaryless people- because trustworthy, safe people with clear boundaries and the courage to negotiate clear boundaries and uphold them with flexibility, rather than rigidity, will not tolerate boundaryless behavior indefinitely. It’s just not safe. You simply can’t trust someone if you don’t know what’s okay and not okay with them, and if they can’t stand up for themselves or protect themselves -and you- from abusive people.
For many people, this realization requires rewiring your moral compass 180 degrees. Instead of a morality of obedience, people pleasing, and accommodating, you become someone sturdy, solid, and trustworthy, someone who pushes back if need be and says no when it’s appropriate, someone who clearly and directly communicates what’s okay and not okay and has the nervous system capacity and guts to back up those boundaries.
For trauma survivors, this often requires doing the kinds of “reps” Resmaa Menakem teaches about in My Grandmother’s Hands and Monsters in Love. He says that in order to live with integrity, we have to temper our nervous systems to be capable of handling conflict, standing up to abusers, contain ourselves so we don’t abuse others, and getting fierce if need be- in order to grow up out of developmental moratoriums and do the right thing. Just like you might do 10 reps of a bicep curl, you’ll need to practice every day tempering your nervous system to handle conflict so you can do the right thing, be loyal to the safe people you love instead of choosing to fawn narcissists, and become trustworthy to yourself and others.
There are lots of ways to temper your nervous system without blowing yourself out. My Grandmother’s Hands has lots of descriptions of how to do these reps with regard to anti-racism work, but it also works for personal intimate relationships. I’ll share more in future posts about practices that can be used to temper your nervous system, so please subscribe if you don’t want to miss anything!
To those of you who have struggled with this pattern of being two-faced and hurting people you really love because you can’t stand firm with your boundaries when confronted with intimidating, scary people, my heart goes out to you. This wife I described became absolutely committed to getting her moral compass straight, and she and her husband did finally repair the rift in their marriage.
As an unexpected side effect of her therapy aimed at helping her break her conflict avoidant, spiritual bypassing tendencies, her autoimmune condition symptoms improved by about 50%- an unexpected bonus that made her inspired to stay in therapy to follow her physical symptoms as a trailhead into deeper levels of healing that might be possible. I’ll be talking more about using your body as a trailhead with IFS in future posts as well.
Thank you to those of you who have already subscribed and pledged here! I feel so grateful and validated by your support in my new experiment here on Substack.
*I took the photograph of the many-headed Buddha in Thailand. My friend Emma and I nicknamed it the “IFS Buddha,” since it appears to have many faces. This is me in front of the IFS Buddha, blended with a wee little exiled part of myself that got terrified of my controlling fundamentalist mother and was so scared into obedience that, as an adult in medical training, I forgot I had legal human rights and could have called the cops and pressed charges when medical school professors criminally assaulted me by throwing bloody scalpels at me and sexually harassing me. Thank God or Buddha or Captain Crunch for both AIT therapy and IFS therapy, which helped me stitch up my wounded boundaries.
With care for your boundaries,
Thanks for reading The Body Is A Trailhead by Lissa Rankin, MD! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.