Is being passive during conflict an intelligent thing to do or is it a symptom of emotional issues such as codependency? The short answer is that it can be either depending upon the degree of conscious choice involved in the behavior.
Passivity during conflict is unhealthy when:
- we chronically fail to set appropriate boundaries for ourselves
- we feel unable to stick up for our needs and beliefs for fear of losing love, affection, or connection
- we feel unable to assert ourselves
- we chronically avoid dealing with the issues/differences that are creating conflict(s) in the first place, in order to preserve the appearance of “peace” in our relationships.
Unhealthy passivity is not something we choose to do because the very thing that makes it unhealthy is the lack of choice. Unhealthy passivity is often a pattern that is learned in childhood (or sometimes in long-term abusive adult relationships) that at one time helped keep us safe.
In childhood this coping mechanism comes about when we receive messages that if we assert our needs we might lose the affection/approval/love of our primary caregivers (or, in more overtly abusive situations, that we might be hurt physically or in some other kind of obvious way). As a child loss of approval and affection feels life threatening, because without the love of our caregivers we might not survive; we were completely dependent upon them.
This can happen in all kinds of families, even those that are fairly healthy and non-abusive, especially when children are empaths or Highly Sensitive. Why is this?
Because the unfortunate reality is that modern life is stressful. Parents are often stressed, over-worked, overly tired and spread entirely too thin. Children need a lot of direction, love, and attention. Parenting requires a lot of patience and mindfulness—both of which are, unfortunately, in short supply when adults are stressed and rushed. So, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how a well-meaning, generally loving parent might use less-than-ideal relational tactics (such as anger and frustration in order to control their child’s more difficult displays of emotion) from time to time.
If this happens rarely, most kids will not be impacted too much by it. But highly sensitive children can be impacted quite deeply, even if most other interactions with parents are positive and safe. This is because highly sensitive children feel things more deeply, are more quick to notice patterns in behavior and more quick to assign meaning to subtle social cues (due to high levels of intelligence and a sensitive nervous system).
My main point being—you didn’t necessarily have to come from an abusive background or have an overall negative relationship with your caregivers in childhood to have issues with self-assertion and boundary setting during conflict.
As I said in the beginning, passivity (and most things) *can* be healthy, if we are making a conscious choice to engage in the behavior. There might be specific situations we find ourselves in where choosing to remain passive during conflict might be highly intelligent and adaptive given the circumstances.
An example of this would be if we were arguing with someone and we came to realize that we could potentially be in danger of abuse (be that physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual). At that point the smartest thing to do may be to disengage by no longer attempting to assert our point of view. We might then appear to become passive. But notice, even in this situation, it is really only an appearance of passivity, because by making a conscious choice to protect ourselves by drawing our energy in we are in actuality setting a boundary of protection.
Someone commented that remaining passive can prevent a conflict from escalating. To that I would say, passivity is not the same thing as calmness. It is perfectly possible to assert our needs and boundaries while simultaneously remaining calm. Passivity is also not the same as asking to take breaks during conflict in order to calm down. That would be the opposite of passivity because we are asserting a need.
In a healthy relationship where both people’s needs and opinions are equally valued, we should not have to remain passive during conflict in order to feel safe. Both people should, ideally, be able to express their individual needs knowing that disagreement and challenging emotions, such as frustration and anger, are par for the course in any long-term relationship. Why? Because we will never agree on everything.
Lastly, passivity might be an appropriate response during a conflict where we genuinely do not have a strong set of needs/opinions/values about the outcome. In that case, being passive makes sense, especially when preserving the relationship is more important that "being right" (which, ideally, it always will be).
In situations where codependency is an issue being passive during conflict occurs at the expense of the person’s individual needs/wants/values/opinions. It is a toxic, largely unconscious, pattern that was likely adaptive and useful at one time but has now become a hinderance to deepening levels of true authenticity and connection in adult relationships.
Learning how to navigate conflict in a healthy and authentic way is a lifelong process, one which starts through becoming aware of our own patterns--both those that work well and those that need to be revised. As I always say, healing starts with awareness. Awareness equals choice!