After the Argument: Using Relationship Conflict

We all argue.

Okay, maybe that statement is too absolute, but most of the couples I know argue from time to time. Knowing that relationship or marital conflict is common can be helpful, but it’s also important to understand the function of conflict—what arguing can and cannot accomplish. In a previous article on relationship conflict, I discussed the differences between healthy and unhealthy conflict, and the importance for couples to understand this difference.

In short, there are arguments that help clear the build-up that has accumulated in your relationship’s arteries, and then there are the conflicts that cause damage—conflict toxins that drive a wedge between you and your partner; conflicts that if left unchecked, can erode the love that once existed.

A great deal has been written in the relationship advice literature about how to communicate more effectively—for instance, helping couples package their message so that each partner is more receptive to what is being communicated rather than shutting down the communication process through defensiveness and stonewalling. But once we are in the throes of a disagreement, these communication tools quickly vanish and we end up shooting from the hip, lobbing verbal grenades at one another. But even when this occurs, all isn’t lost (or it doesn’t have to be). You can reflect upon what happened, including your contribution to what went wrong, and learn something that can be paid forward.

Relationship Conflict: Learning from Breakdowns of Communication

Terri was eager to tell me about how she and her boyfriend Stephen recently resolved a conflict that occurred over the weekend. When I asked her what she discovered about herself and Stephen as a result of the argument, she appeared dumbfounded. It turned out that the perceived “resolution” involved both of them becoming so exhausted that the conflict petered out. They then focused their energies elsewhere and got on with their weekend.

In short, nothing was resolved except that they were both understandably relieved to get away from the spinning wheels of this cycle of misunderstanding and defensiveness.

Resolved conflict isn’t conflict laid dormant. Meaningful conflict ultimately brings about greater mutual understanding about each other’s needs, as well as a heightened sensitivity to one another’s emotional vulnerabilities. This understanding doesn’t always need to be some profound insight into the workings of each other’s psyche. It can be as simple as, “I learned that after a hard day’s work, I have very little patience and probably shouldn’t be discussing sensitive issues at that time since I’m likely to get defensive very quickly.”

What frequently happens after a conflict is that some time passes and then one partner makes an overture to make amends and reconnect. Here the message is, “Let’s not stay mad at each other; not talking to each other is wrong. Are you ready to move on?” And of course this would happen—it’s distressing to stay angry with the person you love! During periods of estrangement from one another, our desire for connection and to feel close to our partner starts to override the negative fallout of an argument.

Sometimes temporary amends occurs by hitting the conflict pause button, shelving the conflict for another day and time. As long as you each realize that this is occurring, then there is also the realization that the conflict really hasn’t been worked out. But you cannot continually step over an unresolved relationship issue with the hope of avoiding the distress inherent to facing it head-on. Conflict avoidance will catch up to you at some point—you can run from conflict, but you can’t hide.

There are certain issues that you and your partner may never see eye-to-eye on. Resolving relationship conflict isn’t about agreeing with each other or continually giving up your power (and self) to placate the other. Instead, it’s about creating a relationship atmosphere that fosters mutual understanding so that the differences that exist between you can exist more harmoniously.

Healthy Relationship Conflict Action Step:

Here are a few questions to ponder next time you and your partner are attempting to resolve some particular relationship issue:

  • If I wasn’t angry, what would I be feeling about this issue?
  • What is preventing me from understanding my partner’s perspective on this particular issue?
  • If I view conflict as an opportunity for greater self-observation (as a mirror being held up to me), what can I learn about myself?
  • What can I learn about my partner (about his/her emotional needs) if I don’t allow myself to get distracted or defensive in the face of his/her anger or frustration?

Remember, it’s not whether or not you and your partner argue (all couples do)–it’s what you do with the arguing that matters.

Until next time,

Dr. Rich Nicastro

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