SYR Podcast # 5 Session Notes
(Scroll down to end of notes for podcast audio)
Can conflict be good for your relationship?
It’s easy for most of us to recall a couple we knew whose divorce or breakup shocked us. Our surprise may stem from the fact that the couple got along so well. They never seemed to argue; they didn’t speak negatively about each other; they may have even appeared happy to us. And yet, seemingly out of the blue, things fell apart and they went their separate ways.
What happened to this couple?
One explanation is that they didn’t argue. Or, more accurately, they didn’t address important marital/relationship issues that ended up festering below the surface of their collective consciousness. And, over time, these unexamined issues created barriers that were irreparable. In these instances, the couple’s conflict-avoidant way of relating (or, the “harmony at any cost” approach to life) backfired.
Maybe a healthy dose of marital/relationship conflict would have served them well.
Then there are the couples who don’t retreat from conflict. Some couples have no problem airing their differences; they don’t shy away from giving voice to frustrations and hurt feelings. Does dealing with conflict head-on help these couples? Are they protected in some way compared to their quieter, conflict-avoidant counterparts?
The answer is: it depends.
Before exploring the differences between healthy and unhealthy conflict, let’s turn our attention to why conflict occurs. In understanding what fuels different kinds of conflict, you and your spouse/partner will be in a better position to understand why conflict is arising in your relationship.
Understanding the Different Faces of Relationship/Marital Conflict
1) Conflict as an expression of unfulfilled emotional needs
To be human is to have emotional needs. When our marriage or relationship is going well, our primary relational-emotional needs are being met. We may not even be aware that this is occurring, but if you are feeling emotionally connected to your spouse/partner and there is an overarching sense of security that helps you feel emotionally grounded, then your spouse/partner is more often than not being responsive to your needs.
When our needs are ignored, when it feels like we aren’t a priority to our partner, then hurt feelings and frustrations mount. In these moments we may communicate our frustrations in a way that makes our partner defensive, thereby fueling a potential conflict. Or we may communicate effectively only to have our concerns fall on deaf ears. This may compound our pain and lead to increased anger and conflict.
2) Conflict as an expression of clashing values/relationship expectations
Most of us enter into a committed relationship with certain expectations. The idea of a committed relationship is built on expectations (for instance, the expectation of what commitment means to each of you). But what if you have the expectation that commitment means spending most of your time together while your partner’s expectation is that one weekend a month he will be playing softball with his buddies? In this scenario you might imagine some tension forming, as well as the possibility of conflict, if a compromise isn’t reached.
It’s important for couples to discuss their values/expectations, and not just at the beginning of the relationship since expectations can change over time. Money, sex, religion/spirituality, child-rearing, are just some of the important areas of your relationship where relationship conflict can arise because of conflicting expectations.
3) Conflict as an expression of control/power
Have you ever taken a firm stance over a particular issue because it felt really important to you? In this case, you probably were holding onto your value-laden convictions. But have you ever stood your ground only because you were tired of giving in to your partner? Power struggles are common in intimate relationships (even though we may not identify what is happening as a power struggle).
There are certain relationship dynamics that make each of us want to assert ourselves around control/power issues. For some, this may occur when something feels unjust or unbalanced in the relationship (“I never get to decide where we’re going on our date night!”) or when we feel helpless about something (“I’m tired of giving in and not getting anything back in return”). This conflict-fueled dynamic may be more pronounced for individuals who feel the need to be in control of their circumstances and who feel threatened in situations where they are required to give up control/power to another.
While the above list isn’t exhaustive, you can use the information as a starting point to understanding the conflict you and your partner/spouse face.
So if not arguing (being conflict-avoidant) isn’t good for your relationship, and if arguing can lead to its own set of problems, what’s the solution?
Could it be that not all conflict is alike?
Now let’s turn our attention to the difference between healthy versus unhealthy conflict.
The features of unhealthy conflict
⇒It is repetitive (you keep recycling through the same issues without resolution);
⇒Unhealthy conflict escalates, leading to further breakdowns in communication and emotional disconnection;
⇒You and your partner’s unmet needs are not clearly addressed (your psychological/emotional needs remain obscure and unfulfilled);
⇒Compromise and acceptance (of inherent differences) do not occur;
⇒Power struggles remain because the underlying issues aren’t adequately addressed;
⇒There is no understanding/listening to one another’s perspectives — you remain entrenched in your defensive positions.
The features of healthy conflict
⇒Disagreements do not devolve into hostility (name-calling, put-downs);
⇒You are able to remain connected emotionally during conflict or you are able to repair the connection soon after the conflict is over;
⇒You achieve better understanding/clarification of each other’s core needs (values and expectations);
⇒You both work toward compromise and acceptance (compromise to create a win-win resolution; acceptance when the conflict is not resolvable);
⇒Mutuality (an equal playing field) is worked toward by identifying issues of power imbalance;
⇒Underlying/buried issues are brought to the surface and identified;
⇒Empathy (understanding each other’s perspectives even if you do not agree with you partner’s position) is/becomes part of the conversation.
Healthy conflict is something we all need to work toward. And, the truth is, this isn’t always easy. When emotions run high, when our core issues are triggered and we feel misunderstood or ignored or devalued, defensiveness is likely. And when we’re defensive, we can say things that typically wouldn’t come out of our mouths. Most of us have been there and done that — saying things to the person we love that we wish we could take back.
This is where a post-conflict analysis can be helpful. When you both calm down (and you’re pretty certain you’re not going to re-escalate if you try addressing the issue again), engage in a post-conflict discussion. In this process the goal is to take responsibility for your part in the breakdown in communication (no finger-pointing; no focusing on the other). Mutual empathy and communicating your understanding of each other’s positions should be the central goal.
Ultimately, marital/relationship conflict should lead to greater insight into your own needs and emotional vulnerabilities as well as your spouse’s/partner’s needs and vulnerabilities. If this isn’t achieved during the conflict, try to reach these goals in the post-conflict discussion (the discussion about the conflict and what you were trying to communicate before things fell apart).
Wishing you a more fulfilling relationship!
Dr. Rich Nicastro
Featured image “Young couple having argument” by David Castillo from www.freedigitalphotos.net