This past weekend, my partner and I flew across the country to go house hunting. This is a recipe for disaster, as evidenced by entire cable networks built around this conflict-ridden activity. We spent a lot of the weekend in agreement, and then in disagreement, feeling overwhelmed and then on the edge of our seat waiting to hear back from the sellers on our offer. And, of course, there was conflict. As a communication professor, I know that conflict can be healthy for relationships, but this doesn’t make conflict any more pleasant when it is happening to me.
A couple days after we arrived home, my husband and I were apologizing to each other about our bad behavior — apologizing and owning your mistakes is one key to making conflict healthy instead of unhealthy — and he said something I thought was quite wise, that it is unfortunate that the person we care for and love the most is often the primary recipient of our negative emotions. He is right: Because I spend most of my time with him and feel most comfortable with him, he has to hear about it when I’m feeling stressed at work and deal with my moods, even though he is the last person I want to burden with my negativity. Many people cringe at the mere thought of conflict, likening it to a tornado, volcanic eruption, or other terrifying natural disaster. Understanding why and how conflict can be useful is the first step to changing our perceptions of conflict.
A large amount of research in the communication field has focused on conflict, since it is such an important and unavoidable part of being in a close relationship. Fortunately, that research has determined that conflict can be quite healthy for relationships. Below I describe three things you need to know about conflict in relationships to harness the good that can come from disagreement.
1. Perhaps the Number One reason why conflict is healthy for relationships is that conflict signals a need for change, for both parties.
Conflict provides an opportunity for making change — if both partners are up for it. Conflict gives you a chance to work on the problems in your relationship.
2. Conflict shows you and your partner that your lives are interdependent.
If they weren’t, then you would not experience conflict, as conflict only comes about when two people whose lives are interdependent hold goals that conflict with one another. For example, my husband and I share a car. This makes us extremely interdependent when it comes to transportation, since we have to coordinate who is using the car when. Often on the weekends, he wants to head out to snowboard, while I want to stay in town and go to a yoga class. Conflict ensues: Whose goal or activity is more important? Can either of us get a ride from someone else? This is a simple conflict that isn’t going to tear our relationship apart, but you get the idea. We are interdependent, yet our goals and what we choose to do with our time sometimes conflicts.
3. Conflict is almost never about what it seems to be about on the surface.
Your partner not taking the trash out tonight isn’t really why you are mad; it is probably something deeper. Perhaps you're really upset because his or her actions indicate that they don't respect your time and the effort you make to keep the house clean. Searching for the deeper reasons for conflict is an important step in improving a relationship, but is not easily done in the heat in the moment. If you have to, take a beat, and let yourself cool down. We operate much more rationally when we are calm and collected. When we are fired up and angry, we tend to say and do things we regret. According to Walter Mischel and his colleagues (2006), we often run on hot emotions when we are in conflict: We are irrational, reactive, and quick to respond. Later, when we cool down, we can be rational, calm, and level headed again. Conflict is a great example of how our thoughts, and then our communication, are influenced by our emotions. When you search for the deeper reasons for conflict, you can address core issues in your relationship, rather than focusing on surface issues. Addressing those core issues can be a healthy outcome of conflict.
Conscious communication asks you to step back, reanalyze the situation as an outsider, and come back to the table to hash out what is really going on between you and your partner.
You must reach deeper into the motivations and concerns of each person. If your partner is unwilling to reach deeper with you, at least reach deep within yourself.
Try this: Break out of mindless cycles of blaming. Forget what you think you know about a person, and get to know them again — even your partner. Ask them questions about why they are upset and what they think you could do to address their concerns. Be open to their suggestions and set aside your pride. Resist the temptation to throw blame back at them, and make the decision to work on yourself instead.
Other helpful Psychology Today articles on conflict in close relationships:
Mischel, W., DeSmet, A.L., & Kross, E. (2006). Self-regulation in the service of conflict resolution. in M. Deutsch, P. Coleman, & E. Marcus (Eds.), The handbook of conflict resolution: Theory and practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.