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James L Creighton Ph.D.

Are You Afraid of Conflicts?

Living with different realities

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Upset couple
Source: 4 PM production/Shutterstock

People often feel threatened by the fact that their loved ones have separate realities. These differences may make them feel fearful and anxious. Some of the fears are: (1) To be different is to be separate; (2) if we have differences, our relationship is in trouble; (3) if we're different, you don't love me; and (4) if there are differences, I'll have to give up me to be in a relationship with you.

These are fears, not facts. Actually, the stronger the relationship, the more differences you can handle. Think of any argument that you've ever had that was actually fun. It was probably with a dear old friend. You knew that no matter what ridiculous position you took, you'd still be friends afterward.

When a relationship is solid, you are just talking about the content of the argument, not whether the relationship will continue. When the relationship is insecure, everything you say could affect whether or not the relationship will continue. You can see this when you are just getting to know people. What you say could determine whether you will be friends, so people are cautious about what they say.

All couples have disagreements. The issue is not whether you have arguments, but how you handle them. I have a relative who loves to chide me about the number of squabbles that my wife and I get into. When I start to feel defensive, I remember that this person is on her fifth marriage!

It is true that when you normally feel very close, disagreement can create a feeling of separation. What's critical is whether you have the feeling that you are working together to resolve the differences. If you are mobilizing into rigid "sides"—my side, your side—then the sense of separateness will grow stronger.

The idea that if people disagree with you, they don't love you is a child's view of reality. Your inner adult knows better. If the price of staying in a relationship is to lose yourself, you and your partner need some professional help. If you believe that anyone who disagrees with you doesn't love you, you are setting up a situation where the other person will feel that to be in a relationship with you, they must give up themselves.

Once you are inside the dome, you don't know you are enclosed. The individual is usually so deeply immersed in his or her culture that s/he is scarcely aware of it as a shaping force in her/his life. As psychologist James C. Coleman has remarked, "The fish will be the last to discover water." People who know no other cultural patterns but their own tend to regard them as God-given and intrinsically right.[1]

Just as we discover our own cultures by getting to know other cultures, so we discover our emotional realities by learning to accept and getting to know the virtues of each other's emotional realities.

You learn to manage your differences by sharing them, not by hiding them! If both people in a relationship are willing to do this, you begin creating a shared reality that fits for you both, freeing you both to enjoy each other's uniqueness.

Live with the disagreement—engage it emotionally—don't gloss over it and pretend it went away. Use the principles and skills discussed in these blogs. One of the advantages of increasing your knowledge about how to resolve conflicts is that you become less frightened of conflicts. If you know how to handle them, they are not so scary. Though it may seem like a contradiction, the quality of our relationships improves in direct proportion to our willingness to acknowledge our differences.


[1] James C. Coleman, Personality Dynamics and Effective Behavior, Page 59, Column 2, Scott, Foresman and Company, Chicago, Illinois. 1960