Want a Relationship Boost? Look for the Absence of Conflict
Seeing what is missing might help us appreciate what we have.
Posted Jun 28, 2020
My family and I are making a cross-country move this month. A stressful task at best, adding in a pandemic does not make it any easier. Yet I realized the other day that I’ve enjoyed planning this move with my husband. We do well when we’re focused on a common goal. Even better, we’re in the midst of purchasing our first home without any major disagreements. We don’t have identical house tastes (he prefers modern, I prefer classic), but it turns out we feel the same way about the big things. And when it came time to decide, we both wanted the same house.
Why am I telling you about my relatively enjoyable moving experience? Because I want to point out how unusual this is. I took time to focus not on conflict in my relationship, but on the absence of it. People tend to spend a lot more energy thinking about the aspects of their relationships that bug them than the ones that don’t. This natural tendency makes it easy to skip right past the absence of conflict and fail to appreciate how much conflict there could have been but wasn’t. We’re built to see what is there, not what is missing. So while it would have been natural for me to focus on our minor disagreements or skip past moving altogether to something else bothering me, I ended up having a moment where I was able to recognize this tendency and really appreciate how well we’ve gotten along, and how it could have gone very differently.
I urge you to take a moment yourself to think about your relationships—are you failing to appreciate the absence of conflict?
This is likely to be happening with your romantic partner, but also with your children, parents, friends, coworkers. When my daughter was young, I was often focused on the parenting trials we were experiencing, like too many nighttime wakeups or a dislike of preschool. One day I was talking with a friend who was having a hard time because her child refused to eat, making every meal a fight. It made me realize all the hard parts of parenting I had been lucky enough to sail through without even realizing it. Because eating was easy, it just wasn’t something I had thought about until faced with someone else who wasn’t finding it easy.
As happened with my experience of parenting, one way to recognize and appreciate an absence of conflict is by actively comparing your relationships to others you’ve had in the past or to relationships you see around you. My sister and I have done this inadvertently for years—we call each other up to complain to help the other person appreciate their current absence of conflict (Whatever happened to you last night, it’s probably not worse than having your kid wake you to throw up at 3 am). We also like to remind the other person all the ways our parents didn’t mess up our childhood (My friend’s parents never told their kids they loved them, I guess we should be glad we didn’t experience that). Research shows that mentally subtracting a relationship partner can boost relationship satisfaction. In a similar way, social comparisons might help people see the good in their relationships that they’ve been missing.
This is not to say that the absence of conflict necessarily defines a good relationship. We can have relationships that don't have conflict but also don't have anything positive about them. Couples in which the two partners are ships passing in the night. But even in the best relationships, there are times when we take the relationship, and our relationship partners, for granted. Noticing what is easy, what is right, and what isn't creating conflict can be a way to help us appreciate the good.
So, take a moment today to think about your relationships—what is easy about them that you take for granted? Do you and your partner have the chores divvied up in a way that makes you a well-oiled machine when it comes to taking care of your house? Do you have a responsible partner who always pays their bills on time? Do you have a preteen who still lets you cuddle with them? A parent who was always available if you wanted to talk? When things are going right, it’s easy to let them go. But taking a moment to appreciate them could be the relationship boost you’re looking for.
Other posts on why we focus on what's wrong more than what's right and what to do about it: