Conflict in Relationships

Is it a good thing? It all depends.

Posted Mar 15, 2018

Disagreements are a fact of life in many interpersonal relationships (e.g., marital, friendships, workplace). It’s hard to have a meaningful association with another and not have opposing viewpoints or opinions, at least occasionally. How the individuals express their dissents is important in assessing the impact of the conflict.

Conflict management strategies based on mutual respect and understanding which foster intimacy and security lead to healthy and enduring relationships. Thus, the type of communication that the parties engage in during disagreements may well have a significant effect on whether conflict management has positive or negative outcomes.

Positive outcomes may include:

  • Reduced anxiety, lack of fearfulness and tension when expressing disagreement
  • Increased closeness with each other
  • Not letting the disagreement become more intense or damaging
  • Understanding each party’s opinion by having meaningful and open discussion
  • Within the family, demonstrating positive conflict resolution as an example to the children

Negative outcomes in poor conflict management can result in:

  • Emotional responses, such as depression, anger, and anxiety
  • Less satisfaction with the relationship
  • Emotional and physical withdrawal
  • Physiological responses, such as increased stress
  • Harmful physical behavior, such as violence
  • Modeling poor conflict resolution strategies and contributing to the nature of their children’s interactions with others in the form of attachment insecurity or avoidance

Although most of us don’t tend to rate the intensity of our conflicts while in the moment, they can range, and in fact move, from mild to intense very quickly. Why?

  1. Content can raise emotionality: if the comments are critical, accusatory, or sarcastic they can precipitate anger.
  2. How one speaks can also raise the intensity of the conflict: a quiet, measured tone can lead to a very different reaction than shouting.
  3. How one behaves during the conflict can raise or lower the temperature: cooperative approaches, apologizing at the outset for any wrongdoing, and asking for clarification to genuinely understand the other person’s perspective can “cool” or reduce the intensity. Clearly, threatening or aggressive actions can raise the intensity. If you need to walk away for a “cool down” period, how you do this also raises or lowers the intensity—explain that you need to cool down and that you will come back later to address the issue. Doing this can enhance cooperative interactions.

Another important issue to consider is that we may react to anger based on what we witnessed in how our parents handled conflict. A number of studies have found that the ways in which a child’s family-of-origin responded to conflicts can influence how the developing child will behave toward conflict. For example, if a child witnesses her parents expressing hostile remarks to one another or if one parent continually avoids any discussion regarding disagreements, the child may engage in similar conflict strategies in her relationships as she ages. One of the more broadly accepted explanations for these behaviors on the part of the child is social learning theory. Parents’ dysfunctional conflict management strategies can impact their children. Therefore, being mindful of ways to improve communication skills and learn healthy conflict resolution methods not only improves the parents’ relationship with each other, but can also set a better example for the children.

We may be either over or under sensitized to anger based on what we experienced in childhood. A child who experiences aggression or constant conflict at home may become desensitized to anger, or unaware that their tone or comments are perceived as anger by others. For some, exposure to constant anger in childhood may foster coping strategies and resilience in the face of conflict. For others, it may lead to a propensity to engage in aggressive or violent behavior.  

Realistically, we all get angry, say and perhaps even do things that are unwise and inflammatory; especially, in the “heat of the moment.” We can learn from our missteps by reviewing—when we have cooled down—what it was that raised the intensity of the conflict and how to go back and rectify the situation. Healthy conflict resolution strengthens relationships. A key is communicating with one another in a way that both parties feel understood. To do this, the parties should be able to:

  • Express their feelings and thoughts and believe that the other person better understands them
  • Be open and honest in their views and feelings and see how responsive and respectful the other party is to them
  • Realize that although they may continue to disagree, this is less important than how respectful they are of each other
  • Appreciate that empathy promotes intimacy and security which strengthens their relationship

Avoiding conflict is a strategy that some employ to deal with stressful situations. There is prudence in “biting one’s tongue” or walking away from some situations. However, as a pervasive strategy, it can lead to problems; particularly, if the situation is serious. Avoidance may have the unintended consequence of appearing to the other individual that their concerns are irrelevant or trivial. It may also imply to the other individual that there is a lack of investment in the relationship. This approach can also affect the closeness and satisfaction of the relationship for both parties.

Some conflicts cannot be resolved. In fact, not every disagreement needs to be resolved. People should choose to confront the significant ones and discuss them when they are calm and willing to hear and understand the other party’s point of view. Here are some useful strategies:

  • Add humor when appropriate and not in a way that diminishes the importance of the issue can diffuse the intensity of the conflict
  • Seek professional help to learn conflict resolution styles
  • Obtain training in stress management and relaxation techniques

Ultimately, disagreements in important relationships are inevitable. How you express and resolve them are the key.

References

Aloia, L. S. & Solomon, D. H. (2014). Conflict Intensity, Family History, and Physiological Stress Reactions to conflict within romantic relationships. Human Communication Research, 41, 367-389 DOI: 10.1111/hcre.12049

Gordon, A., M., & Chen, S. (2016). Do you get where I’m coming from? Perceived understanding buffers against the negative impact of conflict on relationship satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 110, 239-260. DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000039

Green, E. (2008). Individuals in conflict: An internal family systems approach. The Family Journal, 16, 125-131. DOI: 10.1177/1066480707313789

Whitton, S. W., Waldinger, R. J., Schulz, M. S., Allen, J. P., Crowell, J. A., & Hauser, S. T. (2008). Prospective associations from family-of-origin interactions to adult marital interactions and relationship adjustment. Journal of Family Psychology, 22, 274-286. DOI: 10.1037/0893-3200.22.2.274

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