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Conflict in Relationships

What role do disagreements play in a relationship?

As anyone who’s been in a relationship for more than a few days knows, conflicts between partners are unavoidable. They can crop up for any number of reasons, but very often it’s because of some perceived inequity in the relationship. Why inequities can cause conflicts is best explained through what researchers call Social Exchange Theory. According to this theory, marriage can be looked as a barter system. Each of us strives to get certain benefits from our partner. We also understand there are things of similar value we have to give in return if we’re to receive these benefits. Said another way, while we might like to do or say nice things to our partner, there are usually strings attached.

Couples make all sorts of exchanges to try to keep the relationship equitable. We may make certain personal sacrifices for the sake of our relationship and expect the same or similar kinds of sacrifices from our partner. When partners feel there is balance—that is, the amount we give is equal to what we receive—our relationship feels good. However, when one partner feels he or she gives more than is received, the perceived imbalance becomes a concern for the shorted partner, and that becomes a reason for a confrontation.

Looked at from this perspective, arguments can actually be good for a relationship. They are the primary vehicle by which we can improve our relationship. If we’re unhappy with something our partner does or doesn’t do, only by confronting them can we give ourselves a chance to make our needs understood. Armed with that information, partners can then make the appropriate adjustments in their relationship so that these needs can be fulfilled. Arguments also make partners come together as a couple to fix their problems as a couple, and if they’re successful at it, can actually make them feel more bonded to each other.

Of course, it’s not always easy to see the benefits of fighting. Relationships can go through times when partners feel like they just can’t get along with each other. For example, dealing with crisis situations or entering into a new life stage, such as starting a family, can make life stressful. During these phases, the pressure each partner is living with puts a strain on the relationship. Some couples might come to believe that their relationship has major problems that can’t be fixed. They might even feel that they’re no longer in love or compatible with each other. We might think other couples don’t argue as much, or with such intense hostility, or they’re just better at handling their problems than we are. However, going through periods of high conflict is completely normal. It happens to virtually all couples, and we’re probably no worse or better than others in this regard. In fact, although we never really know what goes on behind closed doors, there’s an excellent chance that the couples in our social circle argue as often and as intensely as we do, and maybe even more, all appearances to the contrary.

The reality is couples who don’t have at least the occasional battle might have bigger problems than those who argue regularly. They may have issues with trust and honesty, or are emotionally disconnected and so they keep their interactions at superficial levels. Or they may avoid conflicts because they believe their issues cannot be resolved, or their communication styles may be so dysfunctional that even minor confrontations turn into major fights. Other couples, such as those who have traditional views of the roles of men and woman, may avoid certain issues because they’re considered to be closed to discussion and one or the other partner is not willing to change. Whatever the reason, when a couple dismisses issues to avoid conflicts, any aspect of their relationship that causes discontent will remain unresolved. Consequently, an unhappy partner doesn’t feel they have to power to make his or her relationship better.

That’s not to suggest that how often we argue doesn’t matter at all. Certainly, if partners are constantly at odds with each other, or virtually any situation leads to an argument, the marriage might have quite a few unresolved issues. There actually is a relationship between how much fighting goes on and the psychological health of the relationship and its partners. When arguing is excessive, especially if these arguments never result in solved problems or end on a positive note, the evidence suggests there’s a good chance the relationship will not last.

So how do couples know if there’s too much fighting in their relationship? That depends entirely on the couple. Some people have a high tolerance for confrontation. However, others are uncomfortable with any amount of arguing, so even a moderately disagreeable partner can be difficult for them to live with. Some couples may not argue much at all, but the one or two arguments they have might be so intense that as to threaten the entire marriage. Nevertheless, for most of us, we’re probably within acceptable limits if we’re able to keep our disagreements in perspective. We don’t allow them to interfere with other aspects of our relationship. Our overall thoughts about our marriage stay positive, we don’t harbor bad feelings long afterwards, and we enjoy our partner’s company during times of peace. Additionally, if we’re able to hammer out workable solutions as a result of our arguments, then we’re probably fighting with our partner as often as we need to.

More important than how often couples argue is how they behave when they do. Specifically, we’re referring to partners’ treatment towards each other in the heat of an argument. That in large part determines whether or not our communication is effective, and by that we mean it achieves the straightforward objectives of a problem and we do it efficiently. We’re efficient when our disagreements are not drawn out longer than necessary, they don’t move on to topics that have nothing to do with the original problem, they don’t escalate to personal attacks or a rehashing of past disappointments and resentments, and both partners feel better about each other when they’ve ended.

Our book on marriage can be found here, and our book on emotions here.

More from Rob Pascale and Lou Primavera Ph.D.
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