What Is Your Conflict Style?
Balancing your need for autonomy and interdependence.
Posted April 14, 2017
German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said that humans were like porcupines on a cold night. We yearn to snuggle together for the warmth of close bodily contact, but when we approach we stick each other with our sharp quills and have pull away. As we shiver in the night, we try again and again to draw close, inflicting more pain on each other every time. This so-called “porcupine problem” is an underlying dynamic in all human relationships, especially our most intimate ones.1
As Australian psychologists Judith Feeney and Gery Karantzas point out, we all have a need for autonomy—the freedom to make our own decisions and act in our best interests. At the same time, we all have a need for interdependence—close intimate relationships with other people. However, that intimacy requires us to surrender some of our autonomy as we place our partner’s interests ahead of our own.
Relationships, then, involve a balancing act between two opposing forces, autonomy and interdependence. As a result, conflicts are inevitable. Thus, it’s not conflict per se that threatens the relationship. Rather, it’s how the partners handle the conflict that determines whether the problem is solved and the relationship strengthened—or whether the problem is left unresolved and the relationship weakened.
Feeney and Karantzas identify three general approaches to conflict resolution in intimate relationships.
- Constructive engagement. In this approach, partners may raise their voices, but there’s no hitting below the belt. The couple focuses on solving the problem at hand, expressing their grievances but also accepting responsibility for their transgressions.
- Destructive engagement. In this approach, partners use blame and guilt to manipulate their mate. These couples know how to push each other’s buttons. Rather than focusing on the problem at hand, they trot out the same old litany of past grievances, and so nothing gets resolved.
- Conflict avoidance. In this approach, partners withdraw at the first sign that a conflict is coming. If pushed, one partner may simply refuse to discuss the issue and retreat to a safe zone, leaving the room or even the house. Sometimes both couples diligently avoid discussing a pressing issue, simply ignoring the proverbial elephant in the living room.
Only in constructive engagement can a relationship issue be resolved. In destructive engagement, on the contrary, the core problem remains untreated, and as a result it festers and corrodes the relationship. This is also true of conflict avoidance, even though the conflict may be de-escalated in the short run.
Feeney and Karantzas explain the different conflict styles in terms of attachment theory. In infancy, we develop a close emotional bond with our mother or other primary caregiver, and this childhood attachment serves as a model for our close relationships in adulthood. Most infants form a trusting relationship with their mothers that is described as a secure attachment.
Sometimes mothers can’t fully attend to their baby’s needs, whether due to postpartum depression or stresses in the environment, and the result is an insecure attachment. In such cases, some babies learn to fuss and fret to garner mom’s wavering attention, and they develop an anxious attachment style in which they overwhelm their partners with demands and worries. Others learn to self-sooth and develop an avoidant attachment style in which they fear intimacy and find comfort in self-reliance.
In adults, attachment behaviors are mainly elicited by conflict in intimate relationships. These attachment behaviors—the approach-for-support of the securely attached, the demanding and domineering of the anxiously attached, and the deactivating strategies of the avoidantly attached—then give rise to the various conflict styles.
When a securely attached couple experiences a conflict in their relationship, they resolve it through constructive engagement. They don’t interpret the raised voices as a sign that the relationship is in danger but rather that the issue at hand is urgent. Thus, they’re motivated to work together to find a solution.
Anxiously attached partners, however, distrust their mate’s intentions, and they feel undeserving of the relationship anyway. When voices are raised, they interpret it as a sign that a breakup is imminent. So rather than dealing with the issue at hand, they seek reassurances of the other’s commitment to the relationship. Yet since they feel unworthy of that commitment, the only way they can obtain it, they think, is through the coercive techniques of blame and guilt.
Avoidant individuals don’t trust their partner’s intentions, either. As young children, they learned not to fuss so as not to upset mommy. Thus, they find the raised voices and heated emotions of an argument far more threatening than the problem that initiated the spat. In other words, they focus on ending the confrontation rather than on resolving the problem.
According to Feeney and Karantzas, attachment behaviors and the conflict styles they engender can be viewed in terms of the trade-off between autonomy and interdependence that’s at the heart of every close relationship. In other words, securely attached individuals know how to balance these opposing needs both for themselves and for their partners. However, anxiously attached persons seek interdependence to the extent that it threatens the autonomy of the partner, whereas avoidantly attached individuals seek autonomy to the extent that it denies their mate’s need for interdependence.
It’s easy to find fault in other people, and you probably already know your partner’s conflict style from past quarrels. But seeing your own weaknesses can be difficult. If you find that conflicts with your partner seem to be making problems worse rather than solving them, it’s time for you to start paying more attention to your own conflict style when you and your partner argue. Do you try to overwhelm your partner? Do you try to run away?
Although attachment behaviors and conflict styles are deeply ingrained habits, these can be changed with effort and dedication. The first step is becoming self-aware of your personal conflict style and the attachment behaviors that drive them.
1Note: Schopenhauer actually said that humans were like hedgehogs, but since these don’t exist in North America, his argument is generally reframed as the “porcupine problem” on this side of the Atlantic.
Feeney, J. A. & Karantzas, G. C. (2017). Couple conflict: Insights from an attachment perspective. Current Opinion in Psychology, 13, 60-64.