Why a Little Conflict Can Improve a Relationship

Staying together may mean keeping apart — a little bit, anyway

Posted Nov 09, 2012

Beatrice* is a clean freak. Her husband Eric* is not bothered by a little dust or a few dirty dishes, but he can’t stand clutter. So he doesn’t care that Beatrice cleans their bathroom every morning before she goes to work, but it drives him crazy that she covers every flat space in their house with clutter. They have been happily married for seventeen years, have two great kids, and -- unlike some of their friends – have similar views about politics, money, child-rearing, religion and in-laws. So why do they argue almost every day? Why does Beatrice complain bitterly about the dirty dishes in the sink, and Eric keep shooting back with an attack on her sloppiness?

Interestingly, an answer to this question came from one of their children. “I used to worry that the fact that Mom and Dad argued so much meant they were going to get a divorce,” their fifteen year old son said. “But now I understand it’s part of how they manage to stay together!”

How could that possibly be?

Human beings seem to be hardwired to be connected. But between the hardwiring and the end result are a number of potential difficulties. Harry Guntrip, a British psychoanalyst of the Object Relations School in the 1950’s and 60’s, described one of the paradoxes of our need to connect. He said that we want to be close, but that there is a danger in closeness – that we might lose ourselves in the relationship, or in the other person. On the other hand, we want our independence, but there is a danger there as well – that we might become so separate that we are completely isolated and alone.

Finding a good, working balance between connection and separation is not a simple task. It is also one that is never complete. A child gradually separates from his or her parents, but the healthiest separations often include some kind of ongoing connection to those same parents! The link changes at different stages of the child’s development.

The same is true of friendships, and of intimate, loving relationships.  It is even true, to some extent, of collaborations between co-workers. What Harriet Lerner calls “The Dance of Intimacy” in her book on relationships is, at least in part, a dance in which partners work to manage the balance between closeness and separateness so that it works for both people over time, as they change and develop – most of the time.

A client once asked me to read Howard’s End, by E.M. Forster, because of one phrase in the book. “Only connect,” Forster writes. “But that’s what I can’t do,” said the client. Actually, it turned out that he could indeed connect. He just didn’t understand that being intimately linked to another person did not have to mean giving up all self-interest or separateness.

I’m fond of a quote from Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese-American poet and author of the book The Prophet (so much that I put it in an earlier post as well). He described the need for balance between separation and connection:

"Let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow." (From The Prophet).

So when Beatrice and Eric’s son explained that their arguing was part of how they stayed together, what he meant was that it was one way that they managed to separate themselves from one another. They are extremely close. They often say that they are one another’s best friends. They have many common interests and beliefs. But they are also different. Beatrice loves ballet and theater. Eric likes basketball and movies. Beatrice likes white wine, and Eric likes beer. They have learned to celebrate these differences, because they are every bit as important as their similarities. The things they have in common and the differences of opinion, conflicting interests and even the arguments are all threads that weave together to make up the rich fabric of their relationship.

*names and identifying information changed to protect individuals and families

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