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Romantic Conflict, Part 1

Healthy and unhealthy beliefs about conflict in romantic relationships.

In this series, I will explore the intersection between romantic conflict and technology. To what extent do couples engage in conflict using technologically-mediated communication (texting, the phone, social network sites)? What are the advantages and disadvantages of using technology for broaching conflict? Is technology itself a source of romantic conflict?

In this introductory post, I will provide an overview of conflict in romantic relationships, without reference to technology.

Conflict and Romantic Relationships

Conflict is unavoidable in romantic relationships. Although romantic partners tend to be quite similar in terms of age, education level, values and beliefs, and even physical attractiveness, they are nonetheless different people and these differences are bound to emerge and require negotiation. I might like going out on weekends, whereas my partner prefers to work. I might like to cuddle at night, whereas my partner doesn’t like to be touched when they sleep. These differences are natural.

Yet people hold negative views about conflict.

  • Some conflate conflict with aggressiveness, expecting hurtful words, explosions of anger, or tears, and recoiling in the face of such intensity. Perhaps this is why “fighting” is a commonly used term for “engaging in conflict.”
  • Others believe that conflict is a sign that the relationship is fundamentally flawed, and are quick to suggest breaking it off when conflict emerges. This escalation diverts attention from the issue at hand, ensuring that it remains unresolved, and shifts the conversation from a smaller issue (e.g., “you are not affectionate enough”) to a much grander one (“should we even be together?”). See this excellent post about why romantic partners should never threaten divorce/breakups in the heat of an argument.
  • Many get overcome by anxiety at the mere thought of voicing dissent or negative emotions to their partner, and as a result, stifle themselves and let their grievances go unaddressed. Avoidance is a self-defeating strategy because it ensures that the conflict never gets solved. (It can’t be solved if it isn’t even on the table, can it?).

These negative beliefs about conflict often turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. People who equate conflict with aggressiveness brace themselves for battle and are more likely to have a battle! People who view conflicts as a sign that the relationship is doomed in effect doom their own relationship. And those who avoid conflicts only make sure that their dissatisfaction grows over time, often to the point where it can no longer be solved.

But there are other, better ways of addressing conflict. When couples believe that conflict is natural and it is an opportunity to work together on solving a mutual problem, their trust and love for each other tend to deepen. This collaborative mindset involves a series of positive behaviors such as

  • Listening to each other with patience and an open mind
  • Respecting each other’s perspective as valid, rather than viewing one’s own as “right” and the partner’s as “wrong"
  • Expressing a willingness to make compromises or even sacrifices for the sake of preserving the relationship

For example, I might tell my partner that their work schedule does not allow us to spend enough time together, and as a result, I feel disconnected from them (a common complaint in relationships). They explain that they are at a critical junction in their career, and long hours are necessary. I offer understanding and support and frame the issue as “how can we make sure your career thrives and our relationship also thrives during this period of time” instead of giving them an ultimatum that I will walk away unless I’m getting more attention immediately. They propose tightening their schedule to find pockets of time to spend with me, however brief—coffee, lunch, a walk. I offer to do the planning for our times together, so I allow them more time to focus on work. One of us suggests that we text more, as texting is a low-effort means of communication and research shows it does increase couples’ feelings of connection. We both leave the interaction feeling understood and valued. If the relationship is fairly new, we might both feel on more solid ground with our partner, and less guarded.

Even if it’s difficult to find a solution that fully satisfies both parties, this collaborative approach is effective because it communicates that: (1) one’s partner is emotionally mature, rather than self-absorbed, impatient, or prone to outbursts; and (2) they value the relationship.

Realizing that one’s partner is emotionally mature and emotionally invested tends to be a turning point in the course of romantic relationships. As people start feeling safe, they are willing to become more emotionally vulnerable, to open up more, and thus the relationship grows. Especially in the beginning stages of relationships, well-managed conflicts tend to bring partners to levels of closeness that might not have been achievable in the absence of the conflict. In effect, they give people reason to trust their partner.

In sum, conflict itself is neither good nor bad; it is simply par for the course in romantic relationships. But the way it is managed can certainly be good or bad.

Do you have examples of well-managed and badly managed conflicts?