Why is conflict in your relationship so important?
How do you fight with your partner?
John and Mary sat in their counselor’s office and proudly stated, “We never fight!”
They continued to explain that their relationship was at an all time low point. They spoke very little to each other and had started to consider separating as a couple. Well, if they never fight or have any conflict why are they in so much trouble and seeking counseling? When people think of fighting they picture two openly angry individuals with raised voices and distorted faces saying mean and nasty things to each other. They are mostly talking about how disappointed and hurt they have been by each other. This can often get expressed in anger that covers up the hurt, sadness and disappointment underneath. Yes, this is called fighting, but only one form of fighting. I refer to this as a more aggressive form of fighting. On the other end of conflict is passive fighting. Passive fighters hold back. They may or may not be aware of how angry, hurt or disappointed they are, but they tend to hold in their feelings. Their passivity, smiles and politeness covers a lot of other feelings that stay bottled up. Open conflict, like with John and Mary mentioned above, scare the living daylights out of passive fighters. They often fear that open and direct conflict will perhaps end their relationship. They have learned to keep quiet and not use their “voice” to express what they want, feel or need from their partner. “Ice walls” can develop in their relationship that often shows up in a lack of emotional and physical intimacy. Their sex life may struggle as the drift further away from each other.
Now why is conflict important? Throughout the life cycle of humans we assert our independence. As a two-year old we want to “do it our way” and often rebel those commands from parents. Same thing happens with teenagers. “Yeah, I’ll do my homework”, “Sure I’ll take out the garbage”, only to find it hasn’t been done. Teenagers often try to tell parents they are different from them and need to be treated differently. “All my friend’s parents understand, why don’t you trust me?” As we develop and grow we learn to be our own unique and different selves with our own wants, feelings and values. We are not made from the same mold. This drive to be our own SELF continues throughout our lives and shows up the most in our intimate relationships. Those differences are expressed in conflicts with our partners. Productive conflict can then become a “bridge” to better communication and understanding of each other. Unresolved conflict leads to unmet wants, unheard feelings and more conflict, “You just don’t understand me!” Productive conflict allows a couple to know each other better and learn to adjust their relationship to meet each others wants and needs as they grow and change.
Both styles of communication, aggressive and passive, are not wrong or bad, just different. However, if the conflict does not lead to some type of productive communication, then couples will stay locked in continuous “open warfare” or frozen behind an “ice wall” of silence. Conflict can become even more strained when one partner is an aggressive fighter and the other is passive.
What you can do
First, find out your style of fighting. Becoming aware of how you and your partner deal with differences and how you resolve disagreement can provide with you important information about you and your relationship.
Second, aggressive fighters must learn to manage and express their anger in ways that will not frighten their partner. Aggressive fighters can become much more powerful by learning to calm themselves down, lower their voice and try not to blame, criticize or name call.
Passive fighters must learn how to open up and say what’s bothering them. Sometimes this can be expressed through writing and other forms of expression.
Finally, partners can learn and grow in their relationship by learning to listen and hear each other. Resolving conflict is a bridge to better intimacy and connection with each other.
For more information on your style of conflict and specific ways to improve, go to Step 1, Managing Conflict in my book Taking Space, and Couples Home Study Course – Step 1 CD and workbook, to view the “Relationship Conflict Scale” and ways to manage anger, resolve conflict and restart your communication.