Step into the ring – why conflict is necessary in relationships

We naturally think that conflict in any circumstance is bad and should be avoided at all costs. Conflict is associated with negative emotions, hurt feelings, long-term damage to our relationships and is just generally unpleasant! Very few people look forward to confronting a loved one or friend about their behaviour or values.

But actually, conflict plays an important role in most successful relationships - particularly in the early stages of a relationship, or when a relationship is undergoing a period of significant change (such as the arrival or departure of children, or when making significant financial decisions). In this post, we’ll look at why conflict arises, some of the advantages of conflict in your close relationships, and provide you with a step-by-step guide on how you can ensure that your conflicts are resolved productively.

In this post, we’ll mostly refer to conflicts between our partners or friends, but the tips and information contained in this post are useful for all sorts of relationships such as with your parents, siblings, colleagues, children, and even random people you run into at the grocery store.

Why conflict arises in loving relationships

Conflicts usually arise out of some perceived inequality in our relationships, known in psychology, as the “Social Exchange Theory”. A simple of way of thinking about this theory is that our relationships are like a see-saw - we understand there are things that we have to do to provide value in the relationship, and things that the other person should do that are of similar value. In this way, it is important for our relationships to feel balanced, with each party contributing equally to the health of the relationship through their actions.

For example, we may have an agreement (whether consciously or not) that if one person cooks dinner, then the other person cleans the kitchen afterwards. These chores are perceived to be of equal value and so if each party complies with those terms then the relationship feels balanced. Living harmoniously with our partners requires dozens of these little actions from each person each day that are perceived to be of the same value. Conflict may arise, for example, if we feel that our partners are not doing their fair share of the housework, or that our friends are not making enough effort (meaning an effort equal to ours) in the relationship. When we fight with our friends and partners, we are usually seeking to restore balance to the relationship and ensure that the give and take nature of relationships is preserved.

The upside of fighting in relationships

Despite how it feels at the time, there are many things to be gained from engaging in healthy and productive conflict with your partner. Considering the need for balance and equality in relationships, we can see how conflict can be good for our relationships. Conflicts allow us to address our perceived inequalities, and seek to improve our relationships by restoring the balance. If we don’t bring up our feelings and concerns, then we feel as though our needs in the relationship are not being met. This can lead to relationship dissatisfaction and possible break down.

Conflict allows people to:

  • air and resolve grievances or perceived inequalities;
  • vent frustration or stress;
  • identify key issues or differences in values; and
  • resolve critical roadblocks in their relationship.

Importantly, conflict allows us to improve and grow our relationships. If we don’t raise our issues or concerns with our partners and friends, we may eventually reach a tipping point where we choose to leave a relationship rather than continue with the perceived issues. And all without giving our partners the knowledge or opportunity to attempt to address our concerns and needs! Sometimes one person’s last straw may be the other person’s first sign of trouble.

Occasional high conflict is normal, and healthy

Most couples will go through periods of high conflict, usually when there are major developments or changes going on in their lives. For example, moving house or renovating, changing jobs, birth of children, making new investments, and any other large changes can result in changes to the dynamics of the relationship and increased confrontation. This is because during these periods, the equilibrium of the relationship shifts. Behaviour that may have previously felt balanced and fair may now feel unbalanced.

For example, when a new child is born, new mothers may find that they are resentful of having to do the same amount of chores that they previously did because they are now doing it on less sleep and with a baby in tow. New parents may not immediately recognised the new to reassess and redefine their previous arrangements to account for the huge change in their situation.

During these period of high conflict, partners or friends may feel that their problems are insurmountable and that they are arguing with their loved ones nearly constantly. However, recognising that these periods are completely normal and natural can help to shift the focus onto establishing the new balance, and reduce stress. It means that your only focus is on resolving the actual issues, rather than also worrying about whether your relationship is irreparably damaged.

Step-by-step approach to resolving conflicts (without the yelling!)

One of the best ways to ensure that any conflict with friends or loved ones is resolved in a way that builds and strengthens your relationship, rather than causes it damage, is to take the emotion out of a conflict.

Too often we “snap” at our partners and friends when their behaviour has built up or annoyed us for such a long time that we can’t help but let our emotions burst out. Usually when this happens, we do not have a clear enough head to clearly and simply explain what the issue is, meaning that we end up more frustrated than ever and our friend or partner winds up hurt, confused and maybe defensive - none of which sets us up in a positive way to resolve the conflict! Most importantly, usually reacting out of our emotions means that the conflict doesn’t get resolved.

A better strategy is to:

1 Identify early when we are getting annoyed by behaviour or attitudes of our partner or friends. Don’t leave it until you’re completely fed-up and frustrated to consider whether there is an issues. This step requires us to be self-aware and reflective;​

2 Determine whether the issue is really with your partner or friends, or whether it is actually with you. For example, is the fact that your partner doesn’t put the laundry on straight after work actually an issue that needs to be resolved, or are you just hungry and tired when you get home, and need to have a snack before interacting with your partner after work? If it is the case that you need to change your reaction, great! Work on your own behaviour, and avoid unnecessary conflict.

3 If the issue does need to be resolved, work out specifically what the issue is and why you think it is an issue. For example, if you think your partner is spending too much on lunches during the week, try to articulate specifically what annoys you about that and why. You might say that given you’re both trying to save for a house deposit, and working really hard to make cuts in other areas of your life it frustrates you when your partner spends frivolously on lunches. This specifically identifies what the behaviour is and why you think it is a problem.

4 Try to come up with a few possible solutions that you can put to your partner or friend. In the lunch example above, you might say to your partner that you would appreciate it if he or she made more of an effort to make their lunch the night before, or to make a week’s worth of lunches on Sunday so that they are always prepared.

This step may be a little difficult if your potential conflict is about an ideological issue, but it’s not impossible. For example, if you and your partner differ on your views about how you should raise your children, you could ask them to do some research with you about the issue to find a strategy that works for both of you. Or, if you want to implement one strategy to raise your kids, and your partners wants to implement a different strategy, maybe you could identify a third strategy that you could both comprise on.

5 Once you’ve done steps 3 and 4 above, you’re ready to approach your friend or partner! Choose beforehand a time and place that is suitable. Don’t approach them when you or they are likely to be tired, stress or even hungry. Say that you’d like to talk to them about an issue you’ve been having and clearly set out what the issue is. You’ve prepared this well in advance, so it shouldn’t be difficult to do.

6 Ask them to explain or support their behaviour, but not in an accusatory way! Many conflicts are simply misunderstandings, so be genuinely curious about why they engage in certain behaviour. In the example in 2 above, your partner may say that they’re also tired and hungry when they get home, so the last thing they want to do is put on the laundry right away! If so, that’s fair enough! You can work out another time that suits both of you to get that chore done.

7 If the issue is still not resolved, put forward your brainstormed ideas for resolving the issues, and ask if they are open to those suggestions or if they have any other suggestions. By this point, you should be able to resolve the issue, and there hasn’t even been any yelling!

8 Follow through with your agreed upon resolution. This is a critical step - you can’t just walk away from a conflict with a pat on the back and continue as before. Work with your partner or friend to implement the solution you agreed upon and check in with them if need be to see whether that solution is working.

These steps allow you to be well prepared and calm when you engage in a discussion that has the potential to lead to a confrontation. However, if you still feel yourself getting emotional, or sense that your partner is getting defensive, take a time-out to calm down and figure out where you went wrong. Maybe you didn’t articulate the issue in a way that your partner understood, or maybe you’re too invested in the solution you’ve proposed so you can’t see their point of view. Maybe you were even wrong at step 2 and it’s actually not a problem that your partner needs to fix. Whatever the reason, reflect on your own behaviour in the argument and what you can do differently next time you approach your partner about this issue.

Seek help if you’re not reaching resolutions

If you’re still arguing constantly or you feel like you are not able to reach a resolution with your partner on critical issues, consider seeking the help of a counsellor. Counsellors naturally help you to take the emotion of out a conflict, and may be able to see solutions to the problems you’re facing that you and your partner can’t see. They can help you to re-balance your relationship after periods of significant change or upheaval. Some couples return to counsellors time and time again to help them to resolve sticking point issues, or return their relationship to a steady equilibrium.

Reframing conflict as a necessary and healthy part of your relationship can help to take some of the stress, pressure and anxiety about your relationship and allow you to focus on the issues at hand.

Metanao offers individual and couples counselling to help you to identify and resolve your issues. Through solution-focused therapy, we help you to implement effectively strategies from your first session so that you’re able to move on with your relationship and your life quickly and effectively. Learn more about our counselling services here.

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