We often receive the message that fighting is bad. It feels unpleasant, it can hurt others’n feelings, and it often turns us into angry, hurtful people we do not even recognize. It is true that conflict can be harmful, but it also serves a pivotal role in healthy relationship functioning.
Without conflict, partners would either have no major differences, which would feel boring and unfulfilling, or they would have no way to directly resolve their differences. Conflict is a method of showing that we care. We care to fight for our values, to help others see things in a different way, and we care enough not to shut our partners out. There is room to grow in a relationship where conflict occurs that might be absent in a relationship where partners disassociate or greet discord with silence.
Because healthy relationships benefit from conflict and its resolution yet we are alsonaturally avoidant of hostile situations, partners are left with the monumental task of fighting together. Fighting together means fighting for the relationship even when you and your partner are at opposite ends regarding a particular discussion. It means being willing to put yourself in an unpleasant situation with the hope that it will bring greater resolution and a healthy way to move forward. It means embracing the task of turning toward your partner even when you feel pushed away.
If you are thinking that this sounds easier said than done, then you are right. It takes active effort and reciprocity. Keep the following in mind to help foster healthy conflict in your relationship.
1. When in doubt, be curious.
Conflict frequently transpires from holding different perspectives or beliefs on a specific issue. It is natural to view perspectives that conflict with our beliefs as “wrong”, and this causes us to use judgmental and critical language towards our partners when they disagree with us. It is your responsibility to overcome this instinct and remain curious.
When you find yourself in disbelief that your partner could think or feel a certain way, use this as your cue to take a step back and ask of your partner: “Help me understand why you feel that way.” A stance of curiosity removes judgment and lessens the likelihood that you will misinterpret each other. It shows that you care to understand and offers the valuable opportunity for you to validate your partner’s point-of-view.
2. Consider your shared goal.
At the end of the day, you and your partner are on the same team. If it does not feel that way, you need to have a conversation about your shared goals. Relationship research highlights that the majority of relationship conflict will never be fully resolved, even in happy and healthy relationships. It is not a solution to a specific problem but feeling like you are on the same team as your partner that will bring you satisfaction.
How do you feel on the same team if you routinely feel differently about a recurring issue? It is all about management. Sometimes you will trade-off as a compromise, other times you will decide how to deal with an issue based on changing external circumstances, but in any situation, you make that decision together. You have a lot of control over your mentality with conflict and how you establish the mindset of working together towards a shared goal with your partner. Make yourself available to that possibility.
3. Remember that ongoing maintenance is normal and natural.
Conflict is a natural side effect of any relationship, and by choosing to be in a relationship with your partner, you agree to a lifetime of managing your shared differences. The resolution of any given conflict may change, but hopefully the desire to see it through with your partner will stay strong. You get to choose if you are in this relationship, and you choose how you want to move forward, with or against your partner. By choosing with, you create more opportunity for a healthy, sustainable relationship.