Conflict Strengthens Relationships. Whaaaaaat?
I have been conflict-avoidant most of my life. Disagreement? Fighting? Standing up for myself? No, just, no. Don’t rock the boat! This held me captive to people-pleasing and I “adapted” by being quiet. Because, causing conflict is hard to do when you’re quiet, right? Yes. But, it’s pretty hard to be known and have meaningful relationships too.
Years ago, I made a connection that whenever there was conflict, I felt queasy, sometimes to the point where I thought I had the flu! “Is this normal?” I thought to myself. I noticed other people didn’t seem to have anxiety around conflict or shame around using their voice. Some people even seemed to like conflict! “What is it about conflict that really bothers me and makes me want to RUN?”
Over time I realized there were some beliefs I had about myself and life. I broke them down into two categories false beliefs from society and false beliefs from my personal story.
False Beliefs from society
1. Conflict is bad. In relationships (platonic or romantic) it means the relationship isn’t healthy, so avoid it at all costs! No conflict = no problems.
2. Disagreeing should only be done in your head. Even if it’s for a good cause (human rights violation, injustice, pain, suffering, or any just cause) it’s too uncomfortable to speak out against the majority and sometimes shameful to disagree with others.
3. Anger is sinful (if you come from certain religious traditions)
False Beliefs from My Story
1. What if I use my voice and it’s rejected? It’s easier to cope if people reject a mask I wear than my own thoughts and desires.
2. If there is a disagreement taking place, I must be wrong because my thoughts, feelings, needs and my very state of being aren’t valid. My own voice is unworthy of taking up space and I surely can’t help anyone, so I must be wrong anyway.
3. If people are mad at me, they will leave me, and I will be alone. I cannot risk displeasing others because rejection and loneliness are just too painful.
So, where did these beliefs come from? Well, Majority Culture is conflict-avoidant and passive-aggressive. But, in addition to that my family’s beliefs, an unpredictable family member, and just observing others in relationships led to my personal beliefs. Between society and my upbringing I had strong messages of, "Don't rock the boat!"
I grew up in a conflict-avoidant home. My parents had good intentions for avoiding conflict, but I walked away without seeing conflict handled in a healthy way. So, when I ventured out into the world as a young adult and heard others talk about conflict I used to think, “oh man, you were fighting with your wife, again? Sheesh, your marriage isn't going to last.”
Am I really connected with others if I need to put on a mask to be accepted?
Wait, conflict can be a Good?
Conflict and confrontation aren’t bad by nature and actually can be a sign of a healthy relationship. How we engage during conflict and how we process it afterward are the key differences. Resolving conflict proves that the relationship is secure, because when things are hard, each party shows, with actions, that they’re not going anywhere which provides safety and trust. This, in turn, allows for more vulnerability and intimacy. We can't be truly vulnerable without a sense of trust and safety.
Resolution can be anything from a partner understanding they’ve hurt the other an expressing remorse i.e. I've been really crabby lately, it isn't your fault. I'm sorry I've been a jerk lately. Or, it can be as simple as both parties still being in disagreement but being able to see the other’s perspective and at least respect it.
Get angry, not personal.
Healthy conflict can be heated and passionate disagreements and/or frustrations that don’t get personal. By personal I mean shaming the other person and attacking their personhood, “you always… you never… you would forget… that’s just like you” these are scornful statements that hold contempt. They attack the person instead of expressing frustration with a single action. Scorn, contempt, and getting personal all fall under unhealthy conflict, which we'll talk about shortly.
Although I've switched to using marriage for examples (because they're easy to give relatable examples with), this information applies to friendships, roommates, and work relationships too. When we get personal, it elicits a defense response from the other party to either fight back, get defensive or stonewall. When that happens both parties get locked in a standoff. There's a lot of neurobiology that goes into this. When we sense threats, our central nervous system goes on high alert and we start to think with our most primitive parts of our brain so we can protect ourselves immediately such as: Me sense danger, me find rock to hit you with... We have to do our best to stay calm so our caveman brain doesn't come out and start throwing verbal stones!
Relationships can be frustrating. I'm a lovable likable guy - most of the time. But, I'm also human and that means I frustrate others. We all frustrate others. It's ok to be angry when we are frustrated by others. Frustration often tells us we've wronged someone or have been wronged by someone - it's helpful information. It's what we do with that that can be productive or destructive.
Take Gina (not her real name), she's asked her husband if he would contribute around the house more and asked specifically if he would help with dishes. Darren agreed. Darren is a loving and devoted husband - he also can get distracted and forgetful. When 4 days had done by and Gina noticed she was still doing all the dishes, she got frustrated. Darren, you said you would do the dishes, I'm frustrated that you haven't done them this week as we discussed. This makes sense - an agreement was entered into and her husband broke it. Gina stating her frustration with Darren for the broken agreement is appropriate and as long as she doesn't add "you always do this... what's wrong with you" or something similar, she's doing great! It might be uncomfortable but if a conflict is never addressed it turns into bitterness and resentment and that is toxic.
Some conflict can’t be resolved in marriage – this article is focusing on conflict ones that can. But don't lose heart about conflict that will reoccur. According to Dr. John Gottman, a leading marital researcher and therapist, marriage has many unsolvable conflicts but this doesn't lead to divorce or even unhappy marriages. Repairs and investing in enjoying quality time together are the most important factors in healing, protecting, and sustaining marriages.
In healthy conflict, each party takes turns to hear the other person’s side of the story and empathize (imagine yourself in their position). Or, communicating, “I’m frustrated, and I want to cool down so I can think clearly and not say something stupid. Since it’s late, can we come back and talk about this tomorrow at 6 pm? These tactics take A LOT of time and practice. Because you have to try to keep your cool even if the other person doesn't and you can't expect just because you and the other learn new communication styles that they will always use them.
Try to recognize patterns in what you’re fighting about
What are the themes? Responsibilities? Communication? General irritability, loneliness, unspoken expectations?
What did I do well in the argument? What didn’t I do well? Own YOUR part of the poor performance. E.g. “when I said _____ that was childish and mean, will you forgive me?”
Are you really angry about where to put the spatulas (insert silly thing you’re fighting about) or what’s underneath this anger? Are you feeling heard in other parts of the relationship? Are you lonely?
Remember the acronym HALT are you Hungry, Angry Lonely or Tired? Take 30 minutes and come back! If you're tired you might need to schedule the follow-up conversation the next day.
Unhealthy conflict: screaming, name-calling, belittling, threatening (divorce, physical or psychological harm), walking away without communicating why (like to cool down), ignoring, stonewalling or avoiding conflict are all unhealthy. I don't say that with shame or judgment but to signal they are counterproductive and prolonged periods can be destructive. Does unhealthy conflict mean you’ll end up in divorce or broken friendships? No, but all divorces have these unhealthy devices in common.
Generally in unhealthy conflict, we shut others out, shut them down, or try to dominate them. Don't be like this mean and yet adorable cat.
Did you know?
Conflict can be a sign of relational health and growth. If two people agree on everything, they can be relationally fused: meaning one (or both) just goes with the flow and never speak up for fear of, BAM, conflict. Without conflict, a relationship hasn’t been tested. If you know how your partner feels or “we” feel but not how you feel that’s a sign. There’s no shame in being relationally fused, but ask yourself - is this serving me?
In healthy relationships, people know others are flawed and are open to ruptures and repairs. When we idealize people with unrealistic expectations of who they are, how they will treat us, and how they’ll never hurt us, well, they have all that much more distance to fall.
When we idealize others and put them on a pedal stool, they have that much further to fall
In healthy-enough relationships, both parties can hold – “hey, if we get close enough, and trust each other enough, we’re going to fight. I’m committed to working through that, are you?”
Whew, where do I start?
Self-awareness. Know yourself, know your triggers, know when you're getting frustrated, anxious or lonely. Also, Fact Check and know your story:
Who am I without masks?
Where did I learn to navigate relationships by taking up as little space as possible and to avoid conflict? Is this serving me?
Where did I learn that my voice, feelings, needs, and my very being aren’t valid or worthy? (for me this required exploring my story with a counselor)
Following up on anger being sinful, I’ve usually heard this in the context of Christianity, but there is no such verse. The Bible has a verse that says, "'In your anger do not sin': Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry," (Eph. 4:26). In other words, try to make a repair as soon as possible and anger for anger's sake is empty and counterproductive, but anger by itself is not sinful.
Am I really connected with others if I need to put on masks to keep the peace?
Explore your story and if you get stuck, any of us at Chesterfield Counseling Associates would be honored to walk with on your journey.
Brian Bachman is a PLPC and EMDR Therapist at Chesterfield Counseling Associates